I’m not a fan of the show Mad Men. I get really frustrated when I try to watch it. I really can’t stand the glorification of the ad men from mad ave. But a few weeks ago, I got a glimpse into the making of Mad Men: The Next Generation.
As the hipster I loathe to be, I partied with the design trust of America. Presumably gathered to celebrate the anniversary of a design blog in Portland, Oregon, I was awash in a tight-knit group that included the Arts Director at MySpace, Nike’s Arts Director, the Arts Director of T-Mobile and a few designers from his team, two designers from Microsoft, a handful of freelancers who work for car companies like Honda and clothing retailers like the Gap and various other corporate entities. With mojitos flowing and many laughs to be had, it was a rather amazing experience. And while nobody fell from a Manhattan skyscraper as if in the opening sequence of an AMC drama, sex and alcohol were featured heavily in conversation. I was, in fact, in the thick of a group of some 20 people who are actively determining and controlling the aesthetic of corporate America. It was Mad Men 2.0.
And I loved it.
Talking to these giants of design, Frank Chimero about his 50 States Project, Bobby Solomon about his blog Kitsune Noir, well let’s just say it was – at the very least – epic. Despite the superficial joy of sharing a few drinks with these designers and getting to know their inspirations, I’m still reeling from the experience. These brilliantly creative people are creating, manipulating and disseminating an aesthetic language that I respect artistically. And don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the subtle distinction between designers and artists — I don’t confuse their use of aesthetics as a type of artistic expression. But, the reality is that after drafting this language, it is employed as corporate propaganda and aimed at my peers. They help sell products and services that my peers and I don’t need. Or they are creating a virtual platform for these products to be shilled. Their creativity is subsidized by corporate America.
Or so says Matthew Newton over at True/Slant. Musing about the abuse of creativity, Matthew addresses Coca-Cola’s use of a stunning aesthetic to ‘bait and switch’ skateboarders. The ad for Coke’s new energy drink Burn, operates as an independent, artistic short film that only suggests that a viewer visit the energy drink’s website, burn.com. Creating “the cool” and telling people what types of things to like isn’t new. In his article, Matthew acknowledges the corporate use of creativity to shill products, but simply warns about the precedent. My experience and his article have left me wondering.
Perhaps my anger with Mad Men is a result of how the show normalizes the lives of marketers and advertisers. It’s all too easy to demonize marketing firms as the agents of corporate America, enemies of the people. But it’s hard to see them as talented individuals exercising their creativity in a structured environment. When the main character successfully creates a new ad campaign for a cigarette company, he ensured his livelihood and exercised his greatest talent. It was similarly distressing when I heard the passion in the voice of Nike`s Art Director as he described how he was able to use two completely different styles to entice women to buy a 400$ pair of running shoes; targeting women 14-29 in Japan while they target women 25-39 in North America
So my experience with the next generation 0f mad men and women has still left me reeling. These are decent human beings who are immensely talented. They are doing something they love and they are being paid to do it. There is nothing inherently malicious in their activity. My inherent hatred for Mad Men seems contrite and childish. Shouldn’t I give more agency to my peers and hope they won`t change deodorant brands because a half naked man made a few jokes and used some funny gimmicks?
Here’s some context to my entry: if you haven’t seen the opening theme of Mad Men, watch it now. Frank Chimero’s described to me his really impressive work, the 50 States Project. Kitsune Noir is Bobby Solomon’s highly successful design blog. Matthew Newton is a great journalist, it’s just a shame that True/Slant is soon to be gone – check out his article.