Must the curtains match the Drapers?

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Hey, are you loving those ads that are running during this season of Mad Men? You know the ones I mean: They’re 1960s period pieces set in the offices of an ad agency very much like the show’s own Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and they depict similarly hot young execs brainstorming new campaigns for the likes of Dove beauty bars. From the music to the cinematography, they ape the show to a “T.” And every time one of those spots airs, you the viewer experience a momentary jolt of panic that OMG, the thing is back on already! -- followed swiftly by the disappointing realization that, nah, a soap maker just found a way to trick you into looking up from this month’s Hustler.

Yeah, I hate it too. But I’m extra-sensitive to this flim-flam because I’ve spent most of my adult life working in communications media that are supported by advertising. And whenever I see a magazine broken up by a two-page ad spread that’s designed to look just like the surrounding copy – all the way down to the choice of font – I know that the sales department feels about as protective of the editorial product as Betty Draper does of her kids.

The effect is no kin

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der on TV, where copycat ads like those Mad Men spots can’t help but dilute the character and ruin the narrative flow of the program itself. During the Golden Age of the medium, Rod Serling lamented how hard it was to produce a thoughtful drama when you were constantly being interrupted by “12 dancing rabbits with toilet paper.” I doubt he’d have felt any better had the intruder been a stern-visaged Serling impersonator, intoning “Submitted for your approval: one unsuspecting housewife and one magical roll of asswipe.”

According to today’s New York Times, the Dove spot is just one in a series of ads the “giant marketer” Unilever has booked for its family of products, and all of them will feature the (ahem!) imitation Hamms. Furthermore – and I hope you’re sitting down for this – the experiment in creative integration has been taken up on the program’s side as well, with Don Draper et al. being shown whipping up cutting-edge pitches for products that Unilever just so happens to market in the real world to this very day.

Given that the Times Business section, where the story appeared, is not interested in anything as quaint as artistic credibility or independence, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner was not afforded comment. But perhaps he had already allowed himself a subtle, whispered protest in the new season’s debut episode, in which Don was shown basking in accolades for a floor-wax campaign that was designed to meticulously parrot the TV Westerns in which it appeared. His greatest point of pride? The inevitable viewer confusion.

Instead of doing anything as drastic as actually consulting the affected writers, producers and directors, the Times spoke on their behalf. Mad Men, the paper pointed out, namechecks many brands that don’t happen to be advertisers – then effectively surrendered that point by acknowledging that some of them (like Lucky Strike cigarettes) couldn’t take out spots in the show if they wanted to, while others (like Pontiac) are simply no longer around to do so.

So even today’s “prestige” series have to indulge in product placement. But there’s something queasily ingratiating about the way Mad Men and Unilever are going about it. (And it isn’t simply that the commercials are distinguishable from the actual program mostly by dint of their lousy acting; one wonders how many consumers will really be swayed by the epiphany “It’s just like Mad Men, if it sucked!”) The brilliant media critic Mark Crispin Miller, in his essay “The Hipness Unto Death" and others, has pointed out that such meta-textual moves are meant to flatter the viewer who fancies himself too discriminating to fall for traditional advertising – to wink at him in acknowledgment that, sure, the sales game is crass and trivial, but isn’t it fun when we’re all in on it?

Not especially, no. For example, it was a lot easier for me to laugh at the microwave-pitching antics of 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy before one of my NYU classmates pointed out that his ridiculous spiel had been cribbed chapter and verse from the actual promotional literature of NBC parent GE. I’d rather Madison Avenue just reach into my pocket and lift out my wallet, rather than trying to get at the thing through my assumed hipster ego. Because no matter how much the Donaghys and Drapers of the world want to convince me that they’re laughing with me, I know that, behind my back, they’re laughing at me for falling for it.

Maybe I’m just being grumpy. Maybe this whole Mad Men campaign is just postmodern fun for an audience that no longer observes any fusty distinction between art and commerce. And it’s obvious Don himself would have loved it.

Then again, look at the shape his life is in these days.

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