The closest era to today’s Internet explosion and daily technological advances is the 1960s, which saw its share of social and technological change. I was reflecting upon this comparison, after watching the final mid-season episode of AMC’s Mad Men last night, as it concluded around the July 20, 1969, moon landing. (The series’ final seven episodes are scheduled to air in 2015.) Mad Men is a stunningly authentic, brilliantly written and performed drama that spans from 1960 to 1969, following the lives of the ad men working on Madison Avenue, who were nicknamed “mad men” back in the day. Besides being decadently satisfying eye candy, it’s a fascinating study of an era that, until the Internet explosion of today, had the greatest influence on the trajectory of the four decades to follow. No one in 1969 could have predicted where the future would take us; much like what I suspect lies ahead for us.
Mad Men Spoiler Alert
In last night’s episode, every scene of the personal and professional drama surrounding the characters is back lit by the televisions’ black and white flicker of the moon landing. If the characters aren’t with friends and family in front of the TV, the landing is on their minds and enters conversation. Television was still a new and growing medium, much like the Internet today. And the lives of Don Draper, Peggy Olson, Joan Holloway, Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell are filmed with the backdrop of the changing technology, new social norms and historic tragedies of the decade, making the decade another main character. From the first televised Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate in 1960, through the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and Bobby Kennedy (Malcolm X wasn’t covered), Viet Nam on the news every night and the war protests, that era’s social media of television and the lives of these characters are inseparable.
Like today, people aren’t aware of the future context today’s news and technological introductions will have, as we incorporate new gadgets and adapt our lives to them. We warn against texting while driving today (and Mad Men is rich with plenty of driving while blind drunk scenes) but Google already has a car that drives itself. Maybe years from now, we will think it quaint we ever had to drive at all! Regardless, the times and technology will change us. Even those of us who remember 9/11 and saw the planes hit the towers didn’t have quite the identical, universal experience the people of the Mad Men era had with three television networks to watch. As Dylan said back then, “For the times they are a-changin.” I wonder what Don Draper would think “social media” even meant. Knowing him, he’d have a good idea.
Yet those deliciously, naughty, provocative Mad Men were the forefathers of social media and the first to reach people and shape public opinion with messages through mass communication. (I chuckled during this season’s first episode when Joan heard about marketing’s four Ps for the first time.) And even with social media reaching us through hundreds of thousands of channels from all over the world, those guys started it.
But we don’t share that same kind common experience any more. Today we are glued to smart phones in our own personalized media, sharing the medium but not the message. (Our phones do more than that monstrous modern machine in Sterling-Cooper’s air-conditioned computer room!) The bombardment on content gives even the most sensational stories a short shelf life. Sometimes I wish I could conjure up the Don Draper from back then, reeking of cigarettes, bourbon and beef just to watch his generous write that golden message that could reach us all, universally.
Wait, I just conjured up Don Draper. I gotta go. SB