The real ‘Mad Men’: New book explores notable ads of the ’50s and ’60s

March 25, 2012

View Photo Gallery: A new book, "Mid-Century Ads: Advertising from the Mad Men Era,” explores some of the most innovative and groundbreaking ads created during the era of the real-life mad men.

The fifth season of “Mad Men” premiers Sunday on AMC, marking the return, after a 17-month hiatus, of Don Draper and the gang at the advertising firm Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

For the latest on “Mad Men,” we suggest you pay a visit to our colleague Jen Chaney’s blog, Celebritology, where you can get a “preparatory guide,” or read Washington Post critic Hank Stuever’s review of the upcoming season (he promises no spoilers). Then, of course, there’s an opportunity to take a quiz and discover which “Mad Men” character you are. Or, if you’re wondering how The Washington Post looked in the “Mad Men”-era, take a tour of the ads that appeared in the newspaper back then.

Ideas@Innovations also decided to take a more quirky look at today’s “Mad Men.” (For our first nominee, look in the mirror.)


The cover of "Mid-Century Ads: Advertising from the Mad Men Era." (Photo courtesy of TASCHEN)

The advertising of the mad men period, even as it showcases many of the tactics used in today’s advertising, also serves as a revealing history of the nation’s cultural evolution. There are some interesting contrasts, such as images of overt sexuality and chauvinism even as American society was seen as largely buttoned-up and staid.

One passage, in particular, stood out as I was reading through review pages of the book and getting ready for my own reintroduction to the fictional “Mad Men” universe:

Superlatives were the lingo of capitalism and consumerism. Words like “clearest,” “larger capacity,” “unequaled in precision,” “best yet,” “nothing like it,” “miracle,”“smartest,” and “extra power,” to name only a few from the lexicon, dominated ads that sold American commercial values — industry and innovation — with gusto, and sometimes creativity. Or shall we say, rarely creativity. The majority of Fifties promotion could be likened to souped-up catalog pages: Whether for sinks or pencils or Cretonne slipcovers, it was all just merchandise being hawked and hustled. Television commercials were in the nascence and magazine ads ran the gamut between visual titillation and verbal hosannas (as in praising Mammon).

In looking back at these ads, and looking forward to the innovations you’d like to see next, how do you anticipate that advertising will change in the coming years — assuming you anticipate it will change at all?


View Photo Gallery: In celebration of “Mad Men” Season 5, we decided to explore who — or better yet what — are today’s Mad Men. Feel free to roast our ideas in the comments and propose your own. Or take an opportunity to highlight your own ad heroes and innovations. We’ll be keeping an eye out.

Read more news and ideas on Innovations:

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