If an ad man like Don Draper saw the groveling, apologetic PR coming from big corporations today, Fred Smith thinks he’d be appalled.
The advertisements of Draper’s 1960s “were offering the good life, products that allowed us to be healthier, wealthier,” Smith told the packed ballroom at Washington’s Hyatt-Regency, standing in front of giant vintage photo of a nuclear family watching TV. These days, Smith continued, modern “Mad Men” have a rather more dispiriting message for consumers. “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,” he said, with mock chagrin. “They don’t say what they’re proud about. Instead, they say they’re not as bad as you think they are.” He singled out BP as the exemplar of corporate America’s new era of shame. “The BP’s of the world, for example, and other energy companies, rus[h] around asking their customers to use less energy,” he said. “Use less energy as an energy company! It suggests we should be ashamed of producing energy. ” The audience—a 600-strong room of conservatives and libertarians—burst into wild applause.
The free-marketeers at the dinner saw themselves as the natural compatriots of Don Draper—the “debonair, hard-driving, sometimes ruthless” ad man, in the words of Loren Smith, the federal judge who MC-ed the program in a “Guys and Dolls”-style fedora and gray pinstriped suit. But it’s not clear whether Draper himself would have agreed.
Certainly, Jon Hamm’s character has no compunction about glorifying a corporate client amid accusations of harm to the public good. In a recent episode, Draper tells Dow, the chemical giant, how he would contain the backlash over the use of napalm in Vietnam. “The government put it in flame-throwers against the Nazis, impact bombs against the Japanese,” he tells them. “The important thing is, when our boys are fighting and they need it...when America needs it...Dow makes it. And it works.”
But Don Draper and his colleagues ultimately care more about the success of their own business than an ideological defense of free-enterprise capitalism. After Lucky Strike decided to dump his firm, Draper pens a vindictive letter published in the New York Times that channels the concerns that every public health-advocate and government regulator that cracked down on the cigarette industry at the time.
“For over 25 years we devoted ourselves to peddling a product for which good work is irrelevant, because people can’t stop themselves from buying it,” he writes. “And then, when Lucky Strike moved their business elsewhere, I realized, here was my chance to be someone who could sleep at night, because I know what I’m selling doesn’t kill my customers.”
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. But Don Draper doesn’t write the letter because he believes the public-health crackdown is justified. He does it because he knows he won’t get Lucky Strike’s business back—and perhaps because it could bring in new business from the likes of the American Cancer Society, as he explains to his colleagues while puffing away at a cigarette.
Likewise, BP’s public-relations campaign after the 2010 oil spill didn’t mean the company suddenly had a change of heart. It was an image-rehabilitation strategy meant to ensure that BP’s business was protected in an era in which both customers and public officials will demand that our energy industry is, in fact, “Beyond Petroleum.” A “mea culpa” attitude can also be a pragmatic approach to business in the face of external constraints—be they limited natural resources or new regulations.
The free-market advocates at CEI, however, dismisses the idea that corporations—or their ad men—must adapt to such constraints. The Malthusian dystopia that liberals warned about in Don Draper’s time never came to pass, asserted Matt Ridley, the British author who received an award at the gala. In a video acceptance speech, Ridley listed the previous era’s supposed paper tigers, to the audience’s amusement: “Global famine, food aid, cancer epidemics, nuclear winter...oil spill increases.” And American businesses are going through the same charade today, with “products walking through a minefield of political correctness,” Smith said, bemoaning the ongoing war on “sin products.” (The gala’s gift bags— each containing a cigar, ash tray, highball glasses, and candy cigarettes—drove his point home.)
Draper would likely have counseled the assembled free marketeers to take people’s fears of the downside of abundance more seriously. “We’re flawed, because we want so much more,” he says in the fourth season. “We’re ruined, because we get these things, and wish for what we had. “
But CEI would likely reply that he was thinking too small. “Mad Men are advertising and selling products. CEI is selling a product, too—it’s freedom!” proclaimed Smith, the emcee. And the crowd cheered him on.