The story takes place in the 1960s, at the peak of modern advertising’s rise to glory2, when marketing, the empire of images, and consumer capitalism began to transform human life. The characters are organized around an advertising agency and the fictional events are intertwined with the historical and social events of the decade.
One of Mad Men’s interesting traits is, precisely, that it takes the romantic memory of the sixties and deconstructs it, thus reflecting that, if counterculture did actually exist, it was the effect of a sexist, racist, religious and imperialist American ideology. This was clearly represented by the advertising agencies on Madison Ave., and by their mostly Republican clients , an exchange which led to the consecration of the American way of life as the hegemonic cultural model of the late 20th century.
Therefore, Mad Men’s spectators are invited to discover that behind flower power, the sexual revolution, the beatnik poets, and Woodstock, in the system’s hard core, the most powerful tool of cultural domination was being honed: modern advertising. Fed by the spread of mass media, Hollywood’s star system, and the transnationalization of the economy, advertising would give birth to a new world.
This is precisely what Lacan noted in 1970 when he announced that we would all soon be Lacanian: “The ascent to the social zenith of the object I have called small ‘a’ would suffice (…) because, when one doesn’t know what saint to commend oneself to, (…) one buys anything”4.
In March 2015, the launch of Mad Men’s final season was announced, and it was promoted as “the” cultural event of the year”. The streets in the cities with greater visibility on the planet became screens replicating the slogan of the grand finale: Mad Men, the End of an Era.
In the series’ final episode, Don Draper, the protagonist, ends up in a hippie therapeutic community in California after a personal crisis. He cries on the phone as he speaks to one of his colleagues, who says “I know you get sick of things and you run, but you can come home. Don’t you want to work on Coke?” Later in the episode we see Don meditating under the sun. The spiritual leader declares “The new day brings new hope, (…) a new day, new ideas, a new you.” Don and the rest of the group respond with a ommm; the camera closes up on a smiling Don. His eyes are shut. Immediately after that, the Coca-Cola “Hilltop” (1971) commercial is featured: an interracial crowd of long-haired teenagers wearing batik shirts sing: “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. What the world wants today: Coca-Cola.” The end!
During a seminar on Mad Men held at the New York Public Library, its creator, Matthew Weiner, avoided a definition about this controversial finale; in other words, it isn’t clear whether the Coca-Cola ad taken from real life as documentary material to crown the end of the series means that Don actually returned to New York and turned the Age of Aquarius into a commercial to sell soda. However, Weiner did say “…but it was nice to sort of have your cake and eat it too in terms of, like, what is advertising?”5
In 1966, Jacques Lacan travelled to the United States. In his conference in Baltimore on October 21, he said “When I came here this evening I saw on the little neon sign the motto ‘Enjoy Coca-Cola’. It reminded me that in English, I think, there is no term to designate precisely this enormous weight of meaning which is in the French word jouissance, (…) If the living being is something at all thinkable, it will be above all as subject of jouissance.”
Lacan could have mentioned any social American reference in order to speak about jouissance, but he chose, precisely, a Coca-Cola billboard. I see that choice as an interpretation; in it we can find the key which — starting from his latest teaching — gives us tools to understand the contemporary subject under the influence of the push to jouir.
Mad Men doesn’t tell us about the end of an era: it only narrates the beginning…
1 “It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode.” These were the words with which Barak Obama mentioned the series during his State of the Union address in Congress, referring to equal pay for women, on January 28, 2014.
Congress, referring to equal pay for women, on January 28, 2014.
2 “Mad Men” was a slang term coined in the early 60s to refer to advertising executives working on Madison Avenue, New York.
3 Carrión, Jorge. Teleshakespeare. Las series en serio. Buenos Aires: Interzona, 2014.
4 Lacan, Jacques. “Radiofonía”. Otros Escritos, p.436. Buenos Aires: Paidós, 2012.
5 www.avclub.com, 2015