The series finale of “Mad Men” hides dark lessons in its happy endings

19 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

An Interview With the Real-Life Ad Man Who Created That Coca-Cola Commercial.

Six years ago, as Mad Men was preparing to enter into its third season, the Wall Street Journal ran a feature about the series’ female writing staff. “A writing team dominated by women shapes the chauvinistic world of the TV hit,” the article declared, while writer Jennifer Getzinger doubled down, telling the WSJ: “A lot of people think women can only do women shows.” Last night’s series finale wasn’t explicit about the specific trajectory of protagonist Don Draper, but it was crystal clear on one point: AMC’s flagship series ended as much a “women show” as it’s ever been — which is assuming it has, in fact, ever been anything else. A beloved TV show about the tortured path to glory in the advertising world ended with a nod to a commercial that took its own bizarre path to greatness.From the turgid summer of 1971 through the terrible autumn of 1972, TV newscasts must have seemed unrelenting: millions marching to stop the war, prisoners attacked at Attica, the Watergate scandal and the Pentagon Papers, the Manson and Serpico and My Lai trials, guns in Munich, bombs in D.C., and troops in Derry.

On last night’s Mad Men finale, an epic Don Draper brainstorm produced one of the most legendary commercials of the 20th century, in which a group of multicultural young people sing “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” on a grassy hill. By the end of Person to Person, Mad Men’s final episode, the show’s leading men had all found strength in women: Roger in Quebec with Marie; Pete in Wisconsin with wife Trudie. But the real-life ad man who came up with the Coca-Cola concept is now retired and in his late 80s: Bill Backer, formerly the creative director of McCann.

Don’s only interactions, meanwhile, are with women: he phones daughter Sally and ex-wife Betty, visits Anna Draper’s niece Stephanie and calls a tearful goodbye to onetime protege Peggy Olsen. The commercial, created in real life by fictional Don Draper employer McCann-Erickson, emerged when ad man Bill Backer dreamed up the phrase that helped cement a product’s relationship with the public and ushered in a new era. Don’s creative spark for the Coke ad seemed to derive from finding inner peace at a Big Sur retreat, but Backer’s real-life inspiration came from watching stranded airline passengers bond over bottles of Coca-Cola.

These are women who, unable to rely on immutable societal structures to hold them up, have quietly built themselves as pillars; men whose dominance, so long taken for granted, has atrophied. The one-time McCann creative director, who was born in 1926, says his phone hasn’t stopped ringing since the show aired and finds all the attention “flattering.” In a conversation with CMO Today, the 89-year-old addressed why he stopped watching Mad Men, whether he was as successful romantically as Don Draper, and what to make of data’s role in the ad business. The over-budgeted but legendary commercial that very nearly flopped appears a fitting swan song for a series where creator Matthew Weiner’s imperfect characters forge their own success.

Backer had been flying to London in January 1971 to meet with former Four Tops singer Billy Davis and English songwriter Roger Cook about a new song for the soda company’s “It’s the real thing” campaign, according to a Library of Congress history of the ad. But that shift isn’t just about co-dependence: look at Joan, whose final scene sees her letting go of a potential husband to run her own business out of her kitchen — an immediately powerful, if somewhat obvious, metaphor, supported wholly by her company name: Harris-Holloway. The camera pans across rows of young singers smiling with the rising sun—Spanish, Swedish, Nigerian, Nepalese, dressed in a dashiki, a kimono, a dirndl, a Nehru, a turtleneck.

That’s when McCann-Erickson art director Harvey Gabor pitched his idea of what he called “the first united chorus of the world” singing together on a hillside. Betty, meanwhile, has ensured that in the aftermath of her death her children are sent to live with her brother and his wife — “they need a woman in their lives,” she tells Don, refusing to concede to the suggestion that, as their father, he deserves custody, or anything at all. Although more rain washed out the initial idea of filming the spot with British kids crooning in Dover and rendered footage from a later Italian shoot near Rome unworkable, company executives eventually agreed to pony up more than $250,000 to see the project through to the end at Backer’s urging, the company account of the commercial says. Imagine, in a season of racial division, imperialist deception, and capitalist malaise, the whole world gathered upon a hill sharing a fizzy brown drink. The commercial, first aired on July 8, 1971, had been conceptualized and co-written by Bill Backer, a McCann-Erickson executive who had been searching for a way to rebrand Coke.

Throughout Mad Men’s entire seven-and-a-half season run, Peggy has been a foil to Don, benefiting from his tough-love tutelage as much as she kicked back against it. Backer wanted “a big basic idea—one that would involve the entire United States market for Coca-Cola,” everyone regardless of race, color, class, or creed. When Don calls Peggy from a hippie retreat in California, abandoned by Stephanie and bereft of hope, he tells her between tears that he “took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” “That’s not true,” she replies. True to the message, the company donated its first $80,000 in royalties to the United Nation’s Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, Coke’s history says. “People were humming it,” Gabor recalled in a 2011 Google documentary. “Coke got a hundred thousand letters from people saying they loved it. And it’s not: if it is in any way accurate that Don has made little of his personal life, squandering relationships and fleeing adversity, his greatest professional success has not been landing accounts or navigating mergers.

It matched their personality perfectly with the brand.” The tech giant worked with Gabor that year to conceive vending machines that allowed people to actually buy the soda for someone on the other side of the world. Whether he knew it or not, Matt Weiner’s main character, the womanizing, hard-drinking, identity-stealing Don Draper, had spent 11 years building the confidence of a young woman. It’s why her union with Stan is so perfect, too: here’s a man willing to stand behind his woman, literally as well as figuratively, unafraid of her talents and ambitions. The agency’s present-day iteration, McCann, posted a Tweet on Sunday night adding credence to the notion that Don ended up back in the company’s fold. More important, it was perhaps the nation’s first colorized one—an unusual advertisement that admitted a possible multicultural future beyond whiteness.

Earlier this week, Forbes ran a story about those five women in which Lisa Albert, a consulting producer, told the publication that (Weiner) “very much encourages” showrunners “to cannibalize your life and those of your loved ones” for script ideas — the strong women we see onscreen, in other words, are born of the offscreen experiences of strong women. Conceived during the fall of 1968, the Real Thing commercials would incept the drink into a new dream of America, in which divisions between young and old, counterculture and mainstream, Black and white, poor and rich, liberal and conservative had been resolved. McCann-Erickson went to an earlier grand dream of one America, the social realist vision of the cultural front, which had found expression through Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Depression-era jobs programs for artists. It’s was egalitarian conclusion eleven years in the making, delivered with all the deceptive simplicity of a hilltop choir singing the virtues of Coca-Cola. From Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother to Zora Neale Hurston’s collections of Black folklore, Social Realism advanced the themes of inclusion, struggle, and triumph that would come to be associated with the “American Century.” Now at the start of the 1970s, McCann-Erickson was sending teams of photographers and art directors again into the great land.

But they also seemed to want to address something deeper: what it meant to be an innocent American bumbling through a suddenly very big and dangerous world. Passengers, mostly high-maintenance business travelers, were forced to double up overnight at an overcrowded motel, a situation accepted mostly with reluctance and not a little petulant acting out. By noon the bored, parched teens were rocking the buses off their axles and wolfishly eyeing the big truck full of Cokes parked at the bottom of the hill. The next day Wexler, still angry he had nearly been toppled from the sky to certain death over a stupid Coke commercial, fled the set, never to return.

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