Maybe it’s the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C. after a polar vortex filled, politically frigid winter; or the margaritas I had before bedtime the other evening. My dreams have gotten stranger than usual. Last night, God, who I don’t chat with or even believe in that often in my waking life, visited my dreams. “I’ve been here from the beginning,” the Deity said, mimicking the old Am-Ex ads, “I’ll be here when we reach the end. Yet, they still don’t know who I am. That’s why I use the American Express card.”
Many of us have boasted of being a non-commercial, “starving” poet or artist. We’ve shunned the commercialism in everything from Disney to Christmas to broadcast TV to the “New York Times” bestseller lists. For good reason. Who wants another “Little Mermaid,” Xmas in July sale, James Patterson potboiler or One More Stupid Network Sit-com? Only a Luddite would watch ad after ad on TV, rather than zapping through them with Tivo or a DVR. Yet, it’s not surprising that God would lament not being recognized or seek to expand Her brand. Despite our outlier, non-commercial protestations, haven’t we been selling our art (and by extension ourselves) for years? When our “artistic” snobbery is stripped away, aren’t we compelled to admit that some of the best art in our culture has come from advertising?
Growing up as a child in the “Mad Men” era, my father often would tell me that, while most of the ads were terrible, some of the commercials were better than many of the shows on “the boob tube.” Ads such as the Starkist tuna commercial with its “sorry, Charlie” made everyone from eight to eighty laugh. I’ve been remembering my Dad’s comments and those funny ads, as “Mad Men,” the iconic TV show about the denizens of the ad agency Sterling Cooper & Partners ends its seventh, final season on AMC. The death, last month, of Stan Freberg, the fab satirist and adman, has made me, the outsider, ironic poet, appreciate the art and humor of some of the best ads.
Freberg, who dubbed himself the “guerrilla satirist,” used humor to satirize everything from soap operas to censorship to God. (His ads for the Presbyterians made even serious churchgoers laugh.) In its fourth season, “Mad Men” paid homage to Freberg when Peggy Olson and her co-worker acted out Freberg’s “John and Marsha” bit–a spoof on the dim-witted, slow-moving nature of soaps.
In one skit, Freberg’s character Mr. Tweedlie, a censor, wants the title of the song “Ol’ Man River” to be changed to the more (as we’d say today) politically correct title of “Elderly Man River.” Freberg used advertising to lampoon advertising. Take his ads for Pacific Airlines. In these commercials, viewers were told that flying was so scary that even pilots were fearful. In the spots, flight attendants passed out fortune cookies saying “it could be worse.”
Freberg’s humor extended to comedy albums and musical numbers. If you want to laugh forever, listen to his 1953 hit “St. George and the Dragonet.” Though “Dragnet,” the TV show that this bit parodies has long been off the air, this sketch is still hilarious. “This is the country side. The body is St. George....The dragon has been devouring maidens,” intones St. George in the “just the facts, ma’am” style of “Dragonet.” Freberg’s influence extended from Lenny Bruce to the Beattles to Stephen King. His fans included Albert Einstein.
“Mad Men” is the lover who, by turns, seduces you, throws you over for another flame, bores you to tears, drinks you under the table, and then, throws up on your floor. Yet, you can’t leave this paramour. Why is the show so addictive? It’s the acting, style and atmosphere. This was especially true in its early seasons. Who wouldn’t want to be as handsome as Don Draper, as beautiful as Joan, or want to look sexy while smoking or drinking a martini at 10 am? But, part of “Mad Men’s” allure is in its depiction of the world of advertising – from the pitches to clients (even of harmful products – such as Don’s pitch for Lucky Strike cigarettes) to its casting sessions (this season’s session with models in mink coats was a hot, non PC number!). Don Draper may be a cheat, identity thief, an alcoholic, seemingly, dead to life -- yet, he becomes vibrantly alive when he’s pitching or creating ads.
Like the “Mad Men” denizens, we’ve been advertising ourselves and our products since the serpent sold Eve on that shiny, red apple. I’ll be back following these messages.