You’ve probably never heard the name “Hal Riney,” but he’s perhaps the most celebrated ad man in American history. Though Riney made an array of brands successful—he even helped Ronald Reagan get re-elected—there was a consistent thread in all his work: nostalgia. Riney sold products by connecting them with a vision of “the good life,” a time in the past when things were seemingly better.
However, while Riney’s ads effectively embodied a nostalgic sentiment, tugging on heartstrings and playing on the human quest for happiness and meaning, they ultimately presented a false hope. They painted an inaccurate picture of the good life, a fabricated perception of the past—the very thing that AMC’s Mad Men seeks to expose.
The American Dream Exposed
Mad Men turns the American Dream upside down. Whereas Riney portrayed the past as a better time and place, a sort of utopia, Mad Men portrays it as a time and place no better than the world in which we live today—if not more horrendous, especially given the presence of racism and sexism.
It’s the opposite of what you might expect the 50s and 60s, and now the 70s, to look like based on preconceived notions produced by popular culture—like the ads of Hal Riney.
The men drink and smoke day and night. They cheat on their wives. They cheat at their jobs. They do whatever it takes to get ahead and fulfill their lustful desires. The women don’t behave any better. They, too, cheat to get ahead. They throw themselves at men. They disregard their kids. They gossip among their friends. In this world, the perfect nuclear family is essentially nonexistent.
Mad Men makes clear wrong and right, refusing to paint sin in a positive light but, instead, recognizing its consequences if even its characters don’t. But it doesn’t hold back from showing sin, which makes some of its content difficult, if not problematic, to watch.
The Truth About Stuff
Yet, in vividly showcasing the human depravity within this era, Mad Men actually de-romanticizes our wistful view of it. It uses nostalgia deconstructively, exploiting the false notion that there was a moment in history where humanity “had it right” in terms of set behaviors or values like work and family.
That’s not to say these behaviors and values aren’t good things—common graces—but they’re not things that will ultimately sustain and fulfill. Recognizing this truth, Mad Men exposes the fleetingness—the inabilities and limitations—of the material and the greater problem at hand: the depraved nature of the human condition.
Through the storylines of its broken characters, the show presents its era for what it is: a society—just like that of today—where humanity desperately seeks pleasure and meaning through the creation, rather than the Creator, and comes up short. It’s why there are hardly any happy or fulfilled characters in Mad Men.
The Eyes of Don Draper
Unlike most of his peers, Mad Men’s protagonist, the anti-hero Don Draper, actually “gets” this truth. He sees what the show wants us to see—though many viewers don’t, as numerous fans get sucked right into sensual setting, missing the underlying critique.
Like Hal Riney, Draper sells products under the banner that they will bring about happiness and transformation—under a vision of “the good life.” But he knows they will not, and his whole life testifies to that.
That is Draper’s story: Despite knowing the truth about the way things are, despite knowing that the things of this world—even good things—will vanish like a vapor, he continues to live his life out of line with that vision. He still looks for hope in all the wrong places.
While there have been glimmers and glimpses of change, Draper may continue his futile search. He may never find the only hope that satisfies. In fact, Mad Men probably won’t ever fully recognize that hope, which is tragic. But, in using nostalgia deconstructively and showing the fleetingness of this world and all its offerings, à la Ecclesiastes, it provides a trajectory to find the true good life. It keeps us from getting sucked into the “good ol’ days” mentality, hopefully reminding us to keep our eyes fixed on our future hope—the only perfection to be found regardless of time or place.
Disclaimer: Though we believe there is truth to be found in Mad Men, we don’t agree with everything in the show or endorse it. It is good and wise for some Christians to avoid the series altogether. With that said, our hope is to engage Mad Men as a cultural artifact and recognize what is good, beautiful and true—and what is not—as a way of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.