For many years the worst bit of working in advertising wasn’t the long hours, low pay or exposure to brain-crushing levels of frustration. The worst bit was explaining to people what it was you did for a living. I don’t mean weathering the disapproval of po-faced civil servants and anti-capitalists in Nike trainers. It’s more that if you tell people you’re a copywriter they assume you work for an EU commission that prevents people patenting yellow petrochemical by-products and calling them Flora, because that’s, like, copyrighted. Which leaves the unbelievable tedium of explaining over and over again that, you know, adverts sometimes include words, that someone has to write those words, and that, yes, I am one of those people.
Mad Men has changed all that. The show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, deserves some kind of honorary D&AD award for saving us all hundreds of hours of exposition at dinner parties. Now when you say you work in advertising it’s a pleasure to watch their little faces light up. ‘Is it like Mad Men?’ they say, eagerly. ‘Of course it is,’ I tell them, ‘it’s just like that. Only with more sex.’ I wonder if East Coast wiseguys felt the same way when The Sopranos came out.
Mad Men is seriously good TV, and pretty good art by any standard. The 1960s set-up doesn’t just provide a great excuse for pocket squares and some really wonderful hair. It turns it into a show about the men who made America. The founding fathers of modern consumerism, the first people to privilege getting what you want over giving yourself away for the common good. It’s a modern tragedy and creation myth rolled into one.
The Persuasionists, on the other hand, was merely a dire BBC2 sitcom that happened to be set in an advertising agency. Rendered virtually unwatchable by a laughter track that, given the quality of the material, sounded like it was being used sarcastically, stereotypes in place of characters and an astonishing paucity of decent jokes, it took an excellent opportunity and squandered it hard. The last time I saw Adam Buxton being that unfunny he was reading a radio script that I’d written.
Here’s the problem: whereas Matthew Weiner’s credits prior to Mad Men included The Sopranos and Becker, the writer of The Persuasionists, Jonathan Thake, was chiefly notorious for the Pot Noodle ‘Slag of Snacks’ campaign. To the TV writer the ad industry is full of potent meaning. The central irony of Mad Men is that these people, so busy telling consumers what will make them happy, have absolutely no idea how to make themselves happy. No wonder, it says, we’re all so messed up. This is true, funny and sad: all the things that make great drama, and could have made great comedy. But to the ex-copywriter this kind of insight just isn’t available and the whole business looks like a lot of people with funny accents squabbling over cheese. But then, if you’re going to spend the best years of your life working on FMCG briefs the one thing you mustn’t be is self-aware. No wonder I have such difficulty explaining what I do.
‘Gordon Comstock’ is a freelance ad creative