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Introduction

Mad Men, Season 1 Episode 2, AMC, Lionsgate Television, 2007. 

During Mad Men’s first season, Don Draper contemplates a new account, asking Sterling Cooper exec Roger Sterling, “What do women want?” Never one to miss a beat, Roger replies, “Who cares?”

Matthew Weiner’s award-winning TV drama brings a world filled with ad men marching up and down Madison Avenue to life, reflecting on the nuances of an industry responsible for defining the American dream in the 1950s and 1960s. In a post-war America brimming with money, babies, cars, highways, houses, and exciting new products like television, advertising agencies were charged with the task of funneling this unprecedented period of prosperity into an opportunity for businesses and consumers alike to embrace a new kind of consumerist economy. Producing and purchasing goods became not just a luxury that many could now afford, but a duty as a responsible American citizen to help grow the economy.  Advertisements formed this critical bridge between production and consumption. The burgeoning consumerist culture spawned the production of products that were largely indistinguishable from each other, making advertising all the more important for determining where one should really spend their money so to achieve the best possible version of the American dream. 

Advertisments from the 1950s and 1960s remain not only as important cultural artifacts from the period, but also reflect important themes about the culture of these seminal decades in American history. A study of some of these pivotal campaigns and the agencies that produced them provides a wealth of knowledge about the advertising industry during its golden age, but also about important cultural trends of this period, including an emphasis on the suburban family, the clear separation of gender roles, consumerism and conformity, and a distinct undercurrent of a desire for change and individuality. Three campaigns, General Electric’s “Revolving Shelves” campaign, Clairol’s “Does She... Or Doesn’t She?” campaign, and Volkswagen’s “Think Small” campaign, prove particularly instructive to these points. All three were produced by top-ten highest billing ad agencies, advertised products critical to the American Dream, and used methods or mediums that were in some way ground-breaking for the time to sell their products. This exhibit will examine these three campaigns in depth in order to understand how they reflect the broader culture of the 1950s and 1960s as well as how they are largely representative of the advertising industry during its most prosperous years.