Advertising is inherently reflective of the society in which it is produced. It features the products filling people’s lives, appeals to the mass sentiments and desires of those living in that society, and is created by participants in that world. This rings particularly true in the 1950s and 1960s, at a time when the “golden age” of advertising coincided with the peak of consumerist culture in America. The unprecedented economic boom following World War II, in combination with suburban sprawl, the definition of gender roles, the creation of new and exciting products, and an emphasis on an idyllic American Dream of family and prosperity created an atmosphere in which advertising agencies became the salesmen of this dream. The ads reveal that this dream was limited in many ways, including race, class, gender, and other fault lines, and that it defined the post-war period in different ways for different people. The most prominent agencies and campaigns of the day exploited, reflected, and were shaped by this particular American societal vision and are in many ways mirrors of 1950s and 1960s suburban America.
The most poignant moments of Mad Men are those scenes when business and the home intersect. Don makes a tear-jerker pitch for the carousel projector wheel featuring sentimental pictures from his own personal life because the projector “takes us to a place where we ache to go again.” Betty, crushed by losing a chance to restart her modeling career as an actress in a Coca Cola ad, shoots her neighbor's pigeons with a rifle while smoking a cigarette and wearing a frilly nightgown as an expression of her profound dissatisfaction with suburbia. A Sterling Cooper Christmas party goes horribly wrong when a secretary runs over the foot of an account man with a John Deer lawnmower. Don makes a heartfelt pitch for Hershey's in which he reveals his troubled childhood spent in a whorehouse. Time and again, Mad Men acknowledges the incredible power of persuasion that stems from the potency of the American Dream. A study of the great ad campaigns of this period reveals this power to be true, but, like Mad Men, underscores the ultimately contradictory implications advertising had for the 1950s and 1960s. Advertising, like the dream it sold, was shiny, fun, and glamorous, but a critical understanding of the ads shows that they, like the American Dream, left many profoundly dissatisfied and ultimately contributed to the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s.