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t=”265″ class=”alignnone size-full wp-image-482″ />By Rob Plastow
Charlie Brooker said that you don’t really watch Mad Men, you just sit there and let it seep into you. I’m not the biggest TV fan, I put the TV on mute during the ad breaks and don’t watch many shows. Yet somehow I’m addicted to letting Mad Men seep into me and fascinated by the world in which the show plays out – advertising.
Recent reviews of the current series explain its popularity is due to its similarity to today – just how far have we really come? The anachronistic voyeurism we are allowed lets us maintain any distance we may need to not see it as a direct mirror of our own consumption habits and materialistic society.
The show is often filled with glitz and glamour, luxury products and decadent services but still populated by discontented, substance abusing middle classes who appear to want for nothing yet are modern men and women constantly in search of a soul.
In the current series, the agency has lost the contract with Lucky Strike and the creative director, Don Draper, openly dismisses tobacco companies in a full page ad in the New York Times. But back before he had even a single strand of moral fibre he was the man that had come up with the “It’s toasted” tag-line just as Lucky Strike were beginning to feel the scorn of medical researchers scrutinising the impacts of smoking.
Draper skimmed passed the health issues that were emerging in his 1960s America and went straight for the sensory cue, threw away the psychological research about death-wishes and clung on to the simple, shallow, highly effective call to indulgence. For Draper there was no point in entering the debate, just enjoy the taste of that smooth carcinogenic tobacco.
The same can be said of sustainability and climate change. We know the score and yet we keep on smoking. How do we make green living just plain living? How can behaviour change be beneficial to the individual and appeal to our self-interest?
These questions, in light of Mad Men, make me ask another: is news of anthropogenic climate change received today in the same way that news of smoking’s harmful affects were in the 1960s?
Back when that came out, some people quit. Many others didn’t. Today some people are trying to live greener and this want for sustainability has changed the political landscape, but many others remain resolutely unchanged.
Green living sometimes rubs people up the wrong way due its perceived want of altruistic behaviour which fuels a sense of self-importance that non-greens find sickening. Like a non-smoker with a smug grin telling a smoker cigarettes will kill them.
But what advocates of green lifestyles try to assert is that living green can improve your own feelings of self-importance through a qualitative change rather than a quantitative one and that altruistic outcomes can be a product of the process to living green – not always, but often.
Climate sceptics hold even firmer to their beliefs in the face of this and reason for their autonomy and independence from any ‘fads’ or unwanted changes.
This possible divide over morality, consumption and sense of self causes a lot of friction – both sides feeling wholly justified by their own beliefs, which more often than not are embedded or at least vitally attached to their own creation of self and what they perceive to be fair, right and important.
With such large implications for behaviour, stances on climate change and sustainability no doubt both inform and are created by identity of the self – how we see ourselves, each other and what we want to become.
Mad Men symbolises these aspirations for an entire ideology and culture based on modernity, consumption and progress;
that are full of hope on the outside and despair within.
For all his elegant cool, Don Draper is also a philandering drunk who has no idea who he even is half the time. The story fluctuates between his efforts to change and his ignorance of his wrongs.
Making behavioural changes is different for everybody. Don Draper goes swimming and writes a journal, Transition groups try to live with less dependency on fossil fuels, and most people who want to do something about climate change make adjustments to their lives by shopping locally and reducing, re-using and recycling.
Consumption along with the desire it creates, frame our outlook (at least in the West) without us realising half the time. It is the lens through which we see the world most of the time; observing the world in terms of its potential to benefit ourselves, often through purchasing things.
It then becomes easy to understand how that desire is at the centre of consumer economies. All the credit crunch, recession, and climate change clatterings in the news media around the world all stem from a silent, invisible psychological origin that grows within us all.
Followers of Ayn Rand would even lift it up onto a pedestal and call it ‘enlightened self-interest’. But for many (especially outside of the Western world) there’s nothing enlightening about being deluded and at the whim of a silent, invisible ego that is goaded by people like Don Draper
into consuming more and more in the faint hope of sating manipulated desire, or for a moment’s perceived happiness from having bought something.
And yet that is what our whole way of life, our economy and our socialisation rests upon. That psychological trick as it were, whereby PR companies, ad men and marketers have latched onto the mind and even the outskirts of the soul in order to get our money and make us work for more.
Spend, spend, spend to keep the machine working. Governments say they want to tackle climate change and social justice but at the same time they urge us to carry on consuming – the very thing that has caused our societies to be socially and environmentally unsustainable.
We are trapped, as Tim Jackson says, on a hedonic treadmill. Mad Men shows us getting on it to begin the run, and so far we are still on it.
We are encouraged by economies of consumption to take our problems and concerns and to ‘toast’ them with that good old ad man trick which has kept us smoking for so long.