Adam Curtis


The widespread fascination with the Mad Men series is far more than just simple nostalgia. It is about how we feel about ourselves and our society today.

In Mad Men we watch a group of people who live in a prosperous society that offers happiness and order like never before in history and yet are full of anxiety and unease. They feel there is something more, something beyond. And they feel stuck.

I think we are fascinated because we have a lurking feeling that we are living in a very similar time. A time that, despite all the great forces of history whirling around in the world outside, somehow feels stuck. And above all has no real vision of the future.

And as we watch the group of characters from 50 years ago, we get reassurance because we know that they are on the edge of a vast change that will transform their world and lead them out of their stifling technocratic order and back into the giant onrush of history.

The question is whether we might be at a similar point, waiting for something to happen. But we have no idea what it is going to be.

I have quite a lot of film from the archives that was shot in the Madison Avenue agencies in the mid 1960s, and I thought I would put some sections up. It is great because it shows some of the major advertising men and women of the time, many of whom are the real-life models for characters in Mad Men.

But it is also fascinating because it shows how some of those individuals would go on to play crucial roles in breaking open that static world.

And in a strange way - by achieving that - those same advertising executives would lay the foundations of another static world - the one we find ourselves living in today.

I thought I would tell the story - and show film of the people who were central to this revolution.

The story begins at the end of the 1950s. There were two distinct camps on Madison Avenue. And they loathed each other.

One group was led by Rosser Reeves who ran the Ted Bates agency. Reeves had invented the idea of the USP - the unique selling point. You found a phrase that summed up your product and you repeated it millions and millions of times on all media so it "penetrated" the minds of the consumers.

His favourite was Lucky Strike's "It's Toasted"

He laid this all out, with diagrams, in his "bible" - called Reality in Advertising.

The other camp were known as "the depth boys". They believed the opposite. That you penetrated the consumer's mind by using all sorts of subtle psychological techniques to find out what they really wanted. These were feelings the consumer often didn't even consciously realise themselves.

It was called 'Motivational Research'.

One of the leading "depth boys" was the wonderfully named Norman B. Norman who ran the Norman Craig & Kummel agency. Here he is explaining his "Empathy Technique" and why it is better than the old "propositions" (i.e, USPs) of people like Rosser Reeves.

I have also cut in some documentary film of some of the motivational research that was being done by the agencies - including an early focus group, and women being tested for the reactions to TV adverts. The ads they are shown are cut into a "neutral" TV programme so as not to bias the responses. For this the American researchers for some strange reason use the coronation of Queen Elizabeth.

Behind the techniques of people like Norman were a group of Viennese and German psychologists and psychoanalysts who had come to America as refugees in the 1930s.

One of the most important and influential was one of the few women high up in the Madison Avenue of that time. Dr Herta Herzog.

Dr Herzog had trained as psychologist in Vienna but then adapted her knowledge to studying the effects of mass media in America.

In the first episode of the first series of Mad Men, Dr Herzog is parodied. "Dr Greta Guttman" comes in to tell Don Draper that because of growing evidence of the link between lung cancer and smoking the only way to sell Lucky Strike cigarettes is to link them to the Death Wish.

In the scene Mad Men is dramatising the war that was going on in Madison Avenue. Draper is obviously modelled on Rosser Reeves who hated the psychologists. In the scene Draper is rude and hostile to Dr Guttman and drops her research in the bin.

Later in the episode Draper invents the slogan - "It's Toasted" for Lucky Strike. It was Rosser Reeve's favoutite USP.

When I was making Century of the Self I went to see Herta Herzog in her house high up in the Austrian Alps and filmed an interview with her. She died in February of this year at the age of ninety nine.

I never used it in the series - so I thought I would put some of it up.

Dr Herzog was a really nice person, and she was also incredibly influential. She was an example of a European intellectual trained not just in psychology, but in the radical theories of people like Theodor Adorno, who took many of those concepts and used them to reshape modern consumerism. Not to destroy it, but to give it an extraordinary new vigour.

But at the same time there were growing attacks on the techniques of Motivational Research. The most powerful was The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard which was first published in 1957. Its front and back covers say it all - millions of you are being secretly manipulated by evil ad-men who have wormed their way into you innermost feelings.

What Vance Packard did was touch on a collective feeling that had been growing among consumers about modern society. It was a fear of conformity, of manipulation, of fraud, and above all of powerlessness - and that this had somehow all been created to sell products.

But at this very point a true advertising genius came to the rescue of modern consumerism. He was called Bill Bernbach and he ran a Madison Avenue agency called Doyle Dane Bernbach.

There is a brilliant book by the American writer Thomas Frank called The Conquest of Cool which anyone interested in this area should read. In it, Frank argues that Bernbach responded to the growing criticisms by inventing what might be called anti-advertising. It was a new kind of style that deliberately linked the public mistrust of advertising and consumerism - to consumerism itself.

Bernbach began it with cars.

Critics like Vance Packard had told millions of Americans that the auto-industry of Detroit was a giant conspiracy against them. That the manufacturers changed styles every year in order to deliberately make their earlier models obsolete, and that their cars were specifically designed to fall apart after a certain amount of time. Built-in obsolescence.

In 1959 Bernbach began a campaign for the VW beetle. His campaign basically said - yes, Detroit is a conformist con-trick, but here is a way to be different, to stand out from the crowd. To be Hip.

Here are some examples. One shows that, unlike Detroit-made cars, the VW model never changes its style over the years. Another parodies the ludicrous decoration of cars by car dealers. While a picture of suburban conformity - with a VW next to every house - says -

"If the world looked like this, and you wanted to buy a car that sticks out a little, you probably wouldn't buy a VW Station Wagon.

But in case you haven't noticed, the world doesn't look like this.

So if you wanted to buy a car that sticks out a little, you know just what to do."

Here is some film of Bill Bernbach from 1967 explaining his work - not just with VW but also with Avis rent-a-car. He astonished the advertising world by using the slogan "We're Number Two", and one of the Avis print adverts began '

"People in this country don't believe anything they read in ads anymore.

And with good reason."

It is impossible to over-emphasise the influence Bill Bernbach had on advertising - and beyond that, on the whole engine of consumerism. His central idea was to encourage people to be "different" - and what that led to was a new dynamic in society.

If you want to be different you are always running away from the others who are also trying to be different - and thus become like you. So you are continually searching for something newly different, something Hip.

And that required an endless stream of new - different - products. As Thomas Frank puts it very eloquently in The Conquest of Cool:

"Bernbach's enthusiasm for the idea of 'difference' became the magic cultural formula by which the life of consumerism could be extended indefinitely, running forever on the discontent that it itself had produced

Hip was indeed the solution to the problems of the mass society, although not in the way its ideologues had intended"

But one could argue that it is precisely that continual search for difference that has led us into the static world of today. If consumerism continually scours the margins of society for rebellious or contrary notions and then immediately turns them into stuff to sell - it ironically becomes very difficult for new ideas to change society. Instead they tend to end up reinforcing it.

Bernbach's work in the early sixties pitched Madison Avenue into a state of confusion. And here is a montage of the sort of things that were going on in the offices of the major agencies then.

There is footage of a great pitch meeting at the offices of Norman, Craig & Kummel for a bread advert, plus three ad-men trying to compose a song - "I think it should be a folk-rock kind of thing, with more rock than folk". And some other stuff.

It ends with some footage of the photographer Richard Avedon shooting one of the top models of the new emerging age of mass hip. She was Donyale Luna who was the first African American to get on the cover of Vogue.

Luna was one of Warhol's first divas. At the time this film was recorded she had just shot one of Warhol's early films which he named after her.

Her real name was Peggy Ann Freeman.

She died in 1979 of a drug overdose

From all the footage you get a sense of the confusion yet dynamism of the time. An industry torn between an old world of consumerism and the glimpses of a new one.

But there was one final ingredient that needed to be added to the mix in shaping this new consumerism. And that was feminism.

Other than Herta Herzog there were few women in high positions in Madison Avenue. But then Shirley Polykoff rose up because she invented the phrase for Miss Clairol hair colour bath - "Does She, or Doesn't She?"

Polykoff is the model for Peggy Olsen in Mad Men. She was a junior copywriter at Foote Cone and Belding and she was convinced that women should be allowed to be what they wanted to be - and she expressed that through a series of adverts for Clairol.

Clairol's products allowed women to colour their hair themselves at home for the first time. But there was widespread social disapproval - only "chorus girls" coloured their hair. Polykoff broke that. For Nice 'n Easy, Clairol's combined shampoo and colour she wrote - "The closer he gets, the better you look".

And then for Lady Clairol - which allowed you to become a platinum blonde for the first time - Polykoff wrote one of the greatest slogans ever:

"If I've only one life, let me live it as a blonde"

This campaign was running when Betty Friedan was just finishing The Feminine Mystique. She was so "bewitched" by the slogan, and its message, that she went out and bought some Lady Clairol and bleached her hair.

But what Polykoff was doing was still demure. Being yourself but fitting in.

Then came Mary Wells.

Wells was one of the great characters of Madison Avenue in the mid-60s. She had worked under Bill Bernbach, and she took his ideas about being different - and pushed them.

She became famous for her campaign for an obscure American airline called Braniff International Airways. Every plane was painted different colours, and all the stewardesses wore uniforms designed by Emilio Pucci.

Pucci's uniforms were deliberately designed with lots of separate individual components that could be worn in all sorts of combinations. It meant that each stewardess (and pilot) was an individual, not a corporate conformist.

Wells then set up her own firm - Wells Rich & Green - and here is some film of her talking about her work. It includes the famous "air strip" TV advert she did for Braniff.

Next to her is her business partner Dick Rich who she was about to have a terrible bust up with - and he left the company. She then married the head of Braniff, and became the highest paid executive on Madison Avenue.

She is wearing a great dress.

Both Polykoff and Wells were creating new confident images for women - but they were still about how men looked at you.

A third woman on Madison Avenue changed that. She was called Ilon Specht. In 1973 she invented a slogan that finally expressed the full flowering of the new kind of consumerism that Bill Bernbach had begun.

Specht was a hippy who had been employed by McCann Erickson. One day she was sitting with a group of creatives in New York trying to think of copy for L'Oreal who wanted to challenge Clairol's dominance of the American market.

Specht described to the journalist Malcolm Gladwell how she looked around at the others in the room. And then what happened:

"I could just see that they had this traditional view of women, and my feeling was that I'm not writing an ad about looking good for men, which is what it seems to me they were doing.

I just thought, F**k You.

I sat down and did it in five minutes. It was very personal. I can recite to you the whole commercial, because I was so angry when I wrote it.

- 'I use the most expensive hair color in the world. Preference, by L'Oreal. It's not that I care about money. It's that I care about my hair. It's not just the color. I expect great color. What's worth more to me is the way my hair feels. Smooth and silky but with body. It feels good against my neck. Actually, I don't mind spending more for L'Oreal.

Because I'm worth it.'"

It was liberation through shopping.

And you would spend as much money as it took to get that freedom. It meant that women could be free to be themselves and fulfil their own inner desires - but through consumerism.


(Ka-ching - A word invented by an advertising executive - Ed McCabe in 1991 for a TV advert for Rally's Hamburgers. In the tradition of Bill Bernbach the advert satirises the greed of other burger companies. It stars Seth Green - later of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Ka-ching was then taken up and used in Wayne's World)

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  • Comment number 34. Posted by Madwoman

    on 3 May 2011 21:01

    I was not a hippie.

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  • Comment number 33. Posted by Adam_Curtis

    on 18 Oct 2010 11:38


    You are absolutely right - I've got no idea now the Canadian thing got in there.

    You're also right - the whole Braniff design thing was wonderful. I've always been especially fascinated by the Alexander Calder connection. I recently found a program in the BBC archive about Calder's mobiles and was thinking of putting it up. The only problem is that it is in black and white.


  • Comment number 32. Posted by SONICBOOMER

    on 17 Oct 2010 00:40

    As a Mad Men fan, I was very interested in this post of Adam's.
    As ever, insightful, interesting and it makes you think.

    One thing though, Braniff Airways was not Canadian, far from it, it was Texan.
    They went further than different coloured planes, they even allowed artist Alexander Calder paint one of their DC-8's in a livery rather like John Lennon's multi coloured 'hippy' Rolls Royce car.

    They are remembered in in the industry for being flamboyant, on internal US flights in 1979-80 they 'leased' BA and Air France Concorde aircraft between Washington and Dallas, though high subsonic rather than supersonic due to overland restrictions - so it did not really make sense for this type of aircraft.
    They very nearly brought some of their own but never got the needed international routes or really had the cash-flow, they went bust in 1982.

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  • Comment number 31. Posted by Ruining

    on 9 Oct 2010 00:15

    "I think we are fascinated because we have a lurking feeling that we are living in a very similar time. A time that, despite all the great forces of history whirling around in the world outside, somehow feels stuck. And above all has no real vision of the future."

    This is what every man and woman has thought throughout the ages. It is nothing new and more to do with our utterly pointless and yet undeniable quest for meaning that isn't there.

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  • Comment number 30. Posted by coollab

    on 5 Oct 2010 21:26

    I dont know if there is any point me writing this as this seems to be old news now but I think we are on the turn, the internet is bringing about social change in many ways and politicaly as well. I have seen disturbing evidence of discusions that are not in the best intrests of this country and many groups supporting such ideaoligies are growing an gaining strength quietly, covertly, and well organised slowly slowly catches the monkey and they are certanly doing that and few are even aware. The Daily Mail gets laughed at for being extreem and OTT but what if they are actually more on the pulse than the average member of public thinks and we are all being slowly secretly overturned by a group determined to change this Island radically it is time for this Island to stop being a door mat and for people to start looking around face book at groups they would rather not know about as they wont stay in the shadows for ever and then it will be to late if it isnt already!

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  • Comment number 29. Posted by Dan Smith

    on 1 Oct 2010 18:32

    I read your article about the advertising industry and really enjoyed it.

    You're definitely talking about the higher echelon of the advertising industry and not the rank and file.

    Without getting too aggressive about it, most staff sit at a Mac or a PC for hours on end, drinking coffee and digesting reams of data from the client...until the business-angle is handed down by a larger 'above the line' agency.

    There is quite a lot of scoffing on Charlotte Street, which is a lot of fun - especially for a country lad like me who'd never had eggs benedict before.

    It is quite interesting work and can be glamorous. Certainly you get to meet some interesting and talented people, who go on to much bigger and better things.

    To quote my boss when I first joined his agency: "Welcome to the madhouse."

    He wasn't lying.

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  • Comment number 28. Posted by dave trott

    on 16 Sept 2010 20:36

    I was left London to train in advertising in New York between 1967-71.
    Since then I've come back and started several succesful agencies in London based on what I learned in New York.
    Everything good stems from Bernbach.
    As you say he revolutionised the business and changed it from something shameful to something we could be proud to work in.
    He made it truly creative.
    Your research is thorough and your analysis enlightening.
    I thought I knew everything about advertising during that period, but I learned an awful lot from everything you've put together here.
    Thank you very much.

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  • Comment number 27. Posted by AJ_

    on 15 Sept 2010 23:53

    Fascinating footage of Dr Herzog - would like to see whole interview.

    What makes an intelligent person take an interest in and study the Frankfurt School theories, the aims of which were generally to negate capitalism, and use them to push capitalism? A kind of double think?

    What motivates attempts to orchestrate mass manipulation? She doesn't seem like the type?

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  • Comment number 26. Posted by Moor Larkin

    on 13 Sept 2010 20:54

    I recall that the husband in "Bewitched" was an Advertising Executive and many plots of that popular show had him involved in the business.
    People laughed at being manipulated even at the time.

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  • Comment number 25. Posted by jacqueline

    on 13 Sept 2010 00:29

    Mr. Curtis,
    This post was exceptionally wonderful and full of information that was simple enough for someone like me, with no background in advertising, to comprehend. I was able to take a whole chunk of the information you provided and do my own analysis, comparing it with other research.
    In the beginning of this post you write that we get reassurance in looking back at a time that is 50 years behind us because we know they are at a brink of change, and how it isn't so much nostalgia in why we enjoy shows such as Mad Men. Of course born in a later generation, I have enjoyed investing myself in history because it almost seems that by reading the past it will help me see or predict my own future. So I love how you mention that we are "waiting for something to happen."
    Consumerism in our society has always been a mirror of the times we live in: the need, the want, all the emotions that all make us go out and buy products because they are our solutions, temporary or permanent. Women it seems have been a huge target because generally speaking they are the ones who go out and buy household items. I'm doing research in notion in consumerism and it was incredible to hear the late Dr. Herta Herzog say it's just that- notion. Personally I think it's a sense of trust that we put in a product by investing in it because we believe it will work. With results we then chose to continue the relationship- do we continue to purchase it or not.
    And on a side note, I wish commercials today were as fun and humorous, it may be that they were serious then but they are certainly entertaining today.

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