Mad Men Mirrors Modern Capitalism

Posted by on April 21st 2013 @ 7:07 pm

originally published in Arbitrage Magazine
April 21, 2013

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Although Mad Men takes place in 1960s New York City, and although the period it mimics is a world apart from today, there may be no show on television that says more about modern capitalism.

The narrative begins at the height of the post-WWII boom. America is basking in the afterglow of victory, the new economy is bustling, and mass consumerism is rising.

The story focuses on Don Draper, a sought-after creative talent in advertising and a spitting image of the American “self-made” professional. “I’m living like there’s no tomorrow,” he claims in the pilot episode, “because there isn’t one.”

In a scene from the last season, Don delivers an especially aggressive pitch. “You’re happy with 50 per cent [of the market]? You’re on top and you don’t have enough. You’re happy because you’re successful… for now. But what is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.”

Part of Mad Men’s magic is that although the ‘60s seems antiquated and its high-spirited nationalism feels naive, its underlying capitalist drive is still very much present. It’s not difficult to imagine one of Don’s zingers bouncing around a boardroom at the offices of AIG or Citigroup in early 2008.

The aftermath of the financial crisis lingers, and the word “capitalism” still carries unfavourable associations. Recent findings from the Pew Research Center show that support for the market-based system has stagnated or dropped in the world’s 16 leading economies.

In the first few months of 2013, the Wall Street Journal — the media’s leading free-market advocate — has already wrestled with the stigma. Business leaders offered recommendations for repairing capitalism’s image.Columnists cited speeches and campaigns by world leaders — including Pope Francis, U.S. President Barack Obama, and French President Francois Hollande — that leverage counter-capitalist sentiment and growing economic inequality.

Recent speeches at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, convey increasing capitalist guilt. In 2007, Bill Gates trumpeted a new system of “creative capitalism” that would rise above market greed. In 2010, Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter spoke of “shared-value capitalism,” urging business leaders to look beyond short-term gains.

The underlying theme of these pleas is that we can no longer accept “growth for growth’s sake” as a development model. We can’t fall into the trap of bottomless greed in which Don finds himself. We must account for a greater social aspect. We must rethink free-market economics.

In addition to showing glimpses of capitalism’s dark underbelly, Mad Men also speaks to capitalism’s heroic spirit. Don professes, “I’m sick of being batted around like a ping pong ball. Who the hell is in charge, a bunch of accountants trying to make a dollar into a dollar ten? I want to work. I want to build something of my own. How do you not understand that?” It’s difficult to imagine these lines being spoken on Wall Street in early 2008.

There’s a difference between “building something” and making money. Both are driven by the same capitalist mechanism, but they contrast in intent and impact. The fight of the next few decades lies in convincing the world of this difference.

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey writes in his recent Conscious Capitalism, “With few exceptions, entrepreneurs who start successful businesses don’t do so to maximize profits. Of course they want to make money, but that is not what drives most of them. They are inspired to do something that they believe needs doing.”

Mad Men premiered its penultimate season on April 7. Will Don finally attain a more sustainable concept of happiness? Will he build something he can be proud of? And will we learn anything by following his journey?


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