Better than Mad Men

May 08 2010

Mad Men is an American dramatic television series set in the 1960s, at the fictional Sterling Cooper advertising agency on Madison Avenue in New York City. Mad Men depicts parts of American society and culture of the 1960s, highlighting cigarette smoking, drinking, sexism, adultery, homophobia, anti-Semitism and racism. Themes of alienation, social mobility and ruthlessness underpin the thematic tone of the show.

Mad Men provides a dramatized window on the creation of modern commercial society, and in particular the art of advertising. In The Hidden Persuaders, first published in 1957, Vance Packard explores the use of depth psychology and subliminal tactics, by advertisers to manipulate expectations and induce desire for products, particularly in the American postwar era. The book questions the morality of using these techniques.

Advertising has long been making use of associations, emotions and drives dormant in the sub-conscience of people, such as sex drive, herd instinct, of desires, such as appearance, self-esteem, social status, of fears, such as illness, loneliness, or of prejudices, learned opinions and comforts. All human needs, relationships, and fears – the deepest recesses of the human psyche – have become means for modern marketing. Advertising often uses stereotype gender specific roles of men and women reinforcing existing clichés and it has been criticized as “inadvertently or even intentionally promoting sexism, racism, and ageism.

Today these practices are reaching epidemic levels. The result is an enormous advertising and marketing onslaught that comprises, arguably, the largest single psychological project ever undertaken. Yet, this great undertaking remains largely ignored by the American Psychological Association. Robert McChesney calls it “the greatest concerted attempt at psychological manipulation in all of human history.” In the course of his life the average American watches three years of advertising on television.

Great brands are seen to deliver emotional benefits not just rational benefits. An emotional benefit is created against an identified consumer frustration or gap. And therein is why brands and commercial objects are filling more and more of our lives. A brand helps me feel important, to have fun, to feel part of something bigger. They why are we not deliriously happy?

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihayli argues that our lives are cluttered with commercial objects that take on meanings and associations beyond their utility value alone. Problems occur not when objects reflect our selves but are used instrumentally to build a self. When we surround ourselves with things which reflect what we wish we were, we become dominated by self focused materialism – which ultimately fails to fulfill the self.

So what this all boils down to is we are spending a lot of money to pay for advertising that helps us buy into little nuggets of emotion and identity we maybe missing in our lives. We don’t buy food for its nutritional value and we don’t buy clothes for their protective value. We surround ourselves with the things that either reflect who we are, or more worryingly define who we want to be.

Researchers like the late Peter Cooper have argued that the recession has prompted significant changes in the psyche of consumers in developed markets. The recession itself has highlighted concerns about materialism, “keeping up with the Joneses”, or ‘Affluenza’ as it is been labelled. The post-crisis consumer, Peter argued, would be different, a more critical, collaborative citizen, not just an all consuming consumer. Even President Sarkozy has placed measures of “happiness” on a par with GDP.  It seems there is trouble in paradise.

Such trends provide inspiration for new marketing and research. Market research is already facing its own crisis of confidence and is urgently in need of fresh approaches and fresh insights. Perhaps the rather monochrome outlook of many modern researchers, with their disdain for anything too theroretical, could be replaced with openness to find inspiration in more modern aspects of psychology. Perhaps it’s also time for qualitative researchers to get a little more creative and move beyond simply touting models based on Freud, Adler and Maslow.

Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), for example, focuses on resolving emotional and behavioral problems and disturbances and enabling people to lead happier and more fulfilling lives. REBT was created and developed by the American psychologist Albert Ellis .

REBT assumes that humans have both innate rational (constructive) and irrational (un-helpful) tendencies and leanings. REBT is applied as an educational process in which the therapist teaches the client how to identify irrational and self-defeating beliefs and then to actively question dispute them and replace them with more rational and self-helping ones.

  • ACTIVATING EVENTS. The first step in the process is to identify the activating events, thoughts or feelings that happen just before the individual feels emotionally disturbed or acted self-defeatingly.
  • BELIEFS the second step is to explore the beliefs or irrational beliefs that help to lead to the self-disturbing behavior or emotional disturbance. Examples might include “I must do well or very well”; “I must be approved or accepted by people I find important”. “People must treat me fairly and give me what I need”.
  • We then CHALLENGE the status quo for example: “Why must you do very well? Where is it written that you should be treated fairly. The final step is to replace the irrational beliefs with more effective and rational ones.  E.g. I’d prefer to do very well but I don’t have to”.

Cognitive therapy (CT) is a type of psychotherapy developed by American psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck. Cognitive therapy also helps patients overcome difficulties by identifying and changing dysfunctional thinking, behavior, and emotional responses. This involves helping patients develop skills for modifying beliefs, identifying distorted thinking, relating to others in different ways, and changing behaviors. Treatment is based on collaboration between patient and therapist and on testing beliefs. Beck initially focused on depression and developed a list of “errors” in thinking that he proposed could maintain depression, including arbitrary inference, selective abstraction, over-generalization, and magnification (of negatives) and minimization (of positives).

These disciplines have morphed in recent years into “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)”; in essence all about empowering people to change their behavior by reshaping their thinking in positive ways. Much of this is also found in the more populist field of “NLP, Neuro Linguistic Programming”, which forms the basis of many modern training and coaching approaches – created in the 1970s by Dr Richard Bandler and Dr John Grinder created NLP in the 1970s.

NLP offers many effective techniques for helping people discover how to be more successful in their lives. For example, it shows how over time experience lays down certain patterns of thinking. These are revealed in how we think about ourselves and others.  Our thinking derives from values which we have built up throughout our lives from many sources. We also have intrinsic tendencies which also frame how we approach the World e.g. tendency to taking risks, to plan for the future, to live for the moment, to use others as a reference point. One of the difficulties we experience in life is when these values and ways of thinking become so engrained. NLP teaches us to understand situations where you have experienced conflict or frustration and to imagine thinking in a different way.

Beliefs help us make sense of an unpredictable World. Even in the face of all evidence to the contrary we can believe in many strange things (e.g. Ghosts, UFOs, God).  But beliefs can be limiting or empowering. NLP, echoing CBT, teaches people to challenge beliefs and to realize way you think affects how you feel. Visualisation is used to help ‘zap away’ negative thoughts, to look for solutions, to have a positive intention and imagine positively where you want to be.

Ultimately brands can play a more constructive role in assisting people to be in control of their own emotional destiny. Rather than plugging insecurities, brands could help people decide on their own goals, purposes, give meaning to their own lives and achieve much of what they want and avoid much of what they don’t want.  A positive agenda for brands might be to help people think more flexibly.

Perhaps we should avoid talking of preferences and desires in absolute terms, lets back away from ‘ought to’, ‘must have’, ‘have to’, and ‘got to’. Let’s not takes take things too seriously. Let’s not promote perfection, overgeneralise, or stereotype. Let’s strive to be more open-minded instead.  Let’s accept that human life is full of troubles, difficulties, misfortunes – and do our best to change what we can change and to accept what we cannot. Rather than just reflecting emotional needs perhaps brands need to challenge the status quo and help people break their chains with the past.


Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (Bk Currents) by John de Graaf, David Wann, Thomas H. Naylor, and David Horsey

A Guide to Rational Living by Albert Ellis

Brilliant NLP by David Molden & Pat Hutchinson

Buying In by Rob Walker

Research World, The Shape of Things To Come by Peter Cooper & Simon Patterson

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