The “Mad Men” era, from someone who was there.

Walter Shapiro remembers the 1960s. He was a college student during the “Mad Men” era, and his job was at once awe-inspiring (near Grand Central) and awful (mailroom).

To hear Shapiro tell it in his article for Politics Daily, $90,000 or so (big money then and today) was a yearly salary his youthful naïveté could have taken or left, and he left it. His reason? Advertising copywriting was for hacks. Best to use his intelligence and wit elsewhere, where it would actually mean something.

Now, fifty years later, and with a new episode fast approaching (the fourth season premieres on Sunday), Shapiro is looking back and trying to put his finger on what makes the era of black-tie-and-caviar advertising so compelling.

My own theory is that it is because—adultery, alcoholism and avarice aside—Madison Avenue in the 1960s was so innocent compared to today. … The supposed hard-drinking cynicism of “Mad Men” seems almost quaint against the backdrop of our trashy obsession with minor celebrities and the cultural belief that nothing succeeds like excess.

Much of the enduring genius of “Mad Men” lies in how well it captures the ethical ambiguity of the golden age of advertising.

It also awakens in Shapiro a desire to go back to a Manhattan that was bathed in composure, style (of course), cheerfulness, and all-around good times. It’s all a fantasy on TV, he says, but “how much I would give to ride that commuter train into New York once more, dressed in my summer-weight Palm Beach suit, enviously watching the tribal rituals of those long-ago ad men.”

Apart from the racism, sexism, homophobia, and various other negative practices of the day, we’re right there with you. Ah, excess.

—Seth Putnam


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  1. David Wise says:

    Yeah, if you didn’t tune into the racism, sexism and homophobia, that was a fun era. Luckily I was a kid and didn’t know any better. Good times.

  2. Aiiiigggh. Great acting, dialogue, etc. but no thanks! I couldn’t, wouldn’t and don’t want to live my life that way. Great TV, just like The Sopranos…but I’ll leave it there :)

  3. This show is very reminiscent of a very specific point in time that will never be seen again, and really is more about a lifestyle and culture than just the advertising business.. It really recalls childhood memories, some fond and some not so fond. I wrote a story about it once and it can be seen here:

    Thanks for a great read and a great show.

  4. Randy Strauss says:

    I took a look at the tags for this article and saw sex, TV, politics, culture, booze, and advertising. The first thing that came to my mind was Playboy magazine. No wonder Playboy is dying a slow death.


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