“During the Second War, the U.S.O. sent special issues of the principal American magazines to the Armed Forces, with the ads omitted. The men insisted on having the ads back again. Naturally. The ads are by far the best part of any magazine or newspaper. More pains and thought, more wit and art go into the making of an ad than into any prose feature of press or magazine. Ads are news. What is wrong with them is that they are always good news.”
I sometimes wonder when I’m watching Mad Men, if and when the various characters read the passage above, from Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, which came out in 1964. Of all the great sixties cultural icons that are missing from Mad Men—and some of the absences can be glaring—I’ve always found the lack of any mention of media writer and thinker McLuhan the most inexplicable. Maybe he was just too close to the bone.
McLuhan is the perfect guide to Mad Men for one obvious reason: He loved advertising. He was among the first to celebrate unreservedly what he called “the Madison Avenue frog-men-of-the-mind.” The business of trying to sell people more stuff neither frightened nor appalled him. He didn’t look down on it, as so many of his contemporaries did.
“Many people have expressed uneasiness about the advertising enterprise in our time,” McLuhan also wrote in Understanding Media. “To put the matter abruptly, the advertising industry is a crude attempt to extend the principles of automation to every aspect of society. Ideally, advertising aims at the goal of a programmed harmony among all human impulses and aspirations and endeavours. Using handicraft methods, it stretches out toward the ultimate electronic goal of a collective consciousness. When all production and all consumption are brought into a pre-established harmony with all desire and all effort, then advertising will have liquidated itself by its own success.”
Such a Utopia is of course only an ideal, but at least it’s a grand one…
[continues at Esquire]