Lies on Toast: The Fantasy of Mad Men

No TV show currently running would seem to be less fantastic (in the genre sense) than Mad Men, which is famous for its realistic recreation of period detail. Take its first episode, where gray-flannelled genius Don Draper has been tasked with dreaming up a new campaign for Lucky Strike cigarettes. The problem is that Reader’s Digest has been thundering the health problems of smoking in everyone’s ears, and that an FTC ruling has forbidden the counterclaims of tobacco companies that some cigarettes are healthier than others. “No more doctors. No more testimonials. No more cough-free, soothes-your-T-zone, low-tar, low-nicotine, filter-tip, nothing. All I have is a crush-proof box and 4 out of 5 dead people smoked your brand.”

Draper is out of ideas, and his evident floundering sets off a crisis in the office in which the Freudian death-wish, marital infidelity, various nascent office romances, a tsunami’s worth of distilled liquor and a stab or two of boardroom treachery all play a role. At the last possible moment, at the end of a meeting with extremely disgruntled clients, Draper pulls a ray of sunshine out of some orifice that only advertisers have and invests the client’s product with a kind of homely glory. The new campaign will be just a picture of a pack of Lucky Strike and the phrase “It’s Toasted.” Other cigarettes cause cancer; Luckies have the warmth and comfort of toast. The day is saved, and the client is free to pound smoky spikes of toxic death into the general public’s lungs for the foreseeable future. Um. Hurray!

So, a brilliant dramatization of a specific historical situation. The problem is: it’s utterly false. Lucky Strike did not start using the “toasted” line when health concerns about cigarettes became rampant in the early 1960s; they’d already been using it in advertisements since the 1920s, even printing the line on their cigarette packs.

It’s all a lie. I was lied to by my TV. I was shocked when I found this out, then shocked that I’d been shocked. (When doesn’t the TV lie to you?) But the fact is, the more you unravel the details of Mad Men background, the less historically valid they seem. The show doesn’t really take place in 1960-1963 (so far) but on the cusp between a stylized late-Then (1950s and before) and early-Now (1960s and after).

Mad Men isn’t a faithful recreation of the past. Like any decent piece of historical fiction, it’s a fantasy set in an imaginary world that resembles the past. It uses elements of the past selectively to make something new that has emotional impact. It’s not a recreation; in the purest Tolkienian sense, it’s a sub-creation.

There’s another element of fantasy in the show, and that’s the constant tension between people’s dreams of what life is and the way their life actually is—about how fantasies affect real world behavior. Those dreams are real: they’re strong enough to persuade people to buy Pepsi rather than Coke, smoke Luckies instead of Old Golds, to shop at Menken’s rather than Macy’s. Manipulating them is a large part of what the advertisers do. But the power of their own dreams lures the characters into pretty weird places—suffering or committing sexual violence, singing in blackface, accidentally mutilating co-workers. Early in the first season we learn that Don Draper, the show’s central character, is an imaginary being, hardly more real than a unicorn. The real Don Draper died in Korea; someone else assumed his identity to escape a life he hated, and now that someone else longs to escape from the trap of his invented identity. He wants to go on inventing himself, to imagine himself in new ways, an impulse that usually has disastrous consequences.

In a way, the show might be considered an antifantasy, an extended parable about the destructive effects of imagination. (Stop that stupid dreaming! Wake up and go to work!) But I don’t read it that way. It’s as much a tragedy about people who can’t seem to live up to their dreams. In the harrowing final episode of Season 1, Draper creates a campaign to sell the new Kodak slide carousel, weaving a glorious myth of the American family out of slides of his own family: his wife, his kids, himself with them. Everyone at the meeting is moved to tears; one of the ad men rushes out of the meeting to reconcile with his wife; Draper is so in love with his myth that he continues telling himself the tale all the way home. Then the dream shatters: he’s sent his family away and is facing the long Thanksgiving weekend alone in an empty house. He’s sold them like product and he can’t claim them as his any more.

So the show is realistic, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a fantasy, or about fantasy. Realism is always an illusion and Mad Men is a realistic fantasy of the power that illusions have over reality.


James Enge‘s first novel, Blood of Ambrose, was published in April 2009 by Pyr, and his second, This Crooked Way, was released in October. His short fiction has appeared in Black Gate, at Every Day Fiction and elsewhere. He blogs at jamesenge.livejournal.com and occasionally shows his face on Facebook.

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