Immoral Clients, Ambitious Copywriters, “Beautiful Girls”

5 min read

In my almost thirty years in the advertising business, I’ve been presented with scores of interesting marketing puzzles to solve. I’ve also been blessed with great clients. But every once in a while, I’ve had a conflict. I’ve had a couple of clients whose product claims I didn’t buy. I’ve had a couple of clients whose products, I came to believe, had a negative effect on larger issues I cared about: poverty, for example, or the environment. In most cases, I had these clients before I owned my own business; they were the agency’s clients, not mine. As a freelancer and a business owner, in a couple of cases, I took on clients I came to regard as toxic. As I said, it hasn’t happened very often, and it’s never lasted long.

But one story sticks with me. Back in the ’80s, I was working on a television spot for a restaurant client. We needed about fifty extras for one scene, so I called the talent agency and asked them to turn out the people we needed. No problem.

Except that, a day later, my boss told me the talent agent would need to be called back and told, “Sorry, but if you’ve contacted any black people, you’ll have to call them back and tell them we won’t be needing them.”

I couldn’t believe it. This chain restaurant didn’t want black people in their stores? I knew from experience that they didn’t mind hiring black people. But it apparently sent the wrong signal to their majority white audience if we showed black people enjoying their food.

The next time I found myself in one of my client’s restaurants, I felt nauseated, and it didn’t take me long to figure out why. I paid for my dinner, but left it on the table. I never ate in one of those restaurants again.

Shockingly, this episode happened twenty years after Episode 9 of the Season Four of Mad Men: “The Beautiful Girls,” in which Peggy is confronted with a similar moral dilemma. A Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce client, Fillmore Auto Parts (whose principals bear an uncanny resemblance to Pep Boys’ Manny, Moe, and Jack), refuses to hire negroes. Peggy is more intrigued than offended. Peggy and her friend Joyce meet Joyce’s friend Abe–a bohemian guy who’s taken a shine to Peggy–in a bar, where he tells her about Fillmore’s negro problem. Peggy’s first thought is that it’s not unlike her own situation: she’s discriminated against for being a woman, every day. Abe mockingly suggests “a civil rights march for women.” Sheesh. Sometimes, boys just don’t understand anything.

Which is a point that seems to be much on the minds of the creators and curators of Mad Men throughout this extraordinary season of television. Our Hero Don Draper is befuddled when his daughter Sally arrives unannounced at his office; she’s run away because she hates living at home and just wants to be with her father. All Don can think to do is throw her at a woman: in this case, poor Dr. Faye Miller, with whom Don has begun sleeping. Dr. Faye is the sharpest and most accomplished businesswoman in the room–but Don turns her into a babysitter. It’s a job for which she’s uniquely unqualified, and she’s ashamed of her incompetence. A woman, she supposes, “should” be able to relate to kids, and she feels like a failure when she can’t.

We know from seasons past that Joanie, the uber-competent office manager, would really like to be living the life of a doctor’s wife. But her doctor’s on his way to Vietnam. Joan allows her old beau Roger to comfort her with dinner–and then, when the two of them are robbed at gunpoint, allows him to ravish her. In the end, though, she knows her place. There was certainly a time when she fantasized about being Mrs. Roger Sterling. And Roger, for all his awful faults, knows that Joan has always been the only girl for him. But they’re both married, and Joanie’s not going to screw up everything by indulging in a doomed relationship.

Of course, the centerpiece of the episode is the sudden passing of Ida Blankenship, Don’s cranky geriatric secretary who was the Joanie of her day. Her death is both an hilarious black comic gag and a touchstone for our three career women. “She died like she lived,” says Roger to Joanie. “Surrounded by the people she answered phones for.”

Which makes it so interesting that Peggy, our restless young copywriter friend, is the beautiful girl who finishes the episode in the best frame of mind. Dr. Faye is terrified that she’s some kind of mutant woman. Joan accepts her fate, but wishes for a different life. Peggy loves her work more than anything and everything. It’s not about boys or girls, blacks or whites, Goldwater or Johnson: Peggy gets off on the creative challenge of working at an ad agency. It’s fast and dangerous and crazy and one hell of a lot of fun. Like Sally Draper, she’s not going anywhere without kicking and screaming.

I hear you, sister. For as much as I’ve tried to use my creative talents for good–and we spend more of our time trying to do good in the world than any marketing people I know–I have to say that working in advertising has always been a gas. And I have a feeling, based on her suggestion of using Harry Belafonte for a Fillmore jingle, that Peggy’s going to find a way to pull an inside job: work inside the system to effect change. It’s not as flashy as blowing up buildings or marching with placards and pitchforks. But even revolutionaries need persuasive people who can reach the masses and help change hearts and minds. Especially people who get off on solving marketing puzzles.