Taking a look at Northwestern's own Mad Men

    Millions of Mad Men viewers can wipe the Sad Don Draper looks off their faces when the AMC show returns tonight.  The two-hour season five premiere, the first new episode since October 2010, is sure to rekindle interest in Matthew Weiner’s masterful creation.

    It should come as no surprise that Northwestern students – eager to procrastinate on the last night before syllabi, Blackboard postings and absurdly early midterms invade their lives – form a loyal part of the Mad Men fan base. 

    But there’s more to the local craze than an appreciation for good TV and a case of the end-of-spring-break blues. Don Draper and the rest of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce gang reaches the non-college-aged, Netflix and PBR crowd in Evanston, too.

    Integrated Marketing Communications associate professor John Greening can relate to Roger Sterling (John Slattery). As an ad man who got his start in 1975, what he considers to be the tail end of the Mad Men era of advertising, Greening lived in the SCDP world. Sterling lost the Lucky Strike account, sending the agency in a downward spiral. Likewise, Greening once lost the Michelob account for his agency, which resulted in 40 or 50 employees getting laid off.

    Also like Sterling, Greening experienced his fair share of success. After all, he’s the leading creative team man behind Budweiser’s “Whassup?” campaign. Now retired from the ad world to focus on teaching, Greening imparts his Mad Men-like wisdom on Medill students.

    “It was that ‘anything goes’ kind of environment,” he said of the 60s and 70s. “The agencies were always just wild and crazy places where if you didn’t get that off-the-wall kind of stuff, you weren’t getting a creative industry.” He even recounted similar antics to the ones on TV, citing an instance when his agency's boss climbed a flag pole drunk on St. Patrick's Day.

    For Greening, Mad Men reinforces the boldness that he said the ad world lacks today.

    “Don is so free,” he said. “We’ve lost so much of that today. There seems to be no momentum to change.” He called every Super Bowl XLVI commercial “lame” and “too predictable.”

    Northwestern's reputation for ad expertise dates back to more than a century before Greening started teaching here.

    In the early 1900s, long before Don Draper-types were drinking whisky and arguing over corporate accounts, Northwestern became a pioneer in the advertising realm. Recognizing a scholarly gap in instruction as Chicago churned out the nation’s first catalogues, advertising professor Walter Dill Scott penned The Psychology of Advertising in Theory and Practice in 1903, a text Greening cited as crucial to the growing industry. Scott would rise through the ranks to university president in 1919.

    Although a lot has changed in the business over the years, Northwestern’s bug for advertising remains, strengthened by Mad Men’s popularity on campus.

    IMC and Kellogg certificates offer opportunities for undergraduate Don Draper and Peggy Olson wannabes, the potential ad geniuses of tomorrow.  Like Greening said, these are the people who have to create change in what he feels is a static industry.

    Weinberg sophomore Cristina Doi is one such student pursuing a career related to advertising. She came to Evanston with a passion for art and design, which was enhanced by history professor Michael Allen’s Fall 2010 class, a freshman seminar that used Mad Men as a lens to analyze history and marketing.

    “Knowing about the history of advertising in New York really sparked more interest,” the Westchester native said. Although she has not made her way through season four, she noted that a show like Mad Men still resonates with her and her fellow students in part because of the way it combines historical accuracy of the marketing world with important themes like racial and gender inequalities.

    It’s no coincidence the show engages students like Doi. Allen noted that professors from other universities have approached him in the hopes of creating their own Mad Men-based curriculums, but the fact that Northwestern students will be tuning in to AMC this year is far from surprising.

    Allen agreed that the Emmy Award-winning show has the power to inspire viewers to change, and not just in the ad industry. However, he cautioned avid Mad Men fans from over-simplifying the show’s messages.

    “I worry that sometimes the main way the people who don’t know history is ‘Gee, look how bad things were back then,’ with a mix of ‘Gee, I wish we were as glamorous as they were back then,’” he said. “Those sentiments don’t take you anywhere valuable. It’s kind of complacent and an almost sort of blind attitude to take away from the show.”

    Looking at the characters’ complexities is the key to using Mad Men as a means of personal growth, Allen asserted.

    “Look at them as complicated and flawed people whose problems in many respects we’ve inherited,” he said. “I think that’s a valuable thing for college students to recognize.”


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