What is happiness? It’s just that moment before you need more happiness.” -Don Draper
So I’d like to end this blog series on Mad Men with what was arguably the best scene from the whole show. It’s from the end of the first season where Don Draper is giving a pitch to Kodak to sell their new product, a slide projector called “The Wheel” Here’s what Don tells them:
[There is} a deeper bond with the product [than just technology]: nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent..In Greek nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.
This device isn’t a space ship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. Takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called ‘The Wheel.’ It’s called ‘The Carousel.’
It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.
I think this scene is so powerful because it pulls back the curtain on how much psychology is in the 3,000+ advertisements we see each day. These are very talented story-tellers who are trying to tap into our most primitive desires and are doing it well.
The Divine Image
Last week, I read a fascinating article from NPR about the history of the advertisement industry. Among many things, the article repeated the truth that “Advertisements aren’t about the product, they are about the myths and generalizations you can attach to the product”
Which is just a fancy way of saying what we know of as “The brand”
I know this may sound overstated, but it’s true, the most religious people in a secular society aren’t the crazy fundamentalists. They are the Mad Men, the religious priests of our world. And they are hiding in more than plain sight. We wear shoes with the wildly successful brand-name of the Roman god for Victory. We call women in lingerie “angels” and people who buy Apple computers the “Church of Mac” Why do we do this?
There’s an ad executive named Douglas Atkin who pointed out that a transformation has taken place in what’s expected of the typical marketing firm these days. They’re no longer just responsible for design, packaging, and promotion. These days, marketing agencies are expected “to create and maintain a whole meaning-system for people through which they get identity and an understanding of the world.”
So Atkin decided to do his job not by researching Skittles or Sprite, he started by researching cults (obviously) He went around asking “What makes people believe this stuff? He wanted to know what inspired “loyalty beyond reason” in people.
He knew that people join brands for the same reasons they join cults and religions: to belong and to make meaning. They stopped just being customers and now identified themselves as disciples, as “members of the tribe,” The ads aren’t trying to give you information about their products; their trying to tell stories—imagine worlds that matter and invite us to see ourselves within them. The goal of such marketing, this (very secular) documentary concludes, is:
“to fill the empty places where non-commercial institutions like schools and churches might have once done the job…[it is] an invitation to a longed-for lifestyle.”
The Good Eye
In His most famous sermon, Jesus tells his disciples that their eye is the lamp of the body, and if their eyes are healthy their life will be good, if they are unhealthy their life will be filled with great darkness.
I know that sounds awkward, but Jesus is tapping into an ancient metaphor called “The Good Eye” that had to do with envy and greed and how we see life, or more directly what we choose to see in life. Jesus is making a point that we must pay attention to what we choose to pay attention to.
Jesus has this crazy idea that what we see is also affected by how you saw it. Jesus has this idea (that was common to His day) that the eye was thought to be directly linked to the heart, to feelings, and to the will.
He has this idea that the good life flows from having a good eye. I believe today our problem isn’t that we don’t believe Jesus, the problem is that the wrong people know Jesus was right and use it in all the wrong ways.
In his book “Desiring the Kingdom” the philosopher James K.A. Smith points out how this works:
Consider a Saturn car commercial, voiced-over by a slightly twangy, down-home voice (like those Motel 6 commercials), inviting Saturn owners to the factory in Tennessee for a gathering akin to an old-time revival or “camp meeting.” Why? What brings them together? Why would owning the same kind of car be a reason to gather with people I’ve never met before? I don’t see Ford Escort drivers doing the same. The difference is that Saturn has invested the product with a sense of transcendence: Saturns aren’t just cars; they are also nostalgic connections to an older, communal way of life. The result? Forty-five thousand people attended the festival. Or consider the simple example of an advertisement for paper plates: It features brief glimpses of bright, cheery hostesses and hosts, surrounded by family, friends, and lots of good food, holding up paper plates on which various words are elegantly written. Against a charming soundtrack, a voice asks (with just that tinge of accusation we’ve noted): “What are you saying with your paper plates?” Because our hosts have chosen strong, durable, Chinet paper plates, theirs boldly proclaim, “Friends,” “Tradition,” “Confidence,” “You’re Special.” The paper plates are charged with values, suffused with meaning. So what does that mean you’re saying with your cheap, flimsy Dixie plates? Who would have guessed that disposable cutlery and dishware could say so much?
These days it’s popular to say that Post-modern people don’t believe in Meta-narratives (or large stories), but every ad tells a story, every sales pitch is an invitation to a new religion. And just about every one will gladly take your soul, as long as they get your credit card too.
I believe Louis C.K. is prophetically right when he says about the age of consumerism “We live in a world where everything is amazing and no one is happy.” We have more than we need, and we’re more lonely than ever.
There’s a reason Jesus goes directly from talking about “the Good Eye” to talking about being generous with our possessions. Contrary to popular belief or cable television, it’s not because Jesus cares about your money, it’s because he wants you to be able to see the world well.
He wants you to have clear eyes to see that the story that we really belong to is a story about a God who made everything, needs nothing and loves absolutely. It’s that God that our hearts, like Don Draper’s, is restless for. That is the story that every other story is really just a parody of.
It’s why your heart swells when Don gives his car keys to that kid at the end of the episode in a way it didn’t when he’s trying to sell you cereal. Because God can’t be bought, but He is constantly being given away.
Or in the final words of Bert Cooper, “The Best Things In Life Are Free.