"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. Now that Mad Men is coming to an end, we are starting to see what advertising looks like after its triumph, and the answer is more than somewhat grim. (You can watch McLuhan speaking about the future of advertising here.) The show begins with Don's genius commercial for Lucky Strike. It's not cancer-causing, "it's toasted!" A neat trick. But Betty is now going to die from that trick, as we discovered in the penultimate episode. As for Don, he finds himself in small-town America, where the honest citizens beat him for a crime he didn't commit and refuse to judge him for the crime he did commit. His conman life has left him as homeless and identity-free as ever.
But in that newfangled emptiness, there is more than a little liberation. There are real new freedoms, and not just the obvious ones, as embodied in the careers of Joan and Peggy. Betty realizes in the end that her daughter's life will be an adventure, much more so than her own. After giving up his Cadillac, Don is free again, free to come up with yet another future for himself, yet another identity. It is exactly this kind of freedom that McLuhan described as the heart of American consumerist democracy in Understanding Media:
"After the Second War, an ad-conscious American army officer in Italy noted with misgivings that Italians could tell you the names of cabinet ministers, but not the names of commodities preferred by Italian celebrities. Furthermore, he said, the wall space of Italian cities was given over to political, rather than commercial slogans. He predicted that there was small hope that Italians would ever achieve any sort of domestic prosperity or calm until they began to worry about the rival claims of cornflakes and cigarettes, rather than the capacities of public men. In fact, he went so far as to say that democratic freedom very largely consists in ignoring politics and worrying, instead, about the threat of scaly scalp, hairy legs, sluggish bowlers, saggy breasts, receding gums, excess weight, and tired blood."
There could be no better description of Mad Men's vision of historical change. Instead of the wildness of the Yippies or the civil rights marches or even the war in Vietnam, which are the focus of nearly every other history of the 1960s, Mad Men primarily shows people as they react to the change in their stuff, in buying and selling the stuff, and the careers they need to get for themselves in order to buy and to sell the stuff.
The stuff, rather than ideas, is the substance of lived experience—that is what Matthew Weiner and Marshall McLuhan both understand so thoroughly. Their work contains the same blunt insight: It's the superficial changes, rather than the profound ones, that really change everything.
This article originally appeared on esquire.com