Mad Men – Representing Social Class

Be Warned: This post contains some small spoilers for the first three seasons of Mad Men. If you haven’t watched it already…you really should have



Mad Men is an American television drama revolving around a fictional advertising agency in the early 1960’s called Sterling Cooper. The programme deals with the changing social and cultural values which were evident in 60’s America. Mad Men authentically depicts social class and mirrors how it was structured during the time.

The drama’s main character, Don Draper, acts as the audiences’ eyes into the world of 1960’s America and it is through his eyes that we are able to clearly see these depictions of class divide. Don makes for an interesting character when dealing with social class as he himself cannot seem to fit into any one particular social setting. Born to a poor working class family as Dick Whitman, Don has lead a double life by deceiving nearly everyone he comes into contact with. He is now firmly seen as being within the upper echelons of society due to the wealth he has gained through his role as Creative Director at Sterling Cooper. Despite this, Don harbours contempt for the extremely wealthy. Money has distanced him from the working class people he was once affiliated with and it seems that he would want to return to this social denomination for the freedom it offers.

Don had already begun an extramarital affair with a working class women named Midge by the time we meet him in episode one of the first season. He appeared to enjoy the freedom she possessed but was unable to have himself. He then begins another affair in season three with a school teacher, Suzanne Farrell who also has working class roots. In episode S03E02 ‘Love Among the Ruins’, Don see’s Miss. Farrell dance barefoot around a maypole with her class and feels the freedom she has as someone from a life which isn’t ruled by money and societal dominance; he longingly strokes the same grass she dances on to symbolise how refreshed he is by this sight yet how it pains him to think he may never be that free because of the constraints of his social status.

The programme highlights the entrapment faced by people as they work their way through the social hierarchy; the more wealthy they become, the further they are propelled into the stratospheres of society and the more vapid and empty their lives appear to become. This notion is even commented upon by Don Draper in S01E04 ‘New Amsterdam’ when he says “Kids today, they have no one to look up to, because they’re looking up to us,” Draper denounces himself as being far from a role model, perhaps hinting at his empty life.

This concept is seconded by W. Lloyd Warner et al. (2006) who states that “those who occupy coordinating positions acquire power and prestige. They do so because their actions partly control the behaviour of the individuals who look to them for direction,”. Those in the advertising industry would therefore be in the aforementioned coordinating positions as they offer choices to consumers yet, as previously mentioned, those in these positions of power appear to have nothing worthy of aspiration as their misuse of money to aid an insatiable consumption has left their lives as being meaningless.

Furthermore, the idea that as the characters in Mad Men progress through the social hierarchy they become less emotionally fulfilled is championed by Dr. Bernard McGrane (2007) who declares that “on a fundamental level, advertising disconnects us with reality so that we value the dream, aspire for the dream,” the upper-classes in the programme seem to be chasing an ideal which cannot be obtained.

When we are first introduced to Campbell in S01E01 ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’, Paul Kinsey quips that his colleague only wants to marry his new fiance because “her old man’s loaded” to which Pete responds with a wry smile, acknowledging the truth in Kinsey’s words. Campbell wishes to elevate himself further through the social sphere in order to better himself by gaining such things as the respect of his colleagues and a ‘trophy’ wife. He wants to become an advertisement for the American Dream himself.

Don and the rest of the Draper family are already the archetypal advertisement for this idealistic dream and all try and live up to this vision in their day to day lives. Bettie Draper literally becomes an advertisement in one instance when she is selected to model for a Coca Cola advert in S01E09 ‘Shoot’.

Arlene Manos (2007) states that “we think the American Dream can be purchased” and this is something which many of the upper- and middle-class characters in Mad Men truly believe is the case. Don falls victim to an ironic paradox which he lives through everyday: selling happiness whilst failing to find it in his own life.

Loudon and Della Bitta (1993) highlight the ‘role theory’ which suggests that “each consumer enacts many roles, which may change over time, even during the course of a day”. The two authors also note the following passage from William Shakespeare’s play ‘As You Like It’ as having particular resonance with this concept:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

Don Draper clearly embodies this meaning by playing multiple roles such as a husband, a businessman, a father, a lover and a liar, the later of which is trait which presents itself in many of the aforementioned roles he tries to become. As he tries to spread himself across the various roles he has orchestrated for himself, Draper paradoxically manages to fill no role at all.

Contrastingly, those of a lower class seem to be more content with what they have already and do not fall prey to the excessive wanting which Don seems to be involved with in his personal life. Those in the lower brackets of social class, whilst similarly performing multiple roles, seem to be generally happier with the lives they lead and do not appear to involve such deception into the roles they ‘perform’. The further the characters distance themselves from the lower-end of the social spectrum, the unhappier and more destructive they seem to become. Mad Men presents the idea that money truly can’t buy happiness and only allows the opportunity for desire to overcome the individuals with money.

The programme states that money gives us the power to choose and that advertising is a way of helping us to make choices when purchasing items. Dr. Bernard McGrane (2007) states that advertising “is set-up to make you believe that there’s always more, there’s always better and, if you can afford it, you should have it,” this is emulated in the programme as those with money chase the opportunities that arise from their wealth. For example, Pete Campbell, unbeknownst to him, is allowed to keep his job at Sterling Cooper (S01E04, ‘New Amsterdam’) because of his wealthy and influential family. Moreover, his family was the reason he was able to get a new house for himself and his new wife. Despite this, with each advancement through the social hierarchy Campbell makes, he becomes more tragically unhappy and the audience can only sit and watch as he becomes an empty void like Don.

This tragedy is echoed appropriately by Mark Chamberlain (2000) who suggests that “those who can afford to continue to escalate in step with their appetite eventually discover that there is always a sense that even more would be better”

The programmes tagline, “Where the truth lies”, is more than a pun. It seems to underline the fundamental reason why those in the upper echelons of society constantly desire which comes to the cost of their sanity and loved ones. Images in advertisements, as William Leiss et al. (1997) state, “come to replace reality; since they are composed of pseudo-events and pseudo-ideals, however, we cannot experience full and true satisfaction,” this notion would suggest that no matter how much we consume, we can never truly be happy as what is real is never as good as what is perceived and, in this instance, we perceive products and experiences through advertising.

The characters in Mad Men, tragically, never seem to grasp that having more money to consume more and to increase their status within society will never truly make them content. In S03E03 ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ when Grandpa Gene cannot find his missing five-dollars, Don offers him his money in replacement. This is met with an angry response and one to which Gene barks “you people, you  think money’s the answer to every problem,” Gene resents Don’s offer and see’s it as charity but this also offers an insight into the way the upper-class in Mad Men regard money: as a way of fixing a problem.

Mad Men paints the image that desire is one of the most destructive forces in society and uses advertising as a metaphor to make this illustration. Advertising is perceived by many of the characters not involved with it in their working lives as manipulative for “creating want” in people. Don’s meets a working class man (S01E06 ‘Babylon’), Roy, through Midge who he was having an affair with. Roy taunts Don by claiming that his kind breed are “perpetuating a lie”. When asked “how do you sleep at night,” Don coldly replies “on a bed made of money”. Mad Men used this pivotal scene to demonstrate the tension between the different classes who all seemed to have negative views on one another.

To Roy, who acts as the embodiment and voice of the working class, “advertising serves not so much to advertise products as to promote consumption as a way of life,” and Don is therefore seen as an instigator in the process of corrupting the consumer and, thus, society as a whole (Lasch, C. 1991).

Mad Men depicts very obvious divisions between the different social classes. The characters all seem to harbour contempt for those of a higher class to themselves. Peggy Olson suffers as a result of this idea. Her mother resents the notion that she is moving up through the social spectrum and achieving more than she has or is ever likely to. However, when she conforms to her view of a working class woman, she consequently becomes more accepted. In episode S03E04 ‘The Arrangements’, Peggy says that she will be “getting an apartment in Manhattan” to her mother’s disapproval who viciously retorts “you belong in the city…why would I ever believe anything you say,”. Her mother appears to be somewhat jealous of her life as her hard work and commitment has afforded her new opportunities.

Mad Men shows that those from a working class background can achieve a higher status within society and that they don’t have to be “to the manner born” as Campbell is described by Kinsey (S03E03 ‘My Old Kentucky Home’).

The show depicts black and asian characters as being of a lower class to the predominantly white lead characters. At no point does this become exploitative but, instead, it portrays a societal belief which was common in 1960’s America. In many instances, when it is addressed explicitly, the viewer can appreciate the dramatic irony the writers are trying to imbue within the programme; the characters are naive to the now politically incorrect beliefs which they harbour. For example, in S03E09 ‘Wee Small Hours’, one of Betty Draper’s friends remarks that “segregation is uncivilised, it’s that simple,” whilst in the background, Carla, the Draper’s maid, opens the front door to meet and greet the guests. The programme seems to suggest that whilst many people of the time supported the civil rights movement, a large majority of white upper-class individuals did not actively voice this support to bring about the change needed.

When Paul begins to date a working-class African American women, Sheila White, in S02E02 ‘Flight 1’, Joan insinuates that she is just an accessory to make him appear more cultured compared to his other colleagues and that he’s “[falling] in love with that girl just to show how interesting [he is]”. It appears from his reaction that Kinsey is the “phoney” Joan says he is and that he doesn’t truly and completely believe that race and class are irrelevant in a relationship. However, he does travel to Mississippi with Sheila (S02E10, ‘The Inheritence’) to help register black voters but, even traveling there, he states that “advertising, if anything, helps bring on change. The market…dictates that we must include everyone. Consumer has no colour,” despite pronouncing this notion, Kinsey still develops advertisements with the rest of Sterling Cooper from a typically white male perspective which, furthermore, reinforces the divides evident in the society Mad Men is depicting.

These divides could be considered to be a result of the advertisers themselves who are selling their own personal ideas based on society through the media. This is concurred by Croteau and Hoynes (2003) who suggest that “the creators of the media content have often reproduced the inequalities that exist in society based on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation…white, middle- and upper-class men have historically controlled the media industry, and media content has largely reflected their perspectives on the world,”

In conclusion, Mad Men represents social class in an authentic way similar to how class was perceived in 1960’s America with women struggling to be considered independent, ethnic groups shunned to the lower levels of society and white middle and upper-class males ruling the topmost peaks of the social hierarchy. Despite this, Mad Men presents the tragic notion that with money and status in society comes a desperate search for love, happiness and the American Dream that the main characters all advertise but fail to find in their personal lives.


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One thought on “Mad Men – Representing Social Class

  1. Pingback: Quick Update « Paul Martin's Blog

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