The Sunday Times

September 12th, 2010

The Saatchis: poster boys for Britain’s taming of the Mad Men

Last Thursday evening I stepped into a present-day episode of Mad Men. Since there may be a few people in this country who still haven’t heard about Mad Men, perhaps I should explain that it is an addictive American television drama series set in the early 1960s in a macho advertising agency on Madison Avenue — hence in part its name. Like the admen themselves, the episodes are supremely slick: the plot and dialogue are sharp, the men are square-jawed and exquisitely suited, with the smooth formality of that time, and the women are coiffed and cute and cinched in to match. It is a strange world: brilliant, heartless, cynical, tending towards its own destruction.

The first episode of the fourth series of Mad Men was broadcast to impatient fans in this country last Wednesday. The next evening the legendary Saatchi brothers gave a vast and glamorous party to celebrate their place in the Olympics of advertising — the first 40 years of “the Saatchistory”, as the black invitation cards put it, which presumably include Maurice’s great influence in politics and Charles’s great influence in art.

Walking up the steps of the Duke of York’s Headquarters on the King’s Road, now Charles Saatchi’s art gallery, did truly feel like venturing into the world of Mad Men as it might be today, but writ British. Forty years ago, when the young Saatchi brothers started out in London, they in effect helped to seize the torch from the admen of Madison Avenue and bring it to London, where it has remained ever since. If Mad Men had been set in the 1980s or the 1990s, it would have been predominantly British.

To call the Saatchis’ party glittering would be an understatement. There were scores of gorgeous, hungry-eyed babes and handsome young men on the hunt, drinking limitless champagne; there were celebrities, artists and intellectuals, cabinet ministers past and present, and plenty of the great, good and rich, including Lady Thatcher and Bob Geldof, exuding the vulpine charm of serious success. The guest list will be a useful historical document for social historians.

What the evening made me realise was how respectable advertising has become since the days of Mad Men and since the early days of the Saatchis: the entire Establishment was represented at the Saatchi gallery, and pleased to be there, in a way it would not have been in the days of Madison Avenue, for all the immense power of advertising. Mad Men’s hero, Don Draper, couldn’t have given such a party — and certainly not here.

Forty years ago or so, advertising was not considered quite pukka in this country. The wheels of commerce had to be oiled, of course, but it was a slightly greasy business to many people’s minds. There was a feeling that you couldn’t quite be a gent and an adman, or both a serious man and an adman; there was something too tricksy as well as too commercial about advertising.

This was partly the social snobbery that kept Britain back for so long in the mid-20th century, but there were earnest intellectual objections to advertising, too. When I was an undergraduate, going into advertising was frowned on by the bien pensants: it was thought one of the worst forms of selling out, even worse than public relations. Vance Packard’s book, The Hidden Persuaders, published in 1957, had taught generations of us leftish students in the 1960s and 1970s that the minds of the masses were being immorally manipulated by the dark arts of capitalist admen (and adwomen) for commercial and political ends.

Packard explained how advertising used the insights of psychoanalysis into the unconscious mind and of crowd theories of mass-market behaviour to make us want things without even imagining our desires were being manipulated or actually created. It was Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, who successfully pioneered these ideas in the 1920s and 1930s, almost creating the public relations industry as well.

It was thrilling to read how unprincipled admen slipped just a few imperceptible frames into a TV advertisement to lodge things in our unconscious minds without us noticing — subliminal advertising — rather like inserting cookies into a computer today, although not as efficient.

American ads would also, Packard explained, make more obvious appeals to our collective unconscious: a famous one he cited, if my unconscious mind isn’t deceiving me, was a Maidenform bra campaign. “I dreamed I walked naked [or climbed mountains, or whatever] in my Maidenform bra” was the slogan, trying to appeal to women’s unconscious longings for semi-naked self-display and wish fulfilment, all bundled together around a new bra.

Apparently this was a very successful campaign, but what is striking now is its crudity. Looking back at old American ads, and at the true-to-life campaigns in Mad Men, it is remarkable how unsubtle they often are to contemporary eyes. That is perhaps because subtlety wasn’t yet essential: the audience didn’t appreciate what advertisers were up to. But with the growing sophistication of the audience and the satiation of mass consciousness, subtlety, understatement and indirection became necessary and these are all qualities easier to find over here than over there. That surely is what enabled the British takeover of creative advertising in the period of the Saatchi story.

What British admen were aiming at was not the unconscious but the conscious involvement of the masses: their critical appreciation of advertising as a developing art form, their pleasure in the quirkiness or absurdity of some theme and, above all, their enjoyment of irony in ads. That’s not to say that Americans don’t do irony; that’s nonsense. But the British do it more often, more easily and maybe better. Many of the best British ads have played around with self-mockery, absurdity and even irrelevance.

So the audiences in the States and here can enjoy the ironic British ad but keep themselves a safe ironic distance from it. There’s an agreement that heavy-handed manipulation isn’t going on — the audience is acknowledged to be too smart for that — but instead a sort of aesthetic game, of which only a part is flogging something. That distance, that humour, that obsession with style, that visual elegance have all conspired to make advertising less threatening.

It’s become much less like grubby trade and much more like ungrubby art — in other words, much more respectable. That is why Don Draper couldn’t have given such a party and why Charles and Maurice Saatchi could.