Marshall McLuhan & the “Mad Men”


The Cast - mad-men photo

The “Mad Men” are of course the Madison Avenue advertising executives depicted by the very successful TV series of the same name, about to return for its long-awaited 5th season, tomorrow night (March 25). Marshall McLuhan was a “man for all media”, as Liss Jeffrey called him, interested in all media, and especially interested in advertising, as his many quotes on the subject suggest:-

“Madison Avenue is a very powerful aggression against private consciousness. A demand that you yield your private consciousness to public manipulation.”

“Historians and archaeologists will one day discover that the ads of our time are the richest and most faithful reflections that any society ever made of its entire range of activities.”

“The objective of advertising men is the manipulation, exploitation, and control of the individual.” (The Mechanical Bride, 1951, p. 21)

Advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century.”  

“The modern Little Red Riding Hood, reared on singing commercials, has no objection to being eaten by the wolf.”        etc.

The advertising industry was equally fascinated by Marshall McLuhan, and such notable ad men as Howard Gossage in San Francisco and Tony Schwartz in New York played a significant role in raising his profile in media circles during the late 1960s.

Fordham University media studies professor, sci fi writer and TV reviewer Paul Levinson has given me permission to republish his blog comments from the first season of “Mad Men”:-

FRIDAY, AUGUST 24, 2007  –  Mad Men 6: The Medium is the Message! 

Did I hear officer manager Joan Holloway – played delectably by Christina Hendricks – say “the medium is the message” to Peggy in last night’s episode of Mad Men?

Yes, I did, and it shows just how razor sharp was the research that went into the making of Mad Men. As I explain in my 1999 Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium, “the medium is the message” is Marshall McLuhan’s best-known aphorism or saying. (It means, for example, that the act of watching television – instead of reading or talking – is more significant than what we watch on television.) But the phrase didn’t become well-known until the advertising world discovered McLuhan in 1964 and his book Understanding Media, in which “the medium is the message” was a chapter title.

So what’s it doing in a sexy office manager’s vocab in 1960?

Digital McLuhan by Paul LevinsonWell, as I also point out in Digital McLuhan, the phrase was     actually first “published” in McLuhan’s “Report on Project in  Understanding New Media” – a typescript report, in fact, that McLuhan prepared for the National Association of Educational Broadcasters, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare … on June 30 … 1960!* [Note: the phrase occurs earlier than that in McLuhan’s work. See below.]

So … the 1960 scene in Mad Max last night could, technically, have happened.

But would an office manager have heard of the phrase? Not likely … but by no means impossible. After all, the firm the saucy Joan works for is very high powered, with the Richard Nixon for President team as one of its clients. So, conceivably, Joan could have heard someone from the Department Health, Education, and Welfare talk about the report… (though prefacing the phrase with a “you know what they say…” does seem a little much).

But Joan did look great in her tight red dress, and we learned last night that she’s having an affair with boss Roger. (No wonder why she was cool and collected last week when Peggy told her about Don’s extra curricula activities…) …. Mad Med is now one of the best, hard-hitting, easy-on-the-eyes, humorous, instructive shows on television. A tour-de-force.

*Note added March 22, 2012:  Thanks to Alex Kuskis for letting me know that the phrase appears even earlier, in an article McLuhan published in the National Association of Educational Broadcasters Journal, October, 1958.

Comment by Alex: I have an article by MM titled “Our New Electric Culture: The Role of Mass Communications in Meeting Today’s Problems” that was published in the
National Association of Educational Broadcasters Journal, October, 1958, pp. 19-26. The following quote comes from the 3rd paragraph:

“Let me explain the relation between the oral and the electronic. When we hear, we hear from all directions at once. The radar screen gives this
auditory and spherical dimension to the eye. So do the telegraph, the
teletyper and television. All those media which give us access to all the
cultures of the globe simultaneously are thus auditory in their effect upon our habits of attention and of thought. The eighteenth century considered that it had made quite a discovery when Buffon proclaimed that ‘the style is the man.’ We should long ago have discovered that the medium is the message.” 

Here is the scene from Episode 6 of the first season of Mad Men (and yes, Joan is *some* medium for any message!):


 In season 1, episode 6, Joan implies to Peggy that she need not personally thank Don for her new copywriting gig by motioning to her own comely face and remarking, “You know what they say, the medium is the message.” A clever reference, for sure, but rather unfortunately anachronistic; they didn’t start saying this until four years later, after it was coined by Marshall McLuhan in his renowned 1964 book Understanding Media. [As noted above, the phrase was coined at least as early as 1958, so it’s technically possible that some “Mad Men” were aware of it by 1960.]

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