Monday, October 5, 2009

Mad Men, consumerism, and pollution

In the September 27, 2009 article "Mad Men: Don’t Cry for Me," Daniel E. Walsh comments on the popular TV series, Mad Men:
The AMC hit TV series, Mad Men, portrays the business and personal lives of advertising execs at the height of the Golden Age of American consumerism. The show is focused on the personalities and interactions of the ad execs and office staff. The great American consumer culture is the backdrop for the various story lines. Some of the personal habits of the era depicted are clearly seen today as unhealthy or outright wrong. Then those habits were in the full bloom of cultural normalcy.

In one scene, Don Draper, the main character, his wife, and children pull over the family sedan for a picnic on some roadside grassland. When they are done and preparing to leave, they simply shake the trash they've generated from the picnic blanket and leave it behind them on the ground.

The portrayal of an American family’s blatant disregard of the consequences of littering is shocking when viewed through today's environmentally-enlightened prism. There are those (perhaps Ayn Rand fans) who could say, in a purely scientific light, that the trash disposed of in that manner has no more effect on the overall environment than the debris we landfill today. While experts may debate those issues, a landscape devoid of drifting paper and rotting garbage is undeniably more livable.

There has been a definite improvement in the appearance of the general landscape from that era. The last time we looked, the Cuyahoga River wasn’t on fire. Small gestures on our parts, such as simply throwing trash into a designated receptacle, easily create a nicer experience for those who follow.

If an act that flagrant and careless was witnessed today, many of us, in addition to being shocked and appalled, would be moved to ask the offenders if perhaps they had left something behind by mistake—and not so nicely! The anti-littering campaign was largely funded by the Keep America Beautiful organization. While the motives of the creators of the Keep America Beautiful organization are subject to some skepticism, the effect of its ads as epitomized by the Crying Indian is undeniable.

The Crying Indian commercial and the cynicism of its creation would be a great knee-slapper of a victory for Don Draper and the boys (and Peggy) of the ad agency. If they had done that work, the cocktails would have been flowing.

However accomplished, roadsides and parkland are measurably cleaner than before and the habits of keeping them in that condition are firmly ingrained in the culture as a whole.

In other episodes, Mad Men features similar content as it portrays an America in the nascent stages of a cultural revolution that would soon address this and other perceived shortcomings: women’s place in the workplace, sexuality issues and, most of all, the dangers of cigarette smoking among them. The America of Mad Men was a place built for consumption without regard for consequence. At this they excelled, but the aftermath of their brand of madness became our set of problems. The health tab from those now ailing cigarette smokers is a defining example of one such residual problem.

While it’s doubtful that we would ever return to the profligate waste of the Mad Men era, there is reason to be concerned for the future. Simply picking up trash and keeping it out of sight is a good start. But the far-reaching outcome of the buildup of waste deserves to be examined through to its end. Even the Italian-American actor who played the Indian might force another tear at the impending costs of cleaning up the waste generated in this country in the last half of the century.

A quote from Iron Eyes Cody:

"Nearly all my life, it has been my policy to help those less fortunate than myself. My foremost endeavors have been with the help of the Great Spirit to dignify my People's image through humility and love of my country. It is my sincerest wish to reach the hearts of the people of the world by my Keep America Beautiful film of 'The Crying Indian' so they will be more aware of the dangers of pollution facing the world today. If I have done that, then I have done all I need to do!"

Well, “se non è vero, è ben trovato,” as the actor’s father may have uttered. So what if it’s not true? It was a great show! Mad Men everywhere can drink to that. Just - when you’re done, pick up your trash!

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