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'Mad Men' Creator: 'Advertising Has a PR Problem'

Matthew Weiner Talks About Lack of Diversity And Consumers' Conflicting Feelings Toward Industry

By Published on . 2

Matthew Weiner says advertising has had "a shameful past" when it comes to integration, and that it hasn't advanced all that much since the era depicted in the show he created, "Mad Men."

"There are still no black people in advertising," said Mr. Weiner, who was interviewed by author A.M. Homes Sept. 27 at the New Museum as part of its Visionaries Series. "Advertising in particular is still not integrated."

"Mad Men" has addressed the volatile racial climate of 1960s America more often in recent seasons, but Mr. Weiner said he still gets questions about why there aren't more African-Americans on the show.

'Shameful past'
The unfortunate truth, he said, is that the show's main characters -- who are mostly wealthy, white male advertising executives -- would not have had much interaction with African-Americans.

"It's a shameful past," he said. "We tried to find a picture of a department store for when we were doing Menken's department store and there was the black department store and the white department store."

The even more unfortunate truth, he said, is that advertising remains a white person's world today. "Those African-Americans who are in the halls of these -- now there are two agencies in the world, I think, they've merged so much -- they are pioneers," he said.

One thing that has rapidly changed in the media world is how it's consumed. When Mr. Weiner started "Mad Men" in 2007, he said he was told he couldn't stream episodes on the internet because people's attention spans for web video topped out at five minutes.

Credit: New Museum

Of couse, that didn't prove to be true. Netflix accounts for nearly a third of North American broadband traffic, according to a May report from research firm Sandvine, and "Mad Men" is one of the shows contributing to all that binge watching.

Given his upbringing, it's surprising Mr. Weiner ever went to work in TV at all, let alone win nine Emmys.

"I was not allowed to watch TV as a kid," Mr. Weiner said. "We were allowed to watch on Friday and Saturday night, but I was a terrible student and a bit of a troublemaker, and so it was the first thing that got taken away."

He made up for lost time in college when he got his first TV set. "I watched everything," he said. His first TV work was for sitcoms -- including "Becker" and "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" -- before landing a writing gig on "The Sopranos" before "Mad Men."

Fickle relationship
The original golden era -- the one Mr. Weiner partially missed -- featured family-friendly network shows that people had to tune in at a particular time to watch. The current golden era -- the one Mr. Weiner helped create -- features cable shows about complex anti-heroes, with viewers watching episodes at different times, different rates and sometimes on devices other than TVs.

There are some things that never change, though, like consumers' fickle relationship with advertising.

"Advertising always has a PR problem," Mr. Weiner said in a post-event interview with Ad Age. "People love it and they greet it with hostility at the same time. It's an interruption, it's a distraction, it's someone trying to sell you something. And at the same time it's 90% of our entertainment."

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