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Who Is a Coward When It Comes to Race? 'Mad Men' Writers or Ad Industry?

Tanner Colby Argues Show Has Dealt Realistically With Subject

By Published on . 11

No debating that 'Mad Men' is a very white world.
No debating that 'Mad Men' is a very white world.
"Mad Men" has previously come under criticism for not addressing the issue of race -- or not addressing it in a manner to critics' liking. Which I find odd considering that the show revolves around a couple of middling ad agencies in the 1960s. Not exactly a place you'd expect to find racial progressivism -- especially when you consider the state of the ad industry today.

Tanner Colby, writing for Slate, takes an opposite approach, laying out the case that "Mad Men" has portrayed race relations -- as they stood in that type of shop in that particular era -- in a realistic manner.

Or, as he succinctly puts it: "It's a show about advertising. And it is advertising, not 'Mad Men,' that is written by cowards."

In a two-part series, Colby lays out exactly what kind of cowardly ad agency "Mad Men" is dealing with. It's one at which an executive sings in blackface. It's one at which an executive refuses to advertise the fact that African-Americans are fans of a client's product. (Tanner offers the historical example of Pepsi for some real-world horrifying behavior.)

It's a show in which lead character Don Draper says the following after a client is involved in a racial dustup: "Our job is to make men like Fillmore Auto, not make Fillmore Auto like Negroes."

Colby writes:

The principals of "Mad Men" sit squarely in that stratum of white America whose social standing is the most precarious. Sterling Cooper is Richard Nixon's silent, suburban majority: not hip enough for the Kennedys, too sophisticated for the fear-mongering of George Wallace, yet too insecure for the racial pragmatism of a blue blood like Nelson Rockefeller. They are the people most desperate to cling to the racial fictions that underpin the nation's status quo, and therefore the people in the greatest denial about the changes of the civil-rights era. Hence the denial of racial reality we see depicted at Sterling Cooper, which is not only true to the period but accurate in a very specific and mindful way.
Undoubtedly, people will disagree -- and strongly. And since no one knows what's happening in the upcoming season, it's impossible to argue for or against Colby's prediction that the show writers will move race to front and center since "1967 was the year in which the industry's racist past started coming home to roost" or possibly end the season around the time of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

But even if you think Colby is completely off base, the pieces are worth a read for some of the historical context (for those who aren't familiar with the racial history of marketing) and even some of the show context (for those, like me, who haven't kept up with "Mad Men" through all four seasons).

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