Sheer Madness: Show Portrays Bleak Times

Have Things Changed Much Since the '60s?

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Tiffany Warren Tiffany R. Warren
If you have not seen the show "Mad Men" on AMC yet, I invite you to view a decidedly accurate depiction of Madison Avenue in its heyday. According to AMC's website, "Mad Men" is set in 1960, when "advertising agencies were an all-powerful influence on the masses. The series depicts the sexual exploits and social mores of this most innovative yet ruthless profession, while taking an unflinching look at the ad-men who shaped the hopes and dreams of Americans on a daily basis."

The social climate, according to the website for the show, was such that "women had barely begun to come into their own. Ethics in the workplace, smoke-free environments, sexual harassment and ethnic diversity were workshops of the future."

I would also add that back then the few people willing to be proponents for diversity handpicked the sort of candidates who were the least challenging to the status quo. Careful not to rock the boat, upper management used crude but systematic methods to replicate themselves at the highest levels, which left the core of the general-market advertising agency homogeneous. The diverse population of the agency was often marginalized. In many cases, this effort to diversify our industry perpetuated a system of unearned advantages for the "good 'ol boy network."

Last year, the New York Commission on Human Rights provided several New York agencies with a way to make meaningful and lasting changes with regard to the hiring, retention and promotion of people of color. Like affirmative action, agencies may be tempted to honor the NYCHR mandate in principle -- not practice. That would be a mistake.

Let's hope that "Mad Men," a.k.a. Good 'Ol Boys, is more a reflection upon history than the reality of our industry. The "workshops of the future" are happening now in advertising agencies across America. In her book, The Miner's Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy, Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier concluded that most diversity programs are structured in a way that gives employees a mask to breathe while standing in toxic air instead of fixing the fetid atmosphere of a company so everyone can breathe, not just a few. That is so true; in fact, I think many people are still waiting to exhale.
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