The pleasures of Mad Men were many. Fans of the recently concluded AMC series about advertising in the 1960s obsessed over the meticulous detail of each episode, the hair and clothes and furniture rendered in such loving beauty. We watched as the characters witnessed, through the TV sets in their offices and hotels rooms, the Nixon-Kennedy debates, the March on Washington, the Kennedy assassination, the King assassination, the moon landing; history re-told as image and emotion. And of course, the gender politics: the emerging feminism of Joan and Peggy; the style and swagger and frat-house boorishness of Roger; Betty’s deep sadness, born of the “problem that has no name,” as another Betty so famously described the plight of the era’s housewives.
But mostly we were consumed with Don. His life of deception and reinvention, of reckless indulgence, of promises kept and (mostly) broken, testified to the magic—the tantalizing hope and inevitable disappointment—of the very art form he so deftly practiced. He was advertising embodied. From the very first season we knew that the entire arc of the show, ultimately, would hinge on one question: What, in the end, would become of Don? At first, the scope of the questions seemed rather narrow: Would his great secret—that he had stolen another man’s identity—be discovered? Would he achieve the wealth and power, the respect and dignity, he so coveted? But before long, we realized the stakes were much higher. Would Don drink himself to death? Would he die by suicide, as the image of him tumbling through space in the opening credits seemed to portend? For most of the run of Mad Men such dire fates were all that seemed possible—and indeed even just—for Don. And yet, in moments of hope, or weakness, we fantasized about redemption as well.
Midway through the final season I experienced such a moment of hopeful weakness. I began to believe that Don just might be saved. Saved, that is, as in Billy-Graham-style saved, as in come-to-Jesus, born-again, praise-the-lord saved. A friend suggested such a possibility on Facebook, and even looked up the dates and locations of Billy Graham-led revivals in 1970, the year in which the final season was set. It was possible. The more I pondered the possibility, the more it even made sense. He had already been born-again once before, after all, when Dick Whitman, his name at birth, became Don Draper, his assumed identity. It could happen again.
Once I had taken to this idea, the signs seemed everywhere. As Don rambled across the country in the show’s final episodes, a road trip likened by the show itself to Kerouac’s On the Road (and recall, Kerouac described the book as “really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God”), I waited. He would find the God he was looking for, or that God would find him. At the end of the third-to-last episode, the ex-husband of Don’s latest love-obsessions says to Don (who had pathetically used yet another fake name to ask after his lover), “You can’t save her. Only Jesus can. You know he’ll help you too. Ask him.” Here it comes, I thought.
The very idea of watching a great American ad man come to Jesus sent my mind reeling. Advertising and evangelicalism are deeply entwined in American culture, and have been for more than a century. The great revivalists—Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham—have all been showmen and entrepreneurs, the lords of great media empires. One of the pioneers of modern American advertising, Bruce Barton, a preacher’s son, wrote in 1925 the bestselling biography of Jesus ever published, The Man Nobody Knows, in which he presented Jesus as the archetype of the modern businessman.
But the ties go deeper. Recent historical scholarship from Kevin Kruse and Tim Gloege has shown how corporate titans funded much of twentieth-century evangelicalism, and most especially how advertisers—the J. Walter Thompson Company, the Ad Council, and others—aggressively pushed evangelical Christianity in the mid-twentieth century as a path to personal betterment and social stability. And the ties go deeper still. As historian Jackson Lears demonstrated in his pioneering cultural history of advertising, the very idioms of modern advertising—its promises of the transformative, the redemptive, the miraculous—emerged from the pitches of nineteenth-century patent-medicine salesman, itinerant faith healers on their own sawdust trails. Lears calls advertising “the modernization of magic,” yet modern evangelicalism, with its focused-grouped worship centers and media-driven spectacles, just as surely represents the sacralization of advertising. American advertising offers redemption, a new self and new life, while prosperity preachers promise health, wealth, and a great sex life. Don would get saved. It made sense.
And yet, as we all now know, this did not come to pass. Don Draper did not come to Jesus. He did something even better—if not better for himself, certainly something better for the show, something better to dramatize the spiritual allure and danger of advertising. Don meditated. As we watched the final episode last week, we witnessed showrunner Matthew Weiner find the only corner of American religious life more deeply entwined with consumerism, more fully a creature of advertisers’ dreams, than evangelical Christianity. Don, if only for a moment, joined the “spiritual but not religious.”
In the climactic scene of the series, Don found himself alone at the Esalen Institute in Northern California, the epicenter of the human potential movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Desperate, confused, and alone, Don sat in a group encounter session. Overwhelmed by emotion, Don finally let go. He hugged, he cried, and soon he meditated, back to the breathtaking cliffs of Big Sur. And there he achieved enlightenment, revealed by a sly knowing smile.
In his moment of insight, however, we soon came to see that Don did not realize the root of suffering, the importance of right intention, or any other great spiritual truth. Rather, Don used his clarity of mind to write an ad, in fact to write the greatest ad of all time, the “buy the world a coke” ad:
I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love,
Grow apple trees and honey bees, and snow white turtle doves.
I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,
I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.
Some fans of the show, I learned over the next few days, were outraged by this turn of events. How could the great arc of the show end here—not in final glory or despair, not with Don drunk or dead or redeemed, but with a Coke ad? Yet Weiner would have none of it. In an interview published after the final episode, he proclaimed, “It’s a co-option, but it’s pure.” Elsewhere he noted, “I did hear rumblings of people talking about the ad being corny. It’s a little bit disturbing to me, that cynicism … Five years before that, black people and white people couldn’t even be in an ad together! And the idea that someone in an enlightened state might have created something that’s very pure — yeah, there’s soda in there with a good feeling, but that ad to me is the best ad ever made, and it comes from a very good place.”
I think Weiner indeed got the ending just right, but not quite for the reasons he’s stated here. Don in no way created something “pure” in his enlightened state; he created a Coke ad. But he did create something that, like the best of all advertising, tantalized us with the promise of something pure, and if Don in his rapture believed in its purity, all the better.
The “buy the world a Coke ad” was so groundbreaking, and so successful, because it offered precisely and exactly what Americans in 1970 wanted—after assassinations and riots, war and Kent State, it offered “turtle doves” and “perfect harmony.” It offered what we wanted and what it—a can of fizzy sugar water—could in no way, shape or form, deliver. The ad was so great because it lied so spectacularly and shamelessly. A great ad must tap into our deepest longings and lie to us. Don, ever the deceiver, understood this better than anyone. Advertising must tell us that it and it alone can satisfy, and yet it can never, must never, deliver on that promise, or else we’d be relieved of the longing that keeps us coming back for more.
An ending with Don dead by suicide or drink—or with Don redeemed and saved—would have been too thick, too meaty and real, for a show about advertising. Fittingly, it ended instead with spiritual banality, with a tasty empty-calorie buzz, with a promise of the real thing but no such thing at all.
Matthew S. Hedstrom is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and the author of The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century.