Don Draper And Big Tobacco, You And Social Networking: Tough Habits To Break

As one of the many Mad Men devotees trying to cope from withdrawals after the season finale last Sunday, I can’t help but see the connections to the world of Don Draper, played by John Hamm, in the hit AMC show and our world today. This, of course, is what the show does so well and why many of us find it so entertaining. We watch the amazingly alien experiences of excessive drinking on the job, constant heavy smoking and behavior around the office that, at a minimum in today’s world, would reasonably be construed as a hostile work environment rife with sexual harassment. Fans of the show appreciate all these foreign situations and yet also feel the very real similarities of our own life in a struggling business or fighting for work, handling difficult relationships, coping with unresolved personal histories and tensions around family. Another clear connection one can see is how both cultures are infused the major underlying force of the day. For the players in Mad Men, the undeniable force are the giants of ‘big tobacco’ and clearly ours are the giants of social networking.

One of the major plot lines of the final episodes of this season dealt with the advertising agency of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce losing a major client the big tobacco company, Lucky Strike and how they deal with the fallout. As this storyline plays out, you see how so many companies orbit around ‘big tobacco’ and that they really generate a complete ecosystem of business for others. In today’s world, many companies owe their overall existence really to social networking blockbusters Facebook and Twitter. Zynga might be doing their best to branch-out, but they built their brand and got their customer-base by riding Facebook. Twitpic, bit.ly and others are all present now because of the environment that social networking provided. When Facebook or Twitter launches a new service that competes or could be displacing services from one of these companies, we all wonder how they will survive much like when Lucky Strike moves business away from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in the Mad Men world and send our characters in a scramble for their own survival. The similarities between their world and ours are hard to ignore.

Smoking is common-place in the Mad Men world. As a viewer and no matter how long you have been a fan of the show, it can be shocking to see the addiction many face in between the well-written dialogue. It feels so distant to what we experience today. For example, in San Francisco, I can go weeks and or months really before I might even see someone smoking in public. There are so many laws now that you can barely even smoke in your own house nowadays in the Bay Area much less while you are at work indoors with others. Ah, but social networking? There is probably not an hour I don’t see someone I work with or one of our students on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn taking a hit off status updates, commenting on a friends update or updating their information. iPhones, Blackberries and Android phones are the delivery systems to our drug of choice. Being constantly connected and checking Facebook in a meeting is just as acceptable as lighting a cigarette while in the conference room in Don Draper’s world. Conversely, if one doesn’t partake in smoking and/or drinking in their world, there is something wrong with them. There is something amiss. This is no different to when you get into those conversations with few co-workers or friends and family that don’t have accounts on Facebook. What is wrong with them?

With the constant stories in the news about security breaches, social networking companies selling your personal information and the various revelations that voluntarily disclosing so much of your personal information on the internet through Facebook, Twitter and others can damage your name, it is commonly understood that using these services is really bad for you. People might argue that promotion oneself and staying connected in the special way social networking accomplishes more than compensates for the possible negatives involved in dealing with the loss of our privacy and the visibility we provide to the rest of the world, but we all kind of know there has to be some downside to using companies that give us stuff for free. This is no different than the fact that everyone in Mad Man know cigarettes have to be doing something bad to their body even though participating in the social norm and getting a nicotine high are pleasant effects of the bad habit. It was really telling when Don Draper was meeting with the American Cancer Society about ideas on anti-smoking campaigns now that his firm no longer deals with ‘big tobacco’ in the season finale and everyone around the table mentioned they all smoked. This is no different to those in the media writing about the various security breaches or 3rd party schemes of Facebook and others and then posting or updating their status with a link to their story to for their audience.

Overall, I suppose the allure of Mad Men is that, in many ways, it is so not what the world is today yet at so many levels it is exactly what we are. Good and evil, villains and heroes are just as tough to classify in Don’s world as they are for us today and when you look his era and their cultures and habits as compared to ours, they might not be so ‘mad’ after all.

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