Selling Happiness in Mad Men

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In today’s golden age of television, we see many series arising that serve to justify a scholarly and critical view on the medium, especially in regards to the interplay of sound and visuals. One of the greatest current day case studies for this is the series Mad Men. Set in the early 1960s in New York City’s Madison Avenue advertising agencies, the series broaches many themes surrounding business practices, social norms, sexism and the importance of relationships. However it is the pairing of sound and visuals that deliver all of these themes in a highly purposeful way.

The first episode, “Smoke gets in your eyes” makes incredible use of image and sound to let the viewer draw their own conclusions about the morality, and nature of each character (of course they are the conclusions that the writers and directors want you to draw). This is done by allowing the viewer to appear as if they are a part of the scene eavesdropping and sneaking peaks in very private moments. This creates a sense of perversity in viewing the series as you have information that none of the other characters have. Like reading tabloids or Perez Hilton, this becomes a type of guilty pleasure that we indulge in. our ability to see what others cannot makes us more emotionally invested and attached to each character as we can feel their pain, pleasure, guilt, detachment, and sexual tension. We are intruding on personal moments that are depicted by sound (or lack thereof) and image, but we know that we will never get caught, prompting us to keep watching.

Furthermore, the presentation of each character appears to be a type of perversity and deception in and of itself. The perfectly and reservedly clad characters- the men in pressed suits and stark white shirts with perfectly slicked back hair. The women, with each strand of hair perfectly arranged, dresses that reveal just enough for their boss to take notice, and make-up to accentuate their most salient features, are all composed in a perfectly presentable manner. However as the viewer we know that the image and the sound are at odds here. The corrupted personalities of these clean-cut looking characters as presented through sound do not even slightly resemble their visual appearance. Here we see the interplay of sound and image as it is used to juxtapose the theme of deception and “selling happinesss” in both the advertising industry and within relationships in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

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