MAD MEN: COLOR IN CONTRAST
God damn it Peggy, the colors in this ad are all wrong! Now get out of here and re… What are you crying? Stop crying. You should be thanking me. There are a thousand girls in this city, all prettier than you, who would kill for this job. Now get out of my office and fix these mock-ups before the client gets here! *door slams. Don picks up the phone. Mrs. Blankenship? Hold my calls, I’m taking a nap.
So, I’ve recently re-watched all seven seasons of AMC’s historical fiction, period dramedy, 92-episode, surgeon general’s warning on the side of our constitutionally democratized cigarette carton show Mad Men aaaannnd I had some thoughts. What?
Ok so for those of you who haven’t found the time in the last like 12 years to give this goose a gander, let me CliffsNotes it for ya real-quick toots. Mad Men is an iconic and salient depiction of 1960’s American culture. Created and produced by Matthew Weiner of The Sopranos, the series premiered in 2007, and had its final broadcast on May 17, 2015 (you know, the day “Blurryface,” the 4th studio album by Twenty-One Pilots was released… obvi)
Anyway, the series revolves around a group of social justice warrior type, morally uncompromisable gentlemen who – while in daily struggle against the ceaseless, untoward, sexual advances and verbal abuse of a crude, vulgar and drunken secretarial staff – simply want to make the world a better place by producing creative advertising campaigns and insightful marketing collateral… Or something like that anyway, I’ve re-watched the show recently and noticed something I had completely overlooked on my initial run through. The use of color in each episode – in the characters’ clothing, the trippy wallpaper patterns in every room, the programming on the television sets that Sally and Bobby watch mindlessly while trying their gosh-darndest to inhale only the Surgeon General’s recommended daily amount of second hand smoke – becomes brighter, more dynamic and vibrant with each new season.
In stark contrast to the visual narrative we’re provided with however, as the show progresses through the 1960s, we see the lives of each character, the world around them and – by insinuation – the future they’re creating for themselves, get dimmer and dimmer with every delicious Lucky Strike our handsome, enigmatic protagonist Donald Draper lights up. Break me off a piece of that toxic masculinity incarnate though eh!?
Season one opens with an aerial shot of New York City, New York. The year is 1960 and the birds are chirping or perhaps choking on second-hand smoke and epidemic levels of industrial pollutants in the air due to a complete lack of government environmental regulation and oversight. Every scene is drenched in the muted browns and grays of the late Eisenhower era. Chromatically speaking, the early episodes of Man Men are about as visually appealing as watching Fifty Shades of Gray at a London drive-in movie theater in mid-November.
Again, in contrast to the desaturated imagery, the condition and circumstance of the characters’ lives that we’re provided with here, is bright and bursting with vibrant possibility. Don and Betty Draper are picturesque. A painfully flawless exemplification of a 1960s American household. Betty is in the kitchen preparing breakfast for her two perfect children. Her apron spotless, her beautiful blonde hair outmatched only by the radiance of her smile. The kids run through the kitchen, followed in by the show’s protagonist; six-foot-tall, walking pheromone Donald Draper. Handsome in that Schindler’s List’s Amon Goeth kinda way… Chiseled chin, piercing blue eyes and a part in his hair so goddamn sharp it would Moses consider a career change. They are the typical American family. All the neighbors want to know them, and all the world wants to be them. This today cliché kitchen scene is printed on the front of every cereal box and is the opener to every coffee commercial on television for the next three decades. Ladies and gentlemen, this is what happiness looks like.
Now, picturesque though thay may seem, the characters and world depicted in the show are facsimiles for the real 1960s America as a whole. Higher tax rates and prescient domestic policies of the 1940s and 50s, implemented by Democratic and Republican presidents alike, from Truman to LBJ, following the end of WWII, created the greatest economy and largest, most successful working class the world had ever known. The ‘greatest generation’ paid off the debt for a war they not only fought in but won, and gave the subsequent generation, the so-called ‘Baby Boomers’, an economic landscape so fertile and prosperous, it would have made The Garden of Eden look like a fucking dumpster fire in the alley behind a Tajuana strip club.
Unfortunately, any ground gained in the 1940s and 50s through subsidization of college tuition and a healthcare system that, for the most part, was yet to be pimped out to special interests and insurance companies, had all but disappeared by the 1980s. All that American prosperity, potential and possibility built on the foundations of the greatest generation’s self-sacrifice, were stolen and replaced with brilliantly colorful diversions aimed at coercing the general public into an over-saturated, under-nourished and heavily medicated bewilderment. Enter the not so subtle color-commentary motifs of last few seasons of Mad Men.
It’s season seven, the final season and Jesus Christ, my eyes! Every scene is a bukkaki of colors so bright and vibrant one would think they’d taken acid during a porno shoot at Jackson Pollock’s house. Everywhere it’s chartreuse and persimmon and banana yellow. The men are dandied in plaids and madras, the women peacocked in geometric patterns and Eastern prints. Do not adjust your ridiculously over-sized and impossibly heavy 1960s television sets; the world of Donald Draper itself is oversaturated.
Then, as almost literal icing on this chromatic ironicake, in the final scene of the show we see our anti-hero Don ‘The Con’ Draper – the twice divorced, misogynistic, homeless, broke, alcoholic, d-bag who hasn’t seen his two stupid kids in like 8 years – clad head-to-toe in white (a composite of every color in the visual spectrum), sitting atop a grassy knoll in a Sukhasana pose at a fucking yoga retreat in Northern California. Thanks to a lifetime of iniquitous and self-centered decision making, his entire world has darkened from the picturesque and prosperous to what is now a future so goddamn dim he’s gonna need shades. And as that golden NorCal sun beats down on his face we see a little smile creep across that Adonis-like mug, because he knows, that we know, that he knows we know, he got away with it all.
Thanks for reading. – Jash
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