Zen and the Art of Advertising: What the Mad Men Series Finale Tells Us About the History and Future of Marketing

ali rahman Blog, Pop Culture


Three prefaces here:

  1. If you haven’t seen the Mad Men series finale, spoilers follow.
  2. If you haven’t seen Adam Curtis’ Century of Self, you really should. A lot of the ideas in this post are borrowed from there.
  3. This post isn’t strictly about advertising. It’s more of a musing on the relationship between advertising and psychology. It’s a part of a series I’m working on that looks at advertising/marketing as a kind of applied psychology.

Like stock trading, advertising involves an understanding of group psychology. It differs in that where trading is about predicting behaviour, advertising is about influencing it. Mad Men has always been a study of a small set of characters. A control-group of sorts, through which the period-piece expressed the mass behavioural shifts occurring in culture at large. The series finale makes the connection between psychology and advertising totally literal and explicit, especially through its observations of protagonist Don Draper.

The Sun Sets on the 1960s

The series ends at the beginning of the 1970s. And through its principal characters, it narrates the mass-psychological shift that occurred in the transition between those two eras. The 1960s were about changing the world from without, positioning the individual as a part of a larger whole. The 1970s became about changing the world from within; to change the world you must first change yourself. Where the 60s focused on purging desire from the self, the 70s became about expressing and exploring desire.

There’s a famous section of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where he laments the end of the 60s. It’s a beautiful passage:


And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

He’s hinting at a kind of cultural fatigue. A sense that the collective project to change the world failed, what with the continued engagement in Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King and the election of Richard Nixon. It’s in this context that the social energy of the 60s turned inwards.


In it’s own way, Mad Men ends with its principal characters (aside from Don) leaving their collective project, their commune as it were; SC&P. Pete goes client side. he’s on easy street from here on. Living the dream in middle America. Joan starts her own production company. Lean and mean and heavily focused on relationships. She’s her own boss now. She got sick of fighting for a place in the misogynist culture of the industry, so she made her own place. She represents entrepreneurship. Peggy is still in it, but for the first time since the series began, she’s discovered happiness beyond her professional victories. She’s found strength in herself, falling in love, and no longer clamours for approval. Roger seems to be easing into retirement with a woman his own age, outgrowing his need to keep up the appearance of youthful virility as expressed through his sexual exploits.

Then there’s Don, who shucked off the shackles of the business mid-season on a journey of self-destruction, discovery and ultimately recovery. We’ll get back to him in a second.

The Century of the Self


In The Century of the Self, Adam Curtis proposes that Freudian psychoanalysis was used by elites to repress what they perceived as the dangerous animal instincts the masses. He even proposes that Freud’s nephew and the “father of public relations” Edward Bernays, applied Freud’s theories to tame dissent on a cultural scale.

Then came the 1960s. Civil Rights. Rock n’ Roll. The sexual revolution and the explosion of personal expression in art, music and literature. The 1970s formalized the explorations of the 1960s, as seen in the popularization of Gestalt Therapy, which put the emphasis on presence, process and feeling rather than content, context and interpretation (things typically privileged by Freudian psychoanalysis). Contemporary mindfulness practices also trace their lineage from Gestalt Therapy, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

esalen-nude-therapyThe Beginnings of Buying a Better World

So, Mad Men ends with Don, sitting cross-legged in a meditation retreat, eyes closed, chanting “om” as a smile creeps across his face. Then we cut, to what is perhaps the world’s most iconic television commercial. This one:

It’s an exquisite piece of advertising. And Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner has gone on record saying he meant to use it wholly earnestly; void of any satire. He says “to me, it’s the best ad ever made, and it comes from a very good place”.

It is a really good ad, and it’s also quintessentially 70s. Listen to the words. It’s all about the self, the I. It’s about social change starting with the individual. It also proposes that peace, love and harmony can be bought; they are tangible commodities. Prior to I Want To Teach The World To Sing, it wasn’t all that common to explicitly use the word “buy” in your award-winning advertisement. Obviously, “buying” is implied in any commercial, but there was a sense of vulgarity about using it, especially if tying it to notions of peace & love & multiculturalism. This direct invocation of consumerism kind of sets the stage for the 80s, when advertising decided that the only way to get happy was to buy your way to it. In The Century of The Self, Curtis quotes Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street banker working for Lehman Brothers, who in 1927, fearful of popular uprising famously said “We must shift America from a needs-to-a-desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. […] Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

corporate-meditationWhat’s implied in the final scene of Mad Men is that Don finds the inspiration for this ad whilst in a tranquil, meditative state. In finding his own inner peace, Don channels the zeitgeist of the times. He spent the 60s in a state of constant struggle, wrestling with the false identity imposed on him by the culture around him (and himself). His struggle is an analogue to the collective struggle of the 60s, and his breakthrough occurs when he learns to settle himself. I Want To Teach The World To Sing is perfectly symbolic of where Don ends up; healed, recovered, literally atop a hill, extending his newfound love for himself into a compassion for others; using all his acquired mastery of advertising for (what he believes) is the greater good. It’s perfectly Gestalt.

A quick jaunt through the 80s, 90s and 2000s

A doctor listens to a patient digging into her past

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) was to the 1980s and 90s as Gestalt Therapy was to 1970s. It privileges changing behaviour to improve the self. Where Gestalt asked folks to look inwards to find their inner goodness, CBT assumes it’s already there, and the way to access it is to just change the bad things you’re doing. It’s practical, and it fits very nicely with the consumerism of the 1980s and the commodified anti-consumerism (hipsterism) of the 1990s. The whole discipline of social marketing (not social media marketing – but rather the practice of using advertising to improve social outcomes) is pretty firmly rooted in CBT.

Then came the naughts, and the Internet, and a whole explosion of new thinking in psychology and advertising. Advances in neuroscience allowed us to understand a lot of behaviour at the physical level. The emergence of social media and analytics allowed us to understand behaviour at the collective level. The transmission of ideas through the Internet (memes) mimicked the transmission of viruses in populations. Everything became quantifiable. Everything became science. The purchase funnel got broken open and ads started being designed to catch people wherever they were. Permission Marketing surged as advertisers’ ability to predict and measure what content would resonate with people improved.

Flash Present: Wild Guesses about the Future of Advertising with the rise of Somatic Therapy

Mindfulness, first popularized with Gestalt therapy, the idea of experiencing the moment to find strength, calm, and truth, to gain greater awareness by observing one’s own thoughts and feelings, is back. Resilience is also exploding as a therapeutic practice. Resilience is a skill, centred on being able to properly handle stress and adversity. It borrows from the practical elements of CBT and the mindful elements of Gestalt. The influence of neuroscience is also pretty evident in contemporary therapy; the brain is increasingly being respected as a physical organ and not distinct from the rest of the body, giving rise to holistic approaches where diet, exercise and general physical wellness are all understood to contribute to mental health. Long forgotten Jungian approaches to integrating the unconscious mind are also resurfacing in contemporary practice.


These and many other practices comprise what’s being called somatic therapy, and I think it’s about helping people navigate an increasingly complex world bursting with incalculable amounts of information, opportunities and unpredictability. In looking inward mindfully, one is better equipped to prioritize what’s important to oneself, and discard the rest. In cultivating resilience, one is better prepared to actualize those priorities especially when hit with stressors.

In many ways, somatic therapy is about being able to chart a simple path through a complex world. I think part of its rapid adoption relates to the immense decision fatigue that has emerged as a consequence of constant connectedness to the news, opinions, our peers and information in general. The simple question of “what should I eat for dinner” becomes a research topic, which factors in considerations about health, diet, cost, time, desire, emotion, sustainability, ecology, convenience, need and more. And there’s only so many decisions one can make in a day. If we sweat the small stuff, we’re drawing from a finite resource. This is called decision-fatigue. In fact, according to David Eagleman’s Incognito or Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, many of the decisions we think we’re making consciously (and burning mental energy on) are being made unconsciously anyway. What’s worse, the consequences of each of these minor decisions is amplified by social media, where some people share every minute detail of their lives. The Instagram-aesthetics and Facebook-peer-politics of a dinner out now factor into the experience of eating.

decision-fatigueSomatic therapy is about letting go of the small stuff, and focusing on what really matters. By better actualizing yourself, a lot of the perceived decisions we make can be relegated back to the unconscious mind, clearing the clutter off the conscious mind so it can focus on bigger, better things.


Permission Purchasing: I don’t want to buy a thing, I want to buy my way out of making decisions.

It’s no coincidence that it’s in this climate advertisers and marketers are rapidly moving to more personalized, curated experiences that take the decisions out of purchasing. Big data already helps advertisers put promotions in front of the right audiences. Websites and social networks are increasingly moving towards personalized experiences; where only a few user-inputs are required to curate an experience in which the user can naturally see their path, thus limiting decisions. This emerging school of design is about removing as many decisions from the experience as possible, while still maintaining interactivity.

organicboxBut I think it will go a step further. I think Permission Marketing is going to become (what I’m calling) Permission Purchasing. At our house, we get one of those organic fruit and vegetable boxes delivered weekly from a company called Mama Earth Organics. It’s curated. I don’t have to expend mental energy sifting through the supermarket. I get a box, with good stuff in it. Yes, I can make changes and sometimes do, but I’ve put my trust in that brand to mostly take my food choices off my plate (punny!). Just like Permission Marketing, Permission Purchasing relies on establishing trust with the consumer. And maintaining the integrity of that experience becomes paramount.

madmen-icon-stylized-inlineimageThis doesn’t just apply to groceries. Look at Loot Crate, a company that ships its users a box of miscellaneous geek-paraphernalia on a monthly basis. Of all things, you’d think that comic books, DVDs, games and ironic T-Shirts would be highly personal, case-by-case purchase decisions, but no! Loot Crate works. They assemble and ship subscribers a bunch of stuff grouped loosely under themes like “fantasy” or “covert” or “play” or “rewind”. The list of examples of this model of curated goods is a mile long today; Blue Apron for dinner ingredients delivered weekly (not only the groceries but the recipe selection is done too); Naturebox for snacks; Birchbox for makeup and beauty products; The Honest Co. for organic baby and cleaning supplies (trust the company first – buying their products will follow almost unconsciously); Trunk Club for men’s clothing selections; and a million others.

They all work because they understand their audience and have established trust with them, and people are happy to release themselves from the purchase decision.

So they can focus on what really matters (which I hope is peace, love and harmony).