Ad execs bristle at AMC’s ‘Mad Men’

Snappy series draws ire of Madison Avenue

Though it’s struggled in the ratings, AMC’s “Mad Men” quickly entered the pop culture zeitgeist, with the title becoming shorthand for mid-century styles and values. The show is a critical fave and fans are rabid about the series, holding viewing parties and day-after discussions.

The only people who don’t seem to like it, it seems, are real-life Mad men, who complain that the depiction of Madison Avenue is unrealistic.

George Packer, who started in advertising in New York as a 20-something in the ’60s, laments, “Yeah, we all drank like fish and smoked like chimneys and screwed our brains out, but it wasn’t like that!”

Packer, who works as a blurb consultant and runs the popular Ad Rants blog, says he hates the show mostly because it gets period details wrong. The IBM Selectric came on the market in 1961, not 1960, for example.

To ad execs on the creative side, it’s the portrayal of the business that rankles. Case in point: Don Draper (Jon Hamm) coming up with the 11th-hour “It’s toasted” slogan for Lucky Strike, which kept the account at Sterling Cooper.

“You have this ad exec standing in the board room and at the last minute coming up with something off the top of his head,” complains Ron Larson, copywriter for Ogilvy & Mather. “How many episodes of ‘Bewitched’ did you have to watch to come up with that?”

But what TV watcher expects realism? HBO’s “Entourage” won the allegiance of entertainment industry folk, who supported and evangelized for the show, but few shows depict any job in a way that clicks with their real-world counterparts. Few terrorist plots are foiled in 24 hours, doctors have long winced at the medical details in “ER” — “Stat!” — and the law is laughable in shows like “Boston Legal.”

“You’ve got to suspend disbelief,” says entertainment analyst Jack Myers. “People in the industry are bringing too much baggage.”

But it’s been awhile since Madison Avenue got some serious series treatment. “Mad Men” might be the most ambitious since ABC’s “thirtysomething.”

One might think the show had a built-in audience. Ad Age estimates it has 200,000 readers and another 430,000 regularly use the website. For “Mad Men,” that’s a big chunk of potential audience.

But following the show’s Oct. 18 season finale, the series will be lucky to average 1 million viewers. At a cost of $2.4 million per hour (shared between AMC and Lionsgate), the show is delivering just 5% more audience vs. whatever movies AMC aired last year.

Even so, “Mad Men’s” value as a halo product — and awards-prestige item — was enough for AMC to give it a second-season order.

And Packer suspects some ad types dislike the show for the wrong reasons.

“I think it’s because a lot of people in advertising on the creative side are frustrated screenwriters,” says Packer. “There’s a certain snideness, ‘If I really had the time I could write rings around those guys.’ But then a lot of people in advertising are basically lazy.”