Book #31 – The REAL MADMEN – The Renegades of Madison Avenue and the Golden Age of Advertising

by Andrew Cracknell blog

As a devotee of AMCs blockbuster show, Mad Men, I have become interested in this time period of our history.  I remember some of the culture as a young girl, and the show seems spot on in much of the dynamics of the era, clothing, hairstyles, house decor.

I found this book and thought it would be intriguing to learn more about the actual profession highlighted in Mad Men – mass advertising.  Although the author has included quotes from Mad Men characters, this book is about that era and advertising, not the AMC series.

Initially this book was hard to read because there is too much detail regarding specific individuals and long-named advertising firms.  Interestingly, I often felt like I recognized firm names and initials from the TV show.  I almost quit reading as names became confusing, but there is enough general material to keep the reader going.  I wanted to learn about the psychology of how ads work, and see the “tricks” employed to lure consumers in via print or screen.  There was some of this, but I think Cracknell was writing a book for people in the profession, not interested in the profession.

Since this is a non-fiction book, facts learned are the guts of the quality of the material.

  • Advertising existed for more than a hundred years before Mad Men, but was primarily newspaper, boring, and done directly by the company
  • Fast forward to post-WWII and advertising agencies who marketed, showed creativity, competed for massive amounts of money at the time and this profession became a killer.  A 1956 survey showed that “senior advertising executives die at an average age of 57.9, ten years younger than the national average.”  (page 20)
  • Patent medicines were a BIG money maker for agencies.  Boy, does this quote remind you of today and all the Big Pharma ads with sad, then happy, actors?

The inventiveness of the manufacturers and the copywriters in coming up with increasingly vague scary diseases and afflictions that only they could fix was unbounded, preying on the fears of a simply-educated and gullible public.” (page 22).

I do not remember seeing medicine ads on TV 20 years ago.  Now, we are inundated with ads for anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, cholesterol, high blood pressure and on and on.  The advertisers want patients to believe these ads and lobby their doctor for prescriptions.  Plus, if you are familiar with the names of these meds, they must be “normal”, not to be questioned, simply something we take because it is a “cure”.

  • The original purpose of coupons wasn’t to give the consumer a bargain, or even sell the product.  These coupons were instead intended to tell the company which method of advertising was successful.  These coupons were coded to specific advertisements and when returned provided the only real proof of which ads were working.

I wish Cracknell had talked less about specific people, and focused in a more general sense on the ads and how they worked, but as a writer, he wrote what he wanted and did manage to make the material interesting.  There are many reprints of original ad work included in the book – those were especially eye opening.  Back in the day, apparently people liked to read a LOT in ads.  Not sure our current multi-tasking, channel clicking, move on to the next thing society would bother reading what our parents and grandparents read.

The standard look to a 50s/60s newspaper ad

The standard look to a 50s/60s newspaper ad


One thought on “Book #31 – The REAL MADMEN – The Renegades of Madison Avenue and the Golden Age of Advertising

  1. Advertising has always played on insecurity. is your car bigger, faster, more powerful than the other guys. Women, watch out for “ring around the collar”. Abercrombie and Fitch: are you part of the cool crowd.


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