Michael Ross makes a good point on The Root today about Mad Men. Now that the fourth season of the series is well into the 1960s, writers can no longer use the excuse of historical accuracy not to include black people in its cast of characters. Ross highlights at least one prominent black man who worked in advertising:
Jason Chambers’ 2008 book, Madison Avenue and the Color Line: African Americans in the Advertising Industry, recounts [...] the career of Georg Olden, an African-American trailblazer in advertising. After the United States entered World War II, Olden, the Alabama-born son of a Baptist preacher, left college and got a job as an artist for the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. He later went to work at CBS and left there in 1960, at the age of 40, to pursue a new career in advertising. He signed on as the television art group director with BBDO.
In 1963, much in demand, Olden accepted an offer to move to the influential agency McCann Erickson to become vice president and senior art director. That same year, he became the first African-American designer of a postage stamp, a stylized depiction of a broken chain that marked the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Olden went on to win seven Clios (the advertising industry’s equivalent of the Oscars) for his work throughout the 1960s. (Icing on the cake: Olden himself designed the actual Clio statuette, inspired by a Brancusi sculpture.)
Throughout that decade, federal and state governments did what they could to make Olden less of an advertising anomaly.
“The New York City Commission on Human Rights and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission both focused significant attention on the advertising industry during the 1960s, and their efforts reinforced and extended those introduced by civil rights activists,” Chambers writes. “The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial discrimination in employment, broke down many of the visible and invisible barriers to blacks in the advertising industry. As a result, many agencies began to lure black professionals from other industries and to recruit at black colleges.”
It’s true that Mad Men, as much as I love the show, often skirts the actual racial, gender, andd socioeconomic conflict of the 1960s in the interest of focusing more on the individual characters. Its dealings with racial issues — Pete Campbell’s idea of moving into the “Negro” market and Paul Kinsey’s black girlfriend and brief exploration into Civil Rights issues — often seem stunted and forced. It’s almost as if the writers realized they had to work Civil Rights and changing demographics into the show somehow and thought these brief mentions and storylines would do.
I’d argue that the same point could be made about dealing with the women’s liberation movement. Though Peggy is an admirable character as she works to be thought of as equal to her male copywriter peers and Betty Draper’s frustration with housewifedom is interesting, the show’s writers often touch too briefly on such issues. They’d rather have a character tote a topical book than feature a conversation between female characters about sexism in the office — something I’m sure wasn’t as much as an anomaly as the writers would make you think. They prefer to be subtle.
I’m ultimately still a Mad Men fan and will keep tuning in (even though I’m beginning to agree with Tracie Egan Morrissey that this season is getting a tad dull), but I do wish they’d introduce a substantive African American character or attempt to deal with controversial 1960s issues in a more central way.