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TV 'Mad Men' real? I don't think so

By George Lois, Special to CNN
updated 5:52 AM EDT, Tue March 27, 2012
Jon Hamm plays an ad executive in the AMC TV series,
Jon Hamm plays an ad executive in the AMC TV series, "Mad Men."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • George Lois, renowned adman, says "Mad Men" is nothing like ad world of '60s
  • He says the show is riddled with incorrect stereotypes: rampant drinking, adultery, carousing
  • He says real "Mad Men" hardworking rule-breakers, expressing roiling counterculture
  • Lois: Yes, show is drama, not documentary, but for the record, real Mad Men were nothing like it

Editor's note: George Lois, the influential adman and art director, is widely known for his 92 iconic Esquire covers, created in the 1960s and early 1970s, many of which are now housed at the Museum of Modern Art. His new book is "Damn Good Advice (for people with talent)"

(CNN) -- Since the debut of "Mad Men," some have called me "The Real Mad Man," with Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) thought of as my alter ego. But "Mad Men" misrepresents the advertising industry of my time by ignoring the dynamics of the Creative Revolution that changed the world of communications forever.

From where I sit, claiming this exasperating show is even remotely representative of the times we lived through would be like trying to show "Dynasty" on the History Channel! "Mad Men" is nothing more than the fulfillment of every possible stereotype of the early 1960s bundled up nicely to convince consumers that the sort of morally repugnant behavior exhibited by its characters -- with one-night-stands and excessive consumption of Cutty Sark and Lucky Strikes -- is glamorous and "vintage."

It was not like that. That dynamic period of counterculture in the 1960s found expression on Madison Avenue through a new creative generation -- a rebellious coterie of art directors and copywriters who understood that visual and verbal expression were indivisible, who bridled under the old rules that consigned them to secondary roles in the ad-making process dominated by noncreative hacks and technocrats.

George Lois
George Lois

In the very first week of the 1960s, after a successful year as an award-winning art director at the legendary Doyle Dane Bernbach, I left. And with two copywriters as partners, started what was unthinkable at the time, the first ad agency to have the name of an art director in its masthead, and later, the first to go public.

It was a testy time to be a graphic designer like me who had the rage to communicate and, to create icon rather than con. And, unlike the TV "Mad Men," we worked full, exhausting, joyous days: pitching new business, creating ideas, "comping" them up, storyboarding them, selling them, photographing them, and directing commercials. And our only "extracurricular activity" was chasing fly balls and dunking basketballs on our agency softball and basketball teams!

'Mad Men' reflect on success, fashion

The instant success of our trailblazing firm inspired a handful of other creative groups to form agencies and join our passionate revolution as we created advertising and imagery that caught people's eyes, penetrated their minds, warmed their hearts, and caused them to act -- raising the bar of mass communication throughout the world.

Of course the producers of "Mad Men" are making TV drama and not documentary. For the record, please know that I, and the other real Mad Men, bear no resemblance to their lineup of talentless hacks who carouse the halls of the fictitious Sterling Cooper ad agency. And even if I wanted to have an adulterous affair (which I definitely did not, Rosie) who had the time?

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of George Lois.

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