Skip to main content

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?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT