Mad Men

Watch this clip before reading…

Mad Men is a show about an advertising agency in the 1960’s. The name Mad Men is a reference to the advertising executives that worked on Madison Avenue.  The show highlights the  sometimes devious ways different products were advertised in order to gain the most appeal in the public eye. Many of the advertising campaigns featured on the show blur the line between fact and fiction. Truth in advertising is often lying by omission, as seen with the smoking campaign featured in this episode.

This scene, which is actually quite long, I have edited down in order to showcase the most pertinent information. It features a conference between Lucky Strike Cigarette executives and advertising giants, Sterling Cooper. The scene takes place shortly after the FTC ban on cigarette advertising that claims any sort of health benefits. This is also in light of research at the time, that alerted the public to the dangers of smoking.

The beginning part of the scene shows the owner of Lucky Strike talking about how his cigarettes are completely healthy. As he lights up one of his cigarettes, he starts to cough. The advertising executives know better than to draw attention to the action so instead, all of the people in the meeting start to cough, giving the impression that it was ordinary. However, I find it amusing that this scene served dual-purpose.  It also allows the viewer to appreciate the irony of the situation; cigarettes are not good for your health. As Athena Du Pre (2010) informs us, according to the World Health Organization, more than 5 million people die from tobacco-related illnesses and a great majority are from second-hand smoke (p. 350). By showing everyone coughing as the smoke fills the room, it supports the research that second-hand smoke is a danger to your health. What you don’t see in this clip, but that is prevalent throughout the series, is that everyone in company smokes. As agents for Lucky Strikes, everyone in the office is expected to smoke their brand. As Athena Du Pre (2010) tells us, the theory of social norms explains why everyone in the office is so willing to take up smoking (p.376). During that time, smoking was considered an everyday part of life. In light of the research that revealed the health risks of smoking, the need for truthful advertising was at an all-time high.

This scene showcases a dispute between accuracy in advertising. On one hand, we have an agent that wishes to address the health issue head-on. He claims that the best way to handle the campaign is to admit that cigarettes are bad for your health and compare the health risks with the dangers of driving a car. As Athena Du Pre (2010) suggests, the concept of accuracy can be difficult to convey. One person may focus on ethical implications while another focuses on scientific findings. In this clip, one agent wants to focus on scientific research that suggests men like danger. His view on accuracy is to keep the public informed of the health risks but to persuade them that the health risks are part of being a man. The other agent, wanting to completely avoid the health risks, focuses on a menial fact about the way the cigarettes are made in order to detract from the recent bad publicity. In his opinion, the accuracy of “toasted tobacco” is a message that says ‘while all other cigarette brand are un-healthy, ours is simply toasted.’

It’s messages like these that cause such a huge problem when it comes to health communication.  As gatekeepers of information, the advertising agents have a responsibility to relay all accurate information to consumers. Sure, they are providing accurate information about Lucky Strikes,l. but they fail to inform the public of the dangers that are associated with smoking. Athena Du Pre (2010) says that both state and federal governments are targeting tobacco companies stating that it is unfair for them to sell a knowingly harmful product but not be responsible for the cost of treatment associated with tobacco-related illnesses. There is an estimated  cost of $167 billion dollar a year spent in medical expenses and lost productivity, according to the Centers for Disease Control; a figure that many feel tobacco companies should be held responsible for (p. 350).

A good question to ask is, should tobacco companies be held responsible for selling a product that is known to cause cancer? Should they be held accountable for the huge bills people receive for cancer treatments? In my opinion, they should. Knowingly selling someone a product that causes cancer and many other health problems is unethical, especially when they use advertising campaigns that manipulate facts in order to sell their product. Campaigns such as THIS are doing their part in keeping the public informed. As Athena Du Pre (2010) points out, the Truth campaign was successful in raising awareness of the adverse effects of smoking and influenced people to be less-likely to associate smoking with being ‘cool’. Media literacy campaigns are a great way for children to become aware of the manipulations of the mass media. The more aware they become, the more likely they are to look for the accuracy in all advertisements.

Until next time…



Athena du Pre. (2010). Communicating about health. New York: Oxford University Press.


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