‘Mad Men’: Was It Really So Drunken and Debauched Back Then?

When the fifth season of “Mad Men” begins Sunday, millions of fans will be watching faithfully, drawn to the portrait of the ’60s advertising world. The TV series’ creator, Matt Weiner, is so obsessive about portraying the era accurately that last week he reportedly pulled Dusty Springfield’s 1967 song, “The Look of Love,” from the premiere because it was released six months after the episode takes place.
But how true to the period is “Mad Men,” really? Perhaps no one watches more closely and critically than advertising execs and creatives. And the consensus is that while the workplace was not as libidinous and drunken as depicted on the show, the “Mad Men” stories are grounded in truth. “There was a concern about being able to produce top-notch work in the afternoon” after a lunch filled with martinis, says Jane Maas, a former advertising creative director and author of “Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the ’60s and Beyond.”

“The drinking on “Mad Men” is a little bit exaggerated. We did not drink in the morning. And I don’t remember any senior male executives having liquor out on credenzas and tables in such a visible way. Most of the senior guys kept a bottle or two or three in their closets, and if we were working late, it was usual to pour a scotch.”

What about the rampant bed-hopping (and sexism) on “Mad Men”? Maas finds the show isn’t off base. She remembers, for instance, that at one agency, there was an annual “sex contest” — a blind vote to name a person at the agency who the staff would most like to go to bed with. (The first prize was a weekend at the Plaza Hotel. Second prize was a night at the Plaza. And third place winner got a night on the couch in the boss’ office.)

But now that the fifth season moves the cast into the late 1960s, what should we expect to see? In speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Maas also suggested that if the show’s creators want to stay true to an era, women and minorities need to be elevated at Sterling.

“They need to hire a few more copywriters or promote Peggy to assistant creative director,” she said, referring to the character Peggy Olson in response to a question about the lack of women in powerful positions on the show. “Or I predict she’ll leave to go to another agency or start her own.”

Still, ad execs who remember the era well say that the way Weiner’s show depicts the management of clients and accounts, so far, has been dead on. During an appearance on The New York Times talk series, Weiner recalled being approached about the topic by Bob Levinson, the former head of television at ICM, and a sometime adviser to the show, who said:

” ‘In 1960, I was on the Lucky Strike account at BBDO. Our office wasn’t as nice then, but do you have a time machine?”

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