Friday 24 January 2020

Review: Advertising: Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the 60s and beyond by Jane Maas

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Joy Lo Dico

One of the mantras of David Ogilvy, the man credited with revolutionising advertising in the 1960s, was: "The consumer isn't a moron; she is your wife." What he didn't say was that the consumer-wife was about to become your employee, and your equal in the workplace.

Jane Maas was one of them. A liberal arts graduate, with a Fulbright Scholarship and a master's from Cornell, she tripped into the US job market in the 1950s, wanting to be a researcher at Time magazine. The writing was the men's job.

A few years and some luck later, she arrived at Ogilvy and Mather as a junior copywriter, one of a few women in the firm not in the typing pool.

Two decades later, Maas was one of America's most successful women in advertising, though when arriving in her office as president of Muller Jordan Weiss, the removal man still assumed she was the PA.

Mad Women is her response to the glossy and louche TV series Mad Men. A memoir of her time in Madison Avenue, it is also about a woman ahead of the curve in the modernisation of both advertising and the feminist movement, two ideas that would end up contradicting each other.

When Jane Maas joined Ogilvy and Mather, she cut her teeth on toilet cleaner and soap accounts. That she was perpetuating the myth of the perfect woman as perfect housewife is not lost on her -- especially when she made an advert for Maxim coffee with Patricia Neal. The greatest compliment was for a husband to think his wife's coffee so good that he asks for a second cup.

The National Organisation for Women awarded her Maxim and Dove campaigns their prize for being "the most obnoxious commercial" for their depictions of women. Maas retells this with amusement.

The book is peppered with stories about wild living across the industry, more colourful than even a Mad Men storyline. There's the company's annual boat party, from which it was reputed no girl ever returned a virgin; being asked to drink Scotch because it was cheaper than Perrier; the established rituals of trysting in a nearby hotel; and yet more drinking. Maas doesn't shirk from the flipside of this either: sexual harassment, misogyny, infidelity, and women hiding pregnancies from their bosses.

At times it seems like a casual read, but that is deceptive. It is an honest story of the double standards and double lives of the first generation of women in advertising.

While the girls at Ogilvy and Mather parted their knees for promotion, the agency poured out advertising tying housewives to the sink. As Maas earned promotion and self-determination through the decades, women in the ads shed their clothes for attention.

And the greatest deceit was how to manage a family. Maas says her priorities were career first, husband a close second and daughters a distant third. They were entrusted to Mabel, a Jamaican who worked Monday to Friday for the family for more than 30 years.

Maas admits weeping on Friday nights as Mabel left and she had to make the uncomfortable transition from worker to mother.

Her direct style in recounting this, perhaps borne from a career in copywriting, will hit a painful nerve for many career women.

The madness is what makes the book. This is not a preachy feminist tract, but a witty and pragmatic account of testing the boundaries in a pair of heels. It deserves a wide reading from Mad Men fans and beyond.

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