Mad Men- Drawing Inspiration From the Past

A view of Times Square- the advertising hub of America

A view of Times Square- the advertising hub of America

It is a truth that most art critics will not like to accept, but a valid one nonetheless, that the ‘art’ which confronts and captures our eyes everyday is predominantly that of advertising. This is not necessarily a choice by the viewer, but merely part and parcel of being a member of modern, commercialised society and therefore, by extension, a consumer. Whilst no one would argue that the curved M of the McDonalds logo is not on a par with those contained in a Picasso abstract, it is more likely that will have seen the former emblazoned on a bus sign or a pop art ad than the latter on a museum wall or poster.

Spot the difference- the near liquid curves of a Picasso and the hallmark of a Big Mac…

Picasso                     McDonalds

The reality is that it is these images from the advertising industry which infiltrate our lives predominantly in the twenty first century. However, just because an image’s primary motivations are consumerism and finances, does not mean that they cannot have artistic merit just because they are not founded on artistic principles.

The idea of considering seriously the artistic efforts of advertising has gained popularity along with that of the immensely successful Mad Men TV series. The show plots the exploits and exploitation of members of an advertising agency in sixties New York; highlighting and glamourising the origins of the advertising industry.

Today the show’s own PR people released the new publicity images of the upcoming series. They revealed the interesting choice to commission work from an original illustrator of the period. Brian Sanders, a seventy five year old illustrator living in Essex, created many of the gorgeous and glamorous images which inspired the work the TV show tries to emulate and express.


However, for the new advertising campaign for the show, Mad Men’s creator Matthew Weiner decided to finally cut out the middle man and go straight to the source to see if Sanders could create a campaign for a new series based on the techniques and attitudes which he had used in the sixties. Luckily, it was a challenge that Sanders accepted, resulting in this image, oddly poised between historical artefact and premonition.


They were created using techniques with acrylics that Sanders had not used since the 1960s, a style his friend Roger Coleman called “bubble and streak” – literally forcing paint to bubble.

No doubt that many of you reading this will suggest that advertising does not count as ‘art’ in the strict sense as true art attempts to solicit emotions and sensations from the viewer; despair, shock, joy, lust whilst an advert’s primary motivation will always be for the viewer to part with their cash.

However, even if you do disagree with the rules of the game, which the twentieth century has since gone on to apply to the industry, it is, I would argue, nonetheless worthwhile to consider the origins of these rules. Advertising has a lot more to tell us about art than we would perhaps be willing to admit.

If it exploits the power of the visual image, it can only do so if this manipulative allure is already there.

—What do you think of the new take on sixties advertising images? Art or mere industry? Comment below!—