Towards the end of the first series of the Emmy-award winning US drama, Mad Men, set in the fictional world of the New York advertising agency, Stirling Cooper, in the early 1960s, there is a scene which offers a seductive vision of the work of advertising practitioners and their role in weaving commercial fables. The scene features the drama’s central protagonist – and central enigma – Don Draper. Draper is Stirling Cooper’s key creative asset and their top ‘creative man’. Not only is he viewed within the agency as the source of some of the most innovative and inventive advertising ideas, but also as something of a star performer when it comes to selling these ideas to clients. The scene shows Draper pitching his ideas for a campaign to the client. In this case the client is Kodak, the makers of cameras, film and photographic equipment. They have asked the agency to help them market a new piece of domestic technology – a device that allows a smoother and more convenient showing of photographic slides. Kodak calls the device the ‘donut’ or ‘the wheel’ because of its circular shape. This is how the scene unfolds:

Kodak Man 1: ‘So have you figured out a way to work the wheel in?

Kodak Man 2: ‘We know it’s hard, because wheels aren’t really seen as exciting technology, even though they are the original’.

Don Draper: ‘Well, technology is a glittering lure, but there’s the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash. If they have a sentimental bond with the product. My first job, I was in-house at a fur company. This old-pro copywriter, Greek, named Teddy. And Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is ‘new’. Creates an itch. Put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion. We also talked about a deeper bond with the product. Nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent…

[Projects slides of his children, his wife and himself eating on holiday, a shot of his wife pregnant.]

… Teddy told me that in Greek, nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a space ship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel. It’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Round and round and back home again. To a place where we know we are loved.’

‘The carousel, a time machine, something that takes us to a place where we know we are loved’. These are evocative themes. And Draper’s is a beguiling, seductive performance designed to play on the emotions – the sentimentality – the private memories and desires – of the client.

There is more to say about the scene. It conforms to a particular idea of the creative process in advertising as resting on the insights of unique, gifted individuals and also sets into play the idea of the ‘creative pitch’ as a drama of revelation and the sanctifying of a selling idea. It also suggests that what ad men and their agencies do is to forge connections between material objects and cultural values and ideals. In Draper’s pitch, he is not selling the product per se, but what it can contribute to – in this case, the generation of memories. And he uses a powerful fantasy of private life, of family life, to invoke a set of tender feelings. In doing so, Draper draws upon his own biography and literally the raw material of his own life – the pictures of his wife and family. What is so telling about these images – and this is evident from their context in the wider series narrative – is that they represent a powerful form of wish-fulfilment and evasion on Draper’s part. This is, after all, the man who is a serial adulterer, seeking to relocate himself in the mythology of the ‘happy family’, to use the power of fantasy to negate the more messy reality of his private life and sexual adventures. There is no easily available, positive public narrative for the complexities of his life, so he falls back upon the allure of idealized, conjugal matrimony.

Draper’s subjectivity, and the drama of the advertising pitch, offers some broader clues as to the role played by advertising agencies. I want to use the scene to draw out further insights into the conceptualizing of advertising. In particular, I want to use the scene to test the value of conceptualizing advertising as a ‘market device’. This is an idea associated with the French sociologist, Michel Callon. Capturing the range of market devices – generated from both the supply and demand sides of the market – is central to Callon’s project to produce ‘ethnographies of socio-technical devices’ (see Callon et al., 2002; Callon and Muniesa, 2005; Callon et al., 2007).

Advertising as a Market Device
What are the implications of Callon’s arguments for understanding advertising? I think we can draw on Callon’s work in a number of ways. Firstly, his account of the ‘qualification of goods’, the process which helps to establish and fix the characteristics of goods so that they can circulate gives a large role to what Callon calls the ‘professionals of qualification’. Advertising practitioners fit squarely into this category, along with designers and other market professionals. They are certainly involved, in Callon’s terms, in the associated process of disentangling goods from the world of producers and attempting to entangle them in the world of consumers. In the scene from Mad Men, Draper effectively helps to ‘qualify’ Kodak’s new piece of technology, shifting it from its representation as ‘the wheel’ to the carousel. This shifts its meaning and helps to fix a new set of association around the product.

Developing this argument about qualification and entanglement further, we can see that advertising agencies use a number of different forms of expertise and technologies to perform this role. One device is market research. Market research enables agencies to generate knowledge of the world of consumers; to produce what Miller and Rose (1997) call an immense ‘cartography of consumption’. That is, a map of consumer’ habits, rituals and subjective investments in the world of goods. The knowledge of consumers generated by market research enables agencies to find ways of forging connections between the goods which they are advertising and the practices of consumers. It helps agencies to ‘make-up’ or ‘mobilize’ consumers – to use Miller & Rose’s evocative terminology. In the 1950s and 60s advertising agencies were drawn to deploy a set of psychological knowledge to understand consumer motivations. This knowledge offered new and inventive ways of forging connections between consumers and goods. One of the most celebrated practitioners of this new kind of market research was Ernest Dichter. Dichter deployed in-depth interviews with consumers in order to understand the symbolic meaning of goods and the deeper psychological needs they might serve. His Freudian approach not only introduced a thicker idea of human subjectivity into market research. It also worked to segment consumers less by social class or sex or age (though these categories were often still part of his consumer research), than by psychological disposition.

Dichter’s conception of the psychology of consumers was informed by his own highly positive view of consumer society. He saw the whole process of market research as therapeutic for the consumer and not only useful for the selling of goods. In fact, Dichter was driven by a wholly positive conception of the private pleasures of consumption and saw his work as contributing to the unblocking of feelings of guilt about consumption within the population that derived from the puritan culture of self-restraint. Dichter argued that the central aim of advertising was to give the customer the permission to ‘enjoy his life freely’ and ‘to demonstrate that he is right in surrounding himself with products that enrich his life and give him pleasure’ (Nixon, forthcoming).

This process of mobilizing the consumer, however, also involves other technologies – specifically, the technologies of print culture, poster, TV, cinema and on-line media to reach consumers. It is evident that these are historically specific and contingent means for entangling consumers – with their own histories and genres of representation and they seek to engage consumers and enter their worlds in different ways. What constitutes advertising as a particular kind of market device or assemblage of devices, then, will vary with the media technologies, bodies of expertise and styles of representation that are deployed. This set of market devices, however, is designed to both shape the ‘qualification’ of goods and to mobilise or entangle the consumer.

There is a final theme in Callon’s work which we can usefully draw on to understand the practices of advertising. This is the broad notion of ‘agencement’, a hybrid device combining human and non-human elements. This means that agency within the business of advertising – such as that pursued by Don Draper in the ‘creative pitch’ with Kodak – depends upon a set of material and technical supports. As Liz McFall has put it in describing the development and presentation of advertising ideas, the genesis of a campaign depends upon ‘materials, tools, equipment and organisational settings’. In Draper’s case, it is the office space of Stirling Cooper and the slide projector itself which enable him to realize the communication of his ideas. Draper’s brilliant pitch is not from this perspective, simply the product of a gifted individual, but reliant upon these technical elements.

And yet the assemblage of Draper and a set of technical devices should not blind us to the fact that who Draper is – his capacities and social formation – does matter. The subjective aspects of Draper are not sufficiently well caught by Callon’s approach. The minimalist conception of the human material upon which social processes work found in Callon’s ANT approach resists the possibility that there might be deeper subjective processes at work. And surely, as the fictional instance of Don Draper illustrates, subjective process and desires animate and inform social practice. Human beings project a set of feelings onto the objective world – including the world of goods – and these material objects in turn are set in a realm of human relationships with all their complex psychological dynamics. It is not that this focus on deeper subjective processes fully accounts for the work of cultural production which goes on in advertising or that we should reduce the study of advertising to the subjectivity of its key practitioners. Rather, it is about the articulation between subjectivity, the social trajectories and social formation of individuals and the socio-technical devices that we need to grasp – rather than seeking to privilege one conception or approach to advertising over another.

1. Callon, M. and F. Muniesa (2005) ‘Economic Markets as Calculative Collective Devices’ Organization Studies 26(8): 1229-1250.
2. Callon, M., C. Meadel & V. Rabeharisoa (2002) ‘The Economy of Qualities’ Economy and Society 31(2): 194-217.
3. Callon, M., Y. Millo & F. Muniesa (eds.) (2007) Market Devices, Oxford: Blackwell.
4. Miller, P. and N. Rose (1997) ‘Mobilising the Consumer’, Theory, Culture & Society 14(1): 1-36.
5. Nixon, S. (forthcoming) Hard Sell: Advertising, Affluence and Trans-Atlantic Relations circa 1951-69, Manchester: Manchester University Press.