Monday, 10 January 2011

Review: From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor

(From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor by Jerry Della Femina, edited by Charles Sopkin 1970, republished with new introduction by author 2010)

Mad Men is one of the best programmes on television today.  Given the competition, that isn't very high praise.  The production values of the show are meticulous, the acting is first rate, and the direction tolerably restrained.  Where it falls down, as in most cases today is in the writing.  It's not bad, but it isn't good.  As character studies, the episodes work vary well.  It's pity that they are nearly devoid of plot because I often end up   watching the credits and wondering what the point of any of that was.  However, one of the lucky by products of the show's success is a renewed interest in the 1960s that doesn't revolve around the vastly over-represented Counter Culture and the rediscovery of books like From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor

It's interesting that this is marketed as "One of the key texts for Mad Men", given that the series is set in the early '60s and Della Femina's book was published in 1970.  Having started in the New York advertising industry at the age of 16, he has a lot of anecdotes and information about the people and the nature of the top tier of advertising in the mid 20th century.  At the time, it seemed tremendously shocking with his stories of frustrated ad men trying to throw their desks out of windows, others who stabbed their telephones to death, and working practices that had a weird mix of straitlaced and chaotic like dressing a chimpanzee in a  grey flannel suit.  The current edition is even more shocking as in the new introduction he recounts the sexual Olympics at his firm that the publisher (and his colleagues) clearly wouldn't let him allude to at the time.  One wonders what else was left out if that sordid little gem was passed over.

From Those Woderful Folk isn't a very straight forward book.  It's more a string of anecdotes and observations grouped around various topics such as how agencies sell themselves to clients, how newer (from the '6os perspective) firms compare to the older, more (for want of a better word) conservative ones, and just how insane the creative departments can be.  Added to this is the recurrent theme of how advertising at that time was undergoing a massive sea change as it went from a text and art format that depended heavily on argument as well as persuasion to one of photography and simple slogans (if even that) intended to persuade though evoking an emotional response.  Despite an over forty year gap since publication, From Those Woderful Folk has aged well and is an excellent introduction to the time when Madison Avenue was so much a part of popular culture and not just the backdrop for a prime time soap opera.

If it serves no other purpose, From Those Woderful Folk dispels any illusion that the Mad Men were any more mainstream to American society than the Counter Culture horrors that supplanted them.

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