Originally ran on Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation Blog

(SPOILER ALERT: If you’re still catching up with Mad Men and haven’t seen the series finale, don’t read this!)

The reactions to the Mad Men series finale make for interesting social commentary. Not just because more people seem to have impassioned things to say about a television show than major public issues, but because there are such strong and varied reactions to the story that unfolded — and specifically to the very last minute and 3 seconds devoted to a vintage Coca-Cola commercial.

From blogs to tweets, I’ve seen everything from “abomination” or “Best. Ending. Ever!,” at the most visceral level, to critique that borders on academic positing that the final scene was a “cynical statement” on the shallowness of the main character Don Draper and the inherent manipulation that lives in the field of advertising in America.

What I haven’t seen is an acknowledgement (and questioning) of the nature of what seems to be our only unifying public narrative in this country — a consumer/market-driven frame on the emotions and values that unite us as individuals and as a society.

Having grown up in the 70s and worked in the field of creative public narrative for nearly 30 years, I think there is a much deeper layer to the use of the “The Real Thing” Coke commercial than meets the eye.

First of all, anyone who sees that Coke commercial through a cynical lens needs to understand more about the 70s (in specific) and the work of “creatives” in shaping a public narrative (in general).

“I’d like to build the world a home…”
"70s" in retro style

The 1970s were not the same for all people, of course, but I feel confident in saying that some very distinct features heavily influenced those of us who were children at the time. America was reeling from the Vietnam War, reacting against an over-reliance on consumerism and new technology with a general sense that people were searching for more meaning, equity and compassion.

There was a call that came from the grassroots to aspire to higher values than war and profit. This aspiration touched our individual lives and was mirrored in mainstream culture. Whether it was a neighbor “mom” selling Prisoner-of-War bracelets to fund anti-war work while her son was missing, the “multi-cultural” community depicted on Sesame Street or the anti-pollution TV public service announcements, we were surrounded by the idea that things could be better for everyone — and that it was, indeed, a national goal.

Creating Public Narrative

Fingertips touching from God to AdamPublic narrative is a two-way street (actually, more like a crazy New Jersey traffic circle with people zipping in and out and only a simple, beautiful form at the center to keep some semblance of structure). Throughout the course of human history, “creatives” have been engaged to present stories and information in ways that are designed to encourage specific action.

Artists and other communicators respond to what people are thinking and saying in society and often make a connection that moves people to action. The job of creative storytelling — in whatever form — is to inform and inspire. But the action encouraged at a public scale is the domain of the prevailing social power and, in most cases, that is directly connected to economic power as well.

When the Catholic Church was the dominant social and economic power, “creatives” like Michelangelo told the story of the church, its values and the power of its ultimate leader (you know who). When imperial courts commissioned Mozart and his peers, their musical and operatic storytelling was expected to follow and reinforce the values held by the leaders — and by extension their “subjects.”

In the U.S., we have an intentional secular society, so our public narrative can’t center on a singular set of religious values. And we don’t have despotic emperors that control the story — or at least we’re not supposed to. What we are supposed to rely on for a barometer on our values is a central concept of a delicate balance between the voice of the people (democracy), and the “invisible hand” of the free market (economy).

Unfortunately for us, the bottom-line values of a free market are more tangible and seem to carry more social and economic power than the aspirational ones on the democracy side of the equation.

Of course, there are examples of democracy-run, values-based creative public narratives, such as the WPA posters of Federal Art Project during the 1930s in the U.S. (see our Posters for the People initiative for some gems) or newer “crowd-sourced” public art projects like Candy Chang’s “Before I Die.”

But for the most part, our nation’s creative public narrative has been dominated by the need of the free market to promote itself for survival.

The great irony here is that emotional, human-centered and value-driven storytelling is actually a more powerful way to turn hearts and minds than the fear or respect of the power itself — for the public and the storyteller.

So, creative work and advertising in America, in particular, has always been about promoting something much bigger than a product. There were plenty of times that the Don Draper character in Mad Men wove that fact into creative meetings for us to all understand that he was ultimately driven, like most of us, by a need for more meaning in the narrative.

Don Draper wants a better story himself. He strives to tell a better story and draws on his personal experience, which makes it more real. It’s a story that might just influence a higher narrative and one that will be sure to touch just about everybody in the society in which he lives.

That’s what drives good stories and inspiring narrative – whether it’s for a real-life product or an idea (or for entertainment). It transcends distinction.

[Note: Mad Men is a made-up story in itself, so the actual creative process wasn’t what we saw, but the idea behind it was still spurred by emotion and not focused on the product itself. Read the real back story of the Coke commercial and its creator Bill Backer here.]

Storytelling or Manipulation?

True to the typical critique of advertising, the roaring thread of comments about the Mad Menfinale decries a perceived “manipulation” of our emotions as human beings – which is parallel to the experience that Draper has in the last few seconds of the series’ end.

That’s a valuable but tired discussion at this point, in my opinion.

Rather than question why (or if) Don was manipulating his experience at the 1970’s ashram to subsequently sell Coca-Cola – or how valid the world-peace message of that commercial was at the time – it seems that the more probing question should be how our society can better foster the energy of “creatives” to tell stories about our values and inspire action that really matches what those values stand for.

Even better, how can we elevate the social and economic power of our democracy so we are all the “creatives” of our meaningful public narrative together? As long as we focus our attention on the consumer/market-driven culture, we’ll only hear about how life-changing Coke is.

There are much more “real things” to talk about.