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.