On the Psychology of Madison Avenue

In Adam Curtis’s “EXPERIMENTS IN THE LABORATORY OF CONSUMERISM 1959-67”, we are given a brief account of the two warring camps on Madison Avenue and the individuals pivotal to this era in mass market consumerism. Particularly, we are given some of the major figureheads which some Mad Men characters are based on. For instance, one warring camp called the “USP” or “unique selling point” had the perspective that an advertisement should have one particular trait that “penetrated” the masses and created a sense of brand loyalty. By doing so, this product would, according to this philosophy, stand out the most. This was an idea enumerated by Rosser Reever who coined the term “It’s toasted” for Lucky Strike and serves as inspiration for Donald Draper. On the other hand, there is an account of the “Motivational Research” which was rooted in psychology. One such example was the “empathy” technique which elicited feelings of connection with the consumer and the product. This field was particularly influenced by the post Viennese generation of Freudians who came to the USA. One, Dr. Herzog, stands as the most important, and she was later parodied by the doctor in the first episode. Then there comes the inspiration for Peggy Olsen which was based off a girl a young and rising copy writer who wrote numerous ads for women’s products. Finally there is a brief discussion of Bill Bernach and his brand of “anti-advertising” which was a satire of the consumerism at the time and strove to link public mistrust with advertisements. For example, the “lemon” Volkswagen Beetle that Don does not like uses this technique. It employs the distaste of a used car and reverses the expectations of the consumer as it captures their attention.

I knew of Curtis’s research on consumerism after I watched his documentary called A Century of the Self which outlined the various psychological theories in the advertising world after Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, started to work and incorporate his Uncle’s ideas of the unconscious and animalistic drives into mass media. Though the article contains a wealth of information and useful images of products to further explicate the point of this past history, it does sometime lose its focus within the thesis on the Madison Avenue individuals. Throughout the article, one notices that the author sometimes loses his focus as he tries to bring in more and more people to talk about. One notices that there are references to modern TV shows and other advertisement agencies which have no correlation to Madison Avenue. For some reason, the author chose to even reference an actor who plays a role in the TV vampire drama, Buffy the Vampire Slayer because he uses the phrase “ka-ching” in a television ad. In this case, it is evident that Curtis brings superfluous evidence to this article.

Still, the article is strong as it stands as a useful foundation for new viewers of this show. One is able to understand and appreciate the parallels that Matthew Wiener incorporated within this drama. Moreover, understanding the subtle psychological and selling techniques that maybe lost to a new viewer provides for a deeper and richer experience.

Sources referenced: "EXPERIMENTS IN THE LABORATORY OF CONSUMERISM 1959-67." Web log post. The Medium and the Message. Ed. Adam Curtis. BBC, 20 Aug. 2010. Web. 12 Feb. 2011.


  1. he psychology behind the selling of products, ads and consumerism is not only fascinating during the 1960s, but is relevant to today's world as well. It constantly draws me to question why I want a product, if I need it, or if I am just in some way attached to the ad. Furthermore, it is interesting to consider the way products are sold by Draper and other ad men and how is compares to their lives. To the viewer of the show, the happy go lucky ads they produce are ironic compared to the lives they are actually living out. There is a clear disconnect or lack of 'empathy' between the character's lives and the lives they are selling. For example, Don Draper professes to love Betty and other mistresses but asserts that 'love' was only created to 'sell nylons.' Don cannot empathize with the concept of love that he sells to millions of people. It is interesting to consider how the information in your blog post (ie the ways of creating ads and selling products) can be created by 'Mad Men' who cannot find the emotions they sell in their own lives.

  2. When I first read this blog post I found Adam Curtis's article to be very revealing of how the psychology of selling advertisements affects us. This blog recalls the many moments in which the Mad Men characters incorporate the various psychological elements of selling a product into reality with their work. This blog made me thin of how having a "unique selling point" and creation of "empathy" in selling a product were used to market Mad Men to us as consumers of the show. An entire show about the Madison Avenue men of the 1960's is a unique idea and a feeling of nostalgia for this period is created through the way this time period is show to us.