Spoiler Alert for the last episode of Mad Men: “Person to Person.” An audio version of “The Real Ending to Mad Men” can be found here:
So ends eight years of Mad Men: with an iconic Coca Cola commercial, that Don either did or did not create after meditating, as described by Katey Rich of Vanity Fair:
The cut to the famous Coke commercial doesn’t have to mean that Don is responsible for it— it works just as well as a wry comment on the way that genuine spiritual moments, like the one Don seems to be having, can be co-opted as a way to sell syrupy drinks to the masses. (“What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.”) It’s Matthew Weiner’s version of that famous Sopranos finale, and honestly, the one we thought we’d get all along. Even as most of our characters were handed satisfying, largely happy endings, Don’s fate is vague, because no human life just wraps up as the denouement of a neat narrative arc. Either Don goes back to McCann to sell Coke, or he spends the rest of his life in that yoga retreat while someone else profits off Coke, or he does something else entirely.*
These are reasonable outcomes. But the famous Coca Cola ad never appeared in 1971 for one simple reason. It didn’t exist until it was created for the last episode of Mad Men. That’s right. It did not exist in 1971, in spite of what our deceitful memories tell us. However, when it appeared on May 17, 2015 something rather miraculous happened. The fictional ad created a disturbance in the cosmic ether. Worlds collided. Time went out of joint. And we have since been living in an alternate universe. The ad is now no longer part of a fictional world. It has become part of our collective past. But we believe a myth: that it was actually first shown in 1971.
What we have here is the ultimate, most awesome, advertising achievement. The world has been remade in the wake of a fictional ad, which created not only a false memory of an ad. No. Something much more startling occurred. History changed. We now live in a different world than we did a week or so ago.
Yes, I know, this does sound strange, even a bit bizarre, but hear me out. This is important. The real is not what it seems. The fact is that our realities can switch when there is a significant disturbance in the cosmic ether. I speak the truth here, one well known to physicists, but they take an oath not to reveal it to those outside of the community of initiates, much the way the Pythagoreans took an oath not to reveal the existence of irrational numbers. (If you don’t believe me, confront a physicist the next time you see one. He or she will squirm, I guarantee it.) Of course you may say that the ad was only seen by those watching the final episode, but this is to fail to recognize the extent to which Americans have been linked in a collective neural net since at least the 1960’s. The Matrix attempted to warn us in its own techie way about how our individual realities could switch at the drop of a circuit. It didn’t go far enough. What needed to be to shown is how a culture’s collective memories can be erased and transformed, with a properly charmed chime and an ad. The chime, Don’s smile, and the ad—they were the catalysts for the switch this time around.
Our hyper-capitalist Coca Cola world, the one in which Reagan was president, was created just moments after Don’s group leader spoke these Reaganesque words of compelling optimism:
“The new day brings new hope. For the lives we’ve led, the lives we get to leave. A new day, new ideas. A new you.”
A bell then chimes, Don smiles, and we see a Coke commercial about the real thing. However, until that bell chimed and the ad appeared, moving us from one world into another–as poor Douglas Quaid experienced in Total Recall–our world was actually quite different. This other world, the one that existed before the fictional ad, is one in which the counterculture was not co-opted by Coca Cola ads or any other kind of ads. In this world peace and love are on America’s collective front burner and vulture capitalism did not come to dominate American life.
Although I shouldn’t be telling you details about this other world—there are time-line issues involving space/time, and powerful forces at work here that wish to hide, at all costs, what has happened—it’s hard to resist. Here are just a few. Until a week ago the president of the United States in the 1980’s was the former actor Paul Newmann. Not only did he help institute national health insurance. Gay marriage and legalized pot also happened back in the ’80’s. And Sadaam Hussein? He was convinced to change his ways when offered a substantial number of shares in two American companies, Apple and Microsoft. (Say what you will about Sadaam, he sure could play the Market.)
And if you want to know more about the kind of world that the commercial represents, our world since May 17, 2015, consider its first words, sung by an adorably pig-tailed white girl, and I mean seriously white: the whole fairy tale, blond, blued-eyed business.
“I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love.”
Notice that the song doesn’t say, I’d like to give the world a home. No, the singer wants to buy the world a home, and then furnish it with love, both items presumably requiring significant outlays of capital. This sensibility, the craving to buy homes and things and see them as most real, was generated and reinforced by a commercial that wasn’t there, until it was, with its promise of buying and selling our way to bliss. “I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love.”
In the other universe, no bell chimed, Don didn’t smile, and the commercial never happened. Trust me, I remember this other world. It’s a gift. But now, the smile and commercial have occurred. We are stuck in a world ruled by the bottom line. Until, perhaps, we get lucky, and another bell chimes, and the iconic commercial that was, disappears. And we shed no tears for its loss, because we won’t remember the real thing.
* Given Mathew Weiner’s feelings about the commercial, and that he had told Jon Hamm a long time ago that he planned to use it—as well as other hints: Peggy tries to get Don to return to NYC from CA by asking him on the phone, “don’t you want to work on Coke?”—it is probably safe to assume that Don goes back to NYC and creates the ad. It’s worth noting that Weiner appears to be in la la land about advertising and America of the period he has written on, which was revealed numerous times in the caricatures of the 1960’s counterculture in the series. Here are his words. (Bear in mind that the man was around six year old when the ad appeared in 1971.)
“I did hear rumblings of people talking about the ad being corny. It’s a little bit disturbing to me, that cynicism. I’m not saying advertising’s not corny, but I’m saying that the people who find that ad corny, they’re probably experiencing a lot of life that way, and they’re missing out on something. Five years before that, black people and white people couldn’t even be in an ad together! And the idea that someone in an enlightened state might have created something that’s very pure — yeah, there’s soda in there with a good feeling, but that ad to me is the best ad ever made, and it comes from a very good place. … That ad in particular is so much of its time, so beautiful and, I don’t think, as — I don’t know what the word is — villainous as the snark of today.”
Oh, I should mention that the me in this universe didn’t find the ad corny. I found it exceedingly manipulative, using values people struggled for in order to sell flavored sugar water, even it if it’s the real thing.