There is a lot of buzz pop cultural circles these days about the Sunday return of Mad Men, the wildly acclaimed but little watched (although it’s a cable hit, it would only be a minor hit on network TV) AMC drama about Madison Avenue-types in the 1960s. Mad Men has been off the air for some 17 months, so its return is a big deal to trendsetters and TV viewers, who have made all-things 1960s hot again.
My guess is that nobody is happier about the return of Mad Men then the tobacco industry.
If Mad Men meant only the return of skinny ties and form fitting suits, I’d be OK. I wear neither ties nor suits, especially of the form-fitting kind, and I’m indifferent to fashion and styles (if you could see what I’m wearing right now, you would know that at one glance). But smoking is an integral part of Mad Men. I only watched one season of it (does it make me even less cool that I found it fairly uninvolving?) but the one thing I remember from it was that all of the main characters acted through billowing clouds of cigarette smoke. (I question the program’s depiction of non-stop smoking by everyone. I grew up in the 1960s, when people smoked A LOT, but what I’ve seen of Mad Men shows everyone smoking all the time. It is so exaggerated, I suspect the show might be secretly underwritten by Phillip Morris.)
Nobody smokes more than Don Draper, the lead character played by Jon Hamm.
Hamm is pop culture’s current It Guy, dashingly handsome yet with a common touch, a small-screen version of George Clooney. Hamm as Draper is rarely depicted without a smoke in hand. The cover of Entertainment Weekly of March 16 features Draper/Hamm, a half-smoked cigarette resting between well-manicured fingers. Inside, there’s a picture of Hamm with a smoke in his mouth, looking exactly like a model from magazine cigarette ads from the past.
The media’s fixation on Mad Men, and Draper in particularly, has been a boon to the deservedly beleaguered tobacco industry. Banned from the workplace, kicked out of private homes (I’m always amazed when I see someone relegated to smoking outside of their own home), under attack from governments and lawyers with dollar signs in their eyes, these are not golden days for tobacco. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer product.
So the tobacco industry must be coughing gently to itself when a popular, even “iconic” (how I hate that word!) TV character is never seen without a smoke. You can’t buy that kind of advertising, an important consideration for an industry that quite literally can’t buy a lot of advertising anymore.
The movies have done more to popularize smoking than all of the efforts of the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel combines. Movie stars from the 1930s and 1940s smoked constantly. I’ve always suspected that old movies were actually filmed in colour, but only look black-and-white through all the smoke. Everybody smoked in the movies, and smoked a lot. Humphrey Bogart, perhaps the greatest star in movie history, smoked thousands of cigarettes through hundreds of movies. Perhaps no other actor contributed more to the notion that smoking was cool than Bogie. Bogart died a horrible death from cancer of the esophagus — no doubt brought about by smoking — at age 57, which didn’t make smoking any less cool because moviegoers never saw Bogart’s emaciated 80 lb. frame at the end of his life. Bogart would later be joined by heavy smokers/tough guys Gary Cooper and John Wayne as victims of lung cancer.
Over time, we’ve seen less and less smoking in movies and TV. Combined with a gradual and much needed change in public attitudes towards smoking, smoking is seen as cool only by the dimmest of teenagers, restaurant staff (ever watch an episode of Hell’s Kitchen?) and actors still trying to look hip. We’ve come a long way, baby, if I may steal from a notorious smoking ad campaign.
Mad Men won’t singlehandedly undo all the good that has been done, of course. But making the coolest, manliest man on TV into a chain smoker is a gift for the tobacco giants. Since Mad Men is directed at adults who have already either made their choice to smoke or not to smoke, I would think it won’t convert too many people to the dark side. But when super cool character Don Draper, played by even cooler Jon Hamm, is pictured on the cover of Entertainment Weekly cigarette in hand, it can’t be anything but good for tobacco.