The Story Economy Blog

My Parents and Don Draper

My mom’s back is bothering her. She is 77, and she rarely complains. So for her to say something, it’s pretty real. She’s even Mad Men (Season 5)starting to walk all hunched over. “Mom, go to the doctor,” my sisters and I keep telling her.

I will wait until my allotted time in May, when I have a scheduled appointment, she says. “You don’t understand. It’s whole a system. They don’t want to make time for stuff like this,” she says.

To which we say: what are you talking about, crazy lady?

“Listen, they don’t really care about us. No one really care about seniors,” she says. “We old people are just in the way.”

Obviously my siblings and I care tremendously about our parents. But I hear her. Now, I don’t think she’s quite right. There are companies and individuals who very much value her generation. In fact, I think there are people out there right now who are on a mission to make life better for older adults (I know some of them personally).

But systemically or institutionally (or whatever catch-all word you like), she is sort of right. At least about America. From a generational standpoint, we’re onto other things. We’re innovating for a different group of people. It’s not a generation that the generations now running things understand how to connect with—other than to feel sorry for (“oh, you’re old; wow, that sucks”) or to wish they would stop driving so slowly.

As a daughter, this breaks my heart. But as a marketer, it really makes me wonder: why, exactly, are we so in love with Mad Men then?

We Want Them to be Who We Want Them to Be

Mad Men is a show about my parents’ generation. And if the most captivating characters, like Don Draper or Joan Harris, were real people alive today, they would be in their late 70s and early 80s: my parents’ exact demographic. They’d be enmeshed in the Medicare system, going to allotted doctor’s appointments, where they would be given their 6.2 minutes to barely talk.

They would feel like they were in the way.

Listen, I love Mad Men in a big, big way. I love it for the set design, the lighting, the clothes, and the perspective it gives me of how necessary the civil rights and women’s movements were.

But it does make me wonder: why we are so taken with this snapshot of life for a generation, yet we’ve lost interest in the reality of how they are now? Why do we crave the stories of these fictionalized lives, not the stories of the real people alive today?

I don’t know exactly why, but I suspect it has to do with romanticizing an idea. Listen, I’ve built my business around romanticizing ideas. Painting pictures is what I do. So I get it. But the danger is . . . well, let’s just let Don Draper say it, as he does so well in one of his most famous quotes:

¬†“People tell you who they are, but we ignore it because we want them to be who we want them to be.”

I would extend that sentiment beyond just people (or generations), and also to situations.

For me, it’s like this: the ability to see something how I want it to be is surely my best quality. As I said, I paint pictures—not just for clients, but also for myself. I’ve been doing it my whole life. It’s what my husband loves about me most, and the reason people hire me. I see the ideal, and it’s enough to drive the demons away. I see potential for myself and for others, and I wrap it all up into motivation.

It’s why I’ve been at storytelling for like 30-some years, and I’m nowhere near tired of it. It’s why I hardly ever get writer’s block.

But it’s my biggest weakness, too. Because when people and situations let me down, the demons come calling for me. How could I have been so wrong, I wonder? I do things like beat the shit out of myself running intervals on the track, slicing into the wind with my open runner’s fists, hissing with each breath: Why is this not the way I saw that it could be?

But . . . the good news is that in the past few years, I’ve started to get much better at seeing the whole continuum: that is, the line that stretches from romance to reality. Which is exactly why I see the romance of Mad Men contrasted against the reality, 50 years later.

Just so I’m clear: There is nothing wrong with getting lost in the world of Mad Men. Or any snapshot. It’s entertainment. We’re allowed to be entertained. But that romance/reality continuum: I know this plagues individuals and it plagues companies.

What I understand now is that the best leaders are able to put themselves at exactly the right place on the continuum, depending on what people need. Because often, we need someone to show us the vision, either of how it was, or what it could be. We need that snapshot.

But just as often, we need solutions for the thing in front of our face. We need to care about the reality of now.

As for my mom, we’re going to make sure she gets what she needs. We’ve got her back because we love her, even if some doctor’s office only sees her as a chart.

But you don’t need any connection to my mom or Mad Men to get this: you just need turn your head all the way, full range of motion, from one side to the other—and know when it’s time to pluck out the romance.


  • Polly Giblin

    Posted by Polly Giblin on 03/13/13 4:11pm

    Your line about "the line that stretches from romance to reality" felt like a path I could actually see, feel and touch. It perfectly captures a dilemma we all face on a regular basis. Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

    • Judi Ketteler

      Posted by Judi Ketteler on 03/13/13 4:18pm

      Polly, thanks for your comment! Even as I write about the dilemma, I am dealing with it.

      -- Judi

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