Last week on Mad Men‘s midseason finale, Peggy Olson got her chance to shine in a pitch that rivaled Don’s Season 1 carousel spiel: a moment when advertising seems to transcend marketing and become poetry, if we assume that marketing invents human need and poetry answers it.
Our perception of the transcendence of these moments depends heavily on staging both within and external to the fictional universe. Within: Peggy’s decision to embrace her feminine “voice of moms” role rather than mimic menswear or copy Don’s presentation, and her decision to draw on the twin feelings of longing and belonging inspired by the moon landing. External: the narrative and sound and light cues prompt us to perceive Peggy’s presentation as a moment of clarity. The production of Peggy’s Burger Chef pitch led to a very satisfying television viewing experience: we got to see Peggy succeed and some of her internal conflict resolved; we got to participate in the feelings of awe and unity and melancholy that lingered in these characters after the moon landing; and we got to end this year’s installment of the final season on an optimistic note. But what do we make of the fact that this high note is built on a romantic vision of a fast-food chain?
I certainly can’t tell a better story than the one we saw last night. I don’t know what was more miraculous–the technological achievement that put our species in a new perspective or the fact that all of us were doing the same thing at the same time. Sitting in this room we can still feel the pleasure of that connection. . . because I realize now, we were starved for it. We really were. And yes, we’ll feel it again when they all return safely. And yes, the world will never be the same in some ways. But tonight, I’m going back to New York, and I’ll go back to my apartment and find a ten-year-old boy parked in front of my TV eating dinner. Now, I don’t need to charge you for a research report that tells you that most television sets are not more than six feet away from the dinner table. And that dinner table is your battle field and your prize. This is the home your customers really live in. This is your dinner table. Dad likes Sinatra, son likes The Rolling Stones. The TV’s always on, Vietnam playing in the background, the news wins every night. And you’re starving. And not just for dinner. What if there was another table where everyone geets what they want when they want it? It’s bright and clean, and there’s no laundry, no telephone, and no TV. And we can have the connection that we’re hungry for. There may be chaos at home, but there’s family supper at Burger Chef.
Her audience is moved–nearly to tears, in the case of one exec. “That was beautiful,” he tells her, and she goes on to reveal that their proposed TV spot for Burger Chef’s new national campaign heavily features the family table.
Of course, “Family Supper at Burger Chef” isn’t the tagline from real-life Burger Chef promotion. When their national advertising campaign began around 1970, they used a couple of different taglines: “Burger Chef goes all out to please your family,” with a subtle play (“all out”) on the idea that the family table can be located outside of the home, and “There’s more to like at Burger Chef,” emphasizing the individual choice that would later become a staple of fast food advertising (“have it your way,” “I’m lovin’ it,” etc.). Mad Men‘s fictional pitch sort of fuses those two ideas together to advance Peggy’s story line and, presumably, reflect back on our own culture today. An interesting choice, considering that fast food chains today are cast as the supervillain in nearly every direction that food discourse can take: fast food is the lowbrow to artisanal food’s highbrow, the poor labor model to DIY and craft food’s elective labor model, and–most relevantly here–the shortcut that takes kids and parents away from the family table. The dinner table is our battle field and our prize: the family supper is still principal in contemporary debates about nutrition and bodily health as well as mental, social, and cultural health. To contemporary critics, fast food represents the indulgence of having what we want when we want it and the isolation of having it alone: a recipe for social ills.
But in the last couple of episodes of Mad Men, fast food represents the impossible goal of having both independence and harmony. Burger Chef is a clean, well-lighted place where families can be themselves together, where the self-selected family of Don, Pete, and Peggy share a moment of companionable peace during their respective journeys.
To belong, to have loving social bonds, yet to be free to act on your personal desires–arguably the master plot of all plots in contemporary American literature. Mad Men left us feeling like we had a plot resolution. But it’s Mad Men, so I highly doubt we’ll be allowed to keep feeling good about the work these characters did and the personal conflicts they each overcame to secure this account. Since the show itself put so much work into the account–from the production value of Peggy’s pitch to the intensive reconstruction of an actual vintage Burger Chef, pictured above–I’m very curious to see how this romantic vision of the family meal plays into the show’s denouement. The pitch summoned so many of the ideas that make food studies interesting and relevant to me–the social bonding of eating together, the way an appetite for food mirrors the hunger for social belonging, the way that every meal can be an arena for personal versus cultural desire–so while I’d like to believe that the show peeled back the wrapper and showed us the real bones of the plot for once (which seems to be the general consensus of the online recaps I’ve read), I already anticipate disillusionment.
Side note, for Parks and Rec fans: you may enjoy this Burger Chef newspaper ad from 1970. Triple Treat Yo Self!