It’s Sunday night. I’m channel surfing while waiting for “Mad Men” to begin. Here’s some of what I see: A man in a straitjacket, followed by several bloody images in quick succession. A voice intones, “You’ve carried out a number of murders.” It’s an ad for a TV show.
On another channel, a character in a show inspired by fairy tales announces to a woman, “I killed Rumpelstiltskin. I’m sated.” Her response: “I wish I could have been there, to see you stab the dark one.”
I see an ad for a car, in which a kid wishes to avenge his father’s death; an ad for a chain of sandwich shops featuring scenes from the movie “Iron Man” (“System failure, sir. The armor has sustained damage”); and an ad for weed killer where a homeowner “takes matters into his own hands” by suiting up, crouching, and spraying the weeds with what is clearly an imaginary hail of bullets.
Over to “Mad Men,” where it is the spring of 1968, and the characters in the show’s fictional ad agency have been debating whether it’s shocking to run a ketchup ad that doesn’t show a bottle of ketchup. What I am wondering, sitting in my living room in the spring of 2013 less than a month after the Boston Marathon bombing attacks and the defeat of the gun bill in Congress, is why so many advertisers today think that in order to sell products it is necessary or desirable to show people punched, bludgeoned, kicked, shot, stabbed, held hostage, strangled, blown up, bloodied, and dead? Apparently, we’ve gone beyond the action-movie truism of “mayhem sells” to the truly shocking belief that mayhem is an effective strategy for selling anything and everything.
“Mad Men” is a show preoccupied with the desires and fantasies of midcentury American consumers. It’s interesting to see what the ads running alongside the show reveal about Americans right now. During the last two episodes of “Mad Men,” I’ve seen ads that sell cars by showing multiple explosions and robots beating people up; ads that sell satellite dishes by showing men arguing while one brandishes a baseball bat over another’s head; and an ad in which Alec Baldwin carries a smartphone which, with the push of a button, delivers a bloody neck wound to one man and electrocutes another. In this last case, the product being peddled is a credit card.
I can already hear the naysayers. “Lighten up, this stuff is meaningless, it’s entertainment, it’s fantasy.” But of all the fantasies we could have as a culture, why this one? Does it really take carnage to persuade us to switch from one credit card to another? Do we need a pair of thug robots to interest us in a new sedan?
One of the reasons “Mad Men” succeeds is that it lets us feel superior to our old selves — America as it was 45 years ago. The characters are oblivious to the health hazards of alcohol and cigarettes, heedless and ignorant about racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and homophobia. We get to feel smug about how stupid and naive everybody was back then. It’s easy to identify self-delusion when it’s 45 years old.
So imagine this: In the year 2058 there will be an entertainment drama of some kind, set in 2013. Someone on the show will mention that 30,000 people a year die by gun violence. In the background of some trivial scene — a character preparing dinner, two lovers bickering — a TV will be on, running a 2013 newscast about the failure of the gun bill in the Senate. A couple of characters will be at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. We’ll keep seeing characters watching violent films and playing violent video games. We’ll see characters sitting in a living room watching that quaint old show “Mad Men” and its exploding, zapping, crashing, cadaver-strewn string of commercials, and we’ll say, “Those poor dummies — they really didn’t get it.”
The point of “Mad Men” isn’t that Americans were exceptionally clueless in the 1960s. The point is that we’re all clueless in our own time, that our follies and hypocrisies and blind spots become visible only with hindsight. What will we look like in retrospect, half a century from now — we who are so titillated by and callous about violent fantasy, and so shocked when someone in our gun-and-bomb-as-casual-entertainment culture actually picks up a gun or a bomb?
Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her latest book is “The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story.’’