January 01, 2011

Mohawk Airlines in Mad Men

In the Season 2 episode For Those Who Think Young of the AMC series Mad Men (airdate: 7/27/08), the fictional Sterling Cooper ad agency works on a campaign for Mohawk Airlines. Paul Kinsey pitches a new slogan to his boss Dan Draper:KINSEY:  "Mohawk Airlines. There's a new chief in the sky."

KINSEY:  And I thought, following that, "Most routes to Boston, circle the wagons, we've got it surrounded." And there'd be wagons around a dot that says "Boston."

DON [skeptically]:  I can almost picture it. Sal.

SAL:  This is the first I'm hearing it, too.

DON:  So it's about an airline that's flown by Indians? Maybe a plane with some arrows stuck in the cargo door? That's funny. That's what gets people's attention now, right?

DON:  There has to be advertising for people who don't have a sense of humor.

KINSEY:  I understand, Don.

DON:  What else you got?

KINSEY:  Several more Indian puns.

DON:  Stop writing for other writers.
A minute later, Don has an inspiration:DON:  That Indian....It's not about the majestic beauty of the Mohawk Nation.

DON:  It's about adventure. Could be a pirate. Could be a knight in shining armor. Could be a conquistador getting off the boat. It's about a fantastical people who are taking you someplace where you've never been. Blah, blah, blah, blah....

DALE:  We could dress the stew as Pocahontas.

SAL:  With the cheekbones.

PEGGY:  How's his wife going to feel about that?

FREDDY:  Air travel's too expensive to waste on your wife.
Comment:  As you may recall, Mad Men mentioned Indians a couple of times in its first season. In its second season, the mentions continue. I guess creator and writer Matthew Weiner is interested in the subject.

This sequence may approximate how so many Indians got on corporate logos and in ad campaigns. The ad men weren't overt racists; they were just oblivious to their blind spots. They thought it was "cute" to repeat the stereotypes they'd heard all their lives. They probably didn't think a single Indian was left alive to object.

Note how Dale returns to the ridiculous Indian theme even after Don has shot it down. Though of course Pocahontas has nothing to do with the Mohawks. This shows how much Native stereotypes have gripped our imagination.

Indians = adventure?

Though Don doesn't like the puns, his thinking isn't much better. He explicitly links Indians to pirates and knights--i.e., fantasy figures from the distant past. To him Indians suggest adventure. If you take a flight on Mohawk Airlines, who knows what may happen. Romance, intrigue, even arrows stuck in the cargo door.

I mention the arrows because Don's position is really no different than Kinsey's. Indians represent an escape from the drudgery of families and jobs--or more broadly, civilization. In other words, wildness and freedom. Adventure.

You could trace this kind of thinking back to Turner's Frontier Thesis--if not to the Boston Tea Party. Indians represent(ed) the uncivilized frontier. Americans traveled west to tame that wilderness for themselves. Don is proposing an echo of this: Mohawk (Airlines) as the illusion of adventure.

A little PC

A couple of Don's lines ring totally false. I don't think the typical adult knew about, or would bring up, the Mohawk Nation or conquistadors in 1962. These seem like examples of present-day political correctness to me.

I think the idea of calling tribes "nations" came into vogue much later--perhaps in the '70s or '80s. And I doubt Don would associate "majestic beauty" with an Indian reservation. The Mohawk reservation may be beautiful in some sense, but it's not "national park" beautiful.

The "conquistador" line just seems out of place to me. I think it's the writer's wink-wink way of saying, "We know Indians are real and bad things happened to them. We're not exploiting them or ignoring their plight."

For more on the subject, see Accuracy in Mad Men and Indians in Mad Men.


Anonymous said...

The earliest white reference to "nations" I can find is Blazing Saddles, which could've just as easily been a pun. (i.e., the Sioux nation, Sioux goyim, Mel Brooks is fond of Hebrew and Yiddish puns)

Michael Mack said...

"Mad Men" is one of my favorite all time tv programs because it illustrates where much of contemporary modern culture originated - salesmanship - whether the product is needed or not.

Although the world of "Mad Men" focuses on the process of addicting average people into thinking they need some thing, through the manipulation of sentiment and through appealing to American insecurities and egos, the equally forceful but subliminal products include political idealogies, racism, sexism, class distinctions, etc. all of which the "Mad Men", i.e. American culture, manipulates to best advantage.

Beyond the displays of material success and the "niceties" of materially successful people there is actually no truly positive morality whatsoever - this is what American culture has evolved itself into - a game of who can win at whatever cost, even to one's own character. Of course, the game is cloaked with sentiment, patriotism, "feel good" moments, etc.

What I appreciate about "Mad Men's" writers is that at times they frequently show that they "get" the game. In the most recent season when our "hero" Don announces his engagement to his secretary who he thinks he "loves", and receives a flurry of congratulations, afterward Joan and Peggy (the primary significant females of the show) regroup in Joan's office and and with a knowing smile Joan says " you know they're all just between wives..." and they both smile. Then Joan says she doesn't "look to this job for my fulfillment" Peggy responds in her proper school marm demeanor "Bull Shit", and then they both really laugh. Acknowledging they recognized they're both part of this game but at least they're aware of it, unlike most American consumers then or today. "Mad Men" reveals just how superficial American culture has become, or rather, how it has always been, just the window dressings have been updated.