Playboy, Magazine Ads & the Original Mad Man

By George Lois Photography by Justin Page

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Playboy, Magazine Ads & the Original Mad Man:

Marshall McLuhan famously said, “Historians and archeologists will one day discover that the ads of our time are the richest and most faithful daily reflections any society ever made of its entire range of activities.” Certainly the advertising that has run in Playboy says volumes about America over the past six decades, capturing and recycling the zeitgeist of the pervading video-age culture.

In agreement with McLuhan’s prediction, I decided to look at the ads that have run in Playboy with a historian’s eye (and a wise guy’s attitude). Conceptually, Playboy’s raison d’être has always been to empower men and glorify the sexuality and allure of the female body—which some may now regard as chauvinistic. That perception of men’s attitude toward women has, alas, been reflected in much of the advertising in the magazine.

In 1960 (the inception of the blatant Mad Men brand of male chauvinism), I created an ad for a cold medicine that shows a darkened bedroom and a husband who demonstrates the prevailing cultural attitude of the time when he grouchily orders his wife to “get up and give [their coughing kid] some Coldene.” Americans were shocked at this sarcastic depiction and critique of our male-dominated culture. The company received hundreds of letters from thankful women (and sold a ton of Coldene). My wife kvelled.

Read my following comments on some of the ads that have appeared in Playboy. They abound in macho male imagery and body language, seemingly created to appeal to the lowest common denominator. But the admen are wrong. To me most of the writing in Playboy has been aimed not at Neanderthals but at the sharp, sophisticated, thinking men of America. So, ad agencies and advertisers, if you think people, including the readers of Playboy, are dumb, you’ll spend a lifetime doing dumb work. I think people (including men) are absolutely brilliant when it comes to advertising. They’ll always respond to a strong central concept or image, especially if it’s presented in a warm, human way. Mad men of America, take my advice.

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