Adman vs. The Beatles: Who Drove ’60s Culture?


The world is in mourning that Mad Men won’t return this summer, so to fill that hole in your heart, we bring you a look at some of the great advertising advancements in the 1960s, as seen in the evolution of the definitive band of the decade, The Beatles. The Beatles encompassed both mass culture and counterculture, two concepts admen of the era tried to bring together to revolutionize how they sold everything from Pepsi to Virginia Slims to Nehru jackets. But did you ever wonder who was leading the charge: the admen or The Beatles?

In large part the advertising advances examined here are case studies in The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism by Thomas Frank — recommended reading for those hoping for spoilers about what happens when Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce finally trips into 1966 as well as those missing the insider’s look Mad Men offers into the culture of admen in that decade.

Overthrow the establishment with your zany sense of humor

The explosion of youth culture in the Baby Boom generation had a massive impact on the worlds of advertising and music. These new cultures, in turn, began to predict each other. Doyle Dane Bernbach Agency (DDB) changed the game 1961, taking on Volkswagen when their post-WWII associations with Hitler were still strong and turning the brand into a symbol of everything that was wrong with the American auto industry with only one word in the famous “Lemon” ad. Firms like DDB were not only challenging the accepted standards in advertising, but challenging the accepted culture among admen. Prior to the revolution, the scientists and pollsters who developed empirical research evidence at ad agencies were the guiding force behind campaigns, all of which were still swinging at the whims of clients. DDB insisted that the creatives, the art directors and copywriters, should be treated with reverence and that the client was almost always wrong.

And in Beatles-land in 1961 there was also a whole lot of Germany going on — the boys were in the midst of their all-leather phase, playing months of shows in Hamburg, meeting Brian Epstein, and not yet in possession of their famous Beatles haircuts or a record deal. They were just trying to be, not yet ready to be leaders. The world at large wouldn’t get a glimpse of that irreverent Beatles sense of humor for a few more years.

Advantage: Admen

Stun and outrage

Anyone familiar with the history of legendary art director George Lois, from his work showing that a chimp could Xerox to his unorthodox and artistic Esquire covers to “I Want My MTV!” could easily accept that his philosophy was that advertising should momentarily stun the consumer. He, like many leading the creative revolution, dealt in ads that were offensive, outrageous, and nonconformist. And taking that tack resonated with the ever-more-sophisticated post-1950s consumer, who was growing suspicious of the admen who made up words and ingredients as pitch angles for everything from aspirin to cars. The entire ad industry shifted to the idea of presenting people who were jaded by the consumerism-as-happiness culture of the ’50s with the idea that they could buy individuality — that nonconformism in advertising equaled a complete nonconformist lifestyle you could purchase for everyone to see. This forced shock in advertising equated to purchasable hipness on sale from your favorite corporations.

Around the time advertising started to really push our buttons, so did The Beatles. They spent 1962 losing Stu and Pete but gaining haircuts, Ringo, George Martin, and a contract with EMI. They recorded their first album of largely teenybopper songs in the style of the Everly Brothers early in 1963 and went on to explode into pop culture when they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show early in 1964. There was nothing nonconformist about them, and the only thing remotely shocking was that their hair was styled to lay over the collars of their shirts. Epstein had them in matching suits with skinny ties and on strict instructions not to swear or smoke on stage. They were wearing the “good” boy band image Epstein crafted for them, although the cracks were beginning to show when Lennon made his historic jab at the Royal Command Performance, “Will the people in the cheaper seats clap their hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.” It would seem “Money (That’s What I Want)” was more apropos for the time than it gets credit for.

Advantage: Admen

Think young

The rogue element taking over the advertising industry were able to act like bad boys, getting away from schmoozing with clients over lunchtime martinis and resigning accounts over creative differences because clients were going to their same-old firms and saying, “I want a DDB ad.” Why, exactly, was everyone so keen to embrace this revolution and start marketing to young people? Their sheer numbers. Youth culture took over in the 1960s because half of the population was under 25 and accounted for $25 billion in discretionary spending dollars. That proliferation of young people in culture, as trendsetters and tastemakers, inspired an overall shift in the American mindset. Even people over 25 wanted to feel youthful, to “think young” as the Pepsi slogan would tell them. What Frank points out in The Conquest of Cool is this interesting anomaly in advertising’s outreach to youth culture: it extends almost exclusively to the counterculture. There is little embrace of the crew cuts/Susie Homemakers of the decade. Frank postulates that admen wanted to co-opt symbols of counterculture because they associated it with creativity. Everyone under 25 wasn’t a hipster or a hippie before 1966, but for the last half of the decade it was hard to find anyone young who didn’t dress like they were headed to a revolution. It’s also worth noting that Frank mentions how often admen in the early ’60s would verify their own youth/”think young” capabilities by claiming to have been Beatles fans from the start.

From 1964-1966 The Beatles were perfectly in step with the culture at large — not ahead and not behind. After their 1964 Ed Sullivan appearance they catapulted into popularity, supported by mobs of screaming girls. The fanned the flames of their own unsophisticated pop image with singles like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You,” very much aimed at the teenybopper audience. They easily tapped into a zeitgeist but didn’t venture into the musical underground until they got a guided tour from Bob Dylan, who they famously met in 1965. Whatever happened at that meeting led to an evolution in The Beatles’ songwriting, if not so much in their lyrical topics, on Rubber Soul. By the time Revolver came out in 1966, it was obvious (especially on “Tomorrow Never Knows”) that The Beatles were ready to start treating counterculture as mass culture in the way they created music.

Advantage: Draw

Psychedelics, man

1967: The year everyone admitted they’d tried LSD and every advertisement got a rainbow makeover. Clairol cosmetics launched a line of “3 psychedelicious beiges,” Top Job kitchen cleaner had a woman roll around on a kitchen floor to show how clean it was, and Gordon’s gin aligned itself with the Liverpool Sound. Creativity in ads was becoming conformity. Put a miniskirt on it, call it young, and then call it a day. Everyone was copying everyone else’s nods at nonconformity and managing to conform to the same template. As consumer culture caught up with the images of counterculture that advertising had been feeding it throughout the decade, ad culture seemed to reach the outer limits of which shocking ideas their clients were willing to explore.

Art, movies, and music moved to the forefront of counterculture and embraced the concept of the antihero in a big way. From Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate and Lucas Jackson in Cool Hand Luke to the emergence of Jim Morrison and The Doors to the art-rock of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, we were swimming in unconventional idols. That’s when The Beatles dropped Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the world, causing Brian Wilson to have a breakdown and The Rolling Stones to attempt to recreate the weird chemistry on Their Satanic Majesties Request. The latter went back to what they did best — being a great bar-blues band — but The Beatles had broken through as studio wizards able to pull disparate elements together into a concept album. If anyone was breaking all the rules in 1967, while still delighting the masses, it was The Beatles.

Advantage: Beatles

The Peacock Revolution

Another industry that underwent a major change in the 1960s was menswear. Admen weren’t called “the man in the gray flannel suit” for no reason — every industry had a suited uniform for men. It was simple and, judging by the costuming on Mad Men, elegant. Mod culture, popularized in the early ‘60s, made it okay for men to not only buy expensive, tailored clothes but encouraged an indulgence in fashion. For many years, men’s clothiers could order the same basics season after season, with only slight modifications, and expect them to sell. The industry was surprised in 1967 when it continued promoting mod styles and sales stalled because the look was obsolete. By 1968, the “in” thing was the Nehru jacket, glass beads, and silk scarves. Menswear was becoming more relaxed and beginning to keep up with the quick turnover of styles in women’s fashion — causing massive profit margins for some sectors, especially the small boutiques who carried only the hippest new items.

How did this impact The Beatles? The general public had basically decided, by 1968, that they wanted to dress like rock stars (thinking young!). We’ll just let the above image of John Lennon’s style evolution from 1966 to 1970 speak for itself.

Advantage: Beatles

“I didn’t realize we were in the company of a lady”

You know what advertising and music were both late to? Women’s liberation. As early as the late ’50s some advertisers caught on to the idea that women were the brains behind most major household purchases, but it took a fair number of them until the ’90s to work that out. In the ’60s, however, most creative admen and rockstars were men. They acted creatively from their distinctly male point of view. As such, the ’60s are full of sexist feminine stereotypes in advertising and semi-crappy songs about waiting, pleasing, or otherwise lighting fires. Advertising tried to align itself with the feminist uprising that swept the nation in 1969, but that only produced a lot of “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby”-isms. According to Frank, the ad world saw feminism as a shift from the understated female consumer of the ’50s, who was ashamed to use rouge and hair dye, into a woman who was free to look like a “lady or a tramp” and thus free to consume more, because she had more options.

As for music, 1969 was the year the ’60s died. Altamont happened, the Beatles effectively broke up after recording Abbey Road, and love didn’t seem so free anymore. John Lennon would go on from here to write “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” (a phrase coined by Yoko Ono in 1969) and Paul McCartney would form Wings with his wife Linda — two very enlightened directions to pursue while the biggest things going in mainstream music were Led Zeppelin and The Eagles. In ’69, however, there were no outwardly visible signs in their songwriting that The Beatles cared one way or another about women’s lib.

Advantage: Draw