My Father was a Mad Man
But he taught me how to ignore the ads that make me feel bad about aging
My father was a jingle writer, spinning the fervent claims of advertisers, from Ford cars to Flintstone vitamins, into catchy commercial music. Even today, a half-century after Mad Men ruled New York, lines from his compositions rise up randomly in my memory and stick there stubbornly. “Little girls have pretty curls, but I like Oreos.” “Chipsters, the hip chip, with a taste that’s like today.” And the lyric that’s particularly hard to erase from my mental mixtape: “You’re not getting older, you’re getting better.” He wrote that jingle for Clairol, and even at 17, I saw it for what it was: a cynical enticement to buy hair dye.
Professionally, Dad was Oz to my Dorothy: the man behind the curtain who opened my eyes to the gears and levers that operated the ad machine. I saw the hand-drawn storyboards before they became commercials. I heard the music banged out in fits and starts on the piano before it acquired all those lush layers — percussion, brass, strings, vocals — and coalesced into an anthem that would sell cigarettes, antacids, snack foods, airline tickets.
And yet, for all my exposure to the inner workings of the advertising business, it turns out that I was just as susceptible as your average consumer to the hidden message behind the ads that my subconscious so deftly decoded: Buy X and you’ll be prettier, cooler and more successful than your friends. It wasn’t that any single commercial convinced me of this, but taken in the aggregate, all those shiny, happy ads led me to the same conclusion: My peers on the small screen had lots of things I didn’t — better bodies (in spite of the fact that, on screen, they downed cinnamon buns, fried chicken and loaded burgers with abandon), newer cars, bigger kitchens (way bigger kitchens), lusher lawns, smoother skin, entrée into swankier clubs and restaurants.
And then, a few years ago, something happened: I fell out of the Mad Men’s coveted demographic.
Not only was I well past the 17- to-34-year-old population beloved of all advertisers, I wasn’t even among the 35- to 49-year-old second tier. My peers still appeared in plenty of commercials, but now they had all sorts of things I didn’t want: indigestion, slippery dentures, slipping libidos, creaky knees, dry eyes, leaking bladders.
Suddenly I found myself remembering another of my father’s commercials. Written for a popular antacid of the day (to the tune of “Sur le Pont d’Avignon”), it asked the musical question “Eat too much, drink too much?” and responded with a prescription to “Take Brioschi, take Brioschi.”
But thankfully, that decidedly unsexy jingle did not become my new theme song.
Moving into a new demographic, I discovered, has its benefits. Perspective, for instance. I accept that my hair is never going to gleam as brightly as the impossibly sleek manes on display in the latest crop of hair-color ads, but I think my dad would be happy to know that I remind myself regularly of the process — lights, camera, music, Photoshop — that brought that gleam into being.
Having acquired the wisdom to treasure what I do have, I find the marketers’ subliminal messages about my failings no longer register in my subconscious.
For four decades I’ve done work that I am proud of. I raised a beautiful, talented, daughter who is now my friend. I’ve managed to stay married to my husband for 30 years. My house and kitchen may be small compared to the ones they shot for Dad’s commercials, but both bring me great joy, as do so many other “small” things: the new shoots of crocus I planted along the front path to remind me that spring always returns, a cardinal lighting on the backyard feeder in expectation of an evening meal, my husband’s apparently sincere belief that my butt still looks good in jeans.
So maybe at least part of my father’s lyric was right: I am getting older, but I’m also getting better. And that’s a tune I can happily carry.