Does Advertising Still See 'Mad Men'-Level Sexism?

Like everyone else in my Facebook feed, I've begun the bittersweet march toward the Mad Men series finale. Unlike most of my Facebook feed, though, I have a personal connection to the show; as a female copywriter, the show has become my shorthand for describing my job: “Yes, just like Peggy Olson.” When people find out what I do, they invariably ask about how closely the show reflects my day-to-day life. No, we don’t take naps in our offices. (Most “creative spaces” have open-office plans now anyway, which are the bane of everyone’s — or at least everyone I've spoken to — existence.) Yes, there is always alcohol available, though most people don’t break into it until at least 4 p.m. And yes, sometimes it is still the sexist, macho environment that people would like to believe we left behind along with Roger’s new mustache. Mad Men -level sexism in advertising, unfortunately, didn't die with the Beatnik style movement.

In the premiere episode of Mad Men's final season, Peggy and Joan sit down with representatives from their new parent agency, McCann-Erickson, to discuss introducing one of their clients, who sells pantyhose, to McCann’s department store contacts. Over the course of the scene, the four men unleash a barrage of sleazy remarks at Joan’s expense, asking her what kind of underwear she wears, commenting on her breasts, and suggesting that she use her sexuality to her agency’s advantage with their boss. It would have been an uncomfortable scene for anyone to view; my boyfriend, watching long-distance with me, sent a series of texts as it unfolded:



oh my god



The brutality and humiliation were obviously meant to be horrifying to any viewer of the show, not just women. But watching it was difficult for me for another reason — the innuendo, the boys’ club attitude, were a little too similar to a scene from my own career.

The sexism appears in everyday conversation, like last season, when Pete said Peggy was “every bit as good as any woman in this business.”

Last year, I was on a shoot for a commercial I’d written. We were casting for a Latina actress, and our producer, an older white guy, was in the room as we auditioned the women. Part of the audition required them to pretend to be waving to a guy they had a crush on, and when one particularly beautiful actress came into the room, the producer, whom I’d already admonished for talking loudly about how some of the women didn’t look “Latina enough,” started making comments about how he “wish[ed] she was waving to [him].”

He didn’t say it quietly. He didn’t even only say it once. He repeated it several times, until another male producer chimed in to agree with him.

When I write it down now, it doesn’t sound so bad. In a different context, with a preschooler, maybe, it would be cute for someone to long for a girl to wave at him. But that’s not what he was saying. When he said he wished she would “wave” at him, you could hear the quotation marks in his voice, just as when the man from McCann tells Joan that she should send his client a basket of pears because he loves a good… "pear.”

I watched as the woman shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, shrinking into herself. When she left the casting room, I turned to our producer.

“Stop creeping out our actresses. Seriously.”

I still wish I’d said it when she was present; I would have liked her to know that someone in there had her back. The producer didn’t respond, but also refrained from making any more comments about the women we were auditioning.


The director, my art director, and I (all women) were discussing how the first actress we saw had been our favorite, and why that was: She had a more girl-next-door, casual look than many of the other women we’d seen, who were much more made up.

“Well that’s just how they are. That’s the slutty Latina thing. It’s just part of their culture,” said the same producer I'd asked to leave the actresses alone.

I am usually much braver in my head than I am in real life; it’s hard for me to confront people. But this time, the words were out of my mouth before I had time to think.

“Excuse me? You can’t say that,” I said.

“Well I just did! Do you disagree?” he shot back.

I was shocked that he was defending himself rather than backpedaling, which would have been slimy, but unsurprising.

“You think they're not? You think I'm wrong? Just go turn on a TV! You want proof? Turn on the TV. Do it right now! Do you think I'm wrong? Do you think I'm wrong?” he asked.

“I do think you’re wrong. And I think you’re being extremely unprofessional right now.”

As fighting words go, they were wimpy, but very effective. He sat back in silence, until a few minutes later when he had to “make a phone call,” and never returned.

By casting the nature of our confrontation as one in which he said something to hurt my feelings, he’s working behind the scenes to make me look emotional and sensitive. More “female.”

Still, this encounter doesn't represent the industry as a whole. Both the scene with Joan and Peggy and my own experience are outliers, in the show and in real life. The slights are usually much subtler, the kind that are hard to explain to anyone who doesn’t inherently understand. The sexism appears in everyday conversation, like last season, when Pete said Peggy was “every bit as good as any woman in this business” — meaning she was participating in some women-only side competition in advertising, rather than competing with everyone in advertising.

Sexism appears in the fact that my producer, after that incident, went around telling people that he felt just terrible that he upset me by criticizing my work. (Which he did in a completely separate occurrence that did not result in me yelling at him, because quite honestly I don’t give a damn what he thinks of my work.) By casting the nature of our confrontation as one in which he said something to hurt my feelings, he’s working behind the scenes to make me look emotional and sensitive. More “female.”

It’s there when people ask my female colleagues questions like, “Are you always this awful?” and “Do you even know what you’re doing?” It's there when Peggy is given pitches because she “understands moms,” and when Joan is completely ignored by McCann as they dole out new accounts to the men.

The advertising industry may have moved away from Mad Men's plaid pants and three-martini lunches, but in some ways, maybe the more important ways, we’re still very much in that same mad world.

Image: Michael Yarish/AMC; Giphy