Liminality in Advertising from the Mad Men Era

  • Barbara Olsen Professor of Marketing in the State University of New York at Old Westbury.
Keywords: Advertising history, anthropology, liminality, reflexivity


This article reflects an evolving anthropologist’s marketing career during the 1970s, before anthropology was truly welcomed as contributor to business strategy. I worked on several accounts mentored by a brilliant but conflicted creative director-guru-boss, an experience resulting in this reflexive advertising narrative punctuated by periods of liminality. I used my agency archives from the 1970s and field notes (or advertising log) as my data set to reflect this period. My field journey traversed the Mad Men era, immortalized in the AMC TV series about the 1960s and beyond, where creative directors freely crossed boundaries of sex, class and gender stereotypes. I discuss several advertising campaigns in which I was involved. The broader narrative reveals an uncomfortable divide between cultural empathy and advertising practice. While creatively stimulating, I describe the conflict in a marketing career that challenged ethical sensitivities.