Mad Men, Episode 3: The Ketchup Incident

Jordin Althaus/AMC Mad Men

“We deplore the encouragement of an American myth that oppresses men as well as women: the win-or-you’re-worthless competitive disease. The ‘beauty contest’ creates only one winner to be ‘used’ and forty-nine losers who are ‘useless.'” — Robin Morgan (“No More Miss America,” August 1968)

H.J. Heinz is the largest manufacturer of ketchup on the planet, so popular that its bottle has been the sauce’s genericized trademark for over a century, but that doesn’t mean the company is infallible. No company is. Remember the “Blastin’ Green” and “Funky Purple” EZ Squirt disaster of ’00? Somebody once stood in a room and pitched Heinz crazy-colored ketchup as the future of food, and Heinz listened to them. The squeeze bottle was even specifically designed with a narrow nozzle, all the better to draw pseudoplastic ketchup squiggles likes the ones Don rhapsodizes about to Stan. In a 2001 press release, Heinz’s VP of marketing promised purple ketchup’s success, claiming “Just look at kids’ entertainment, and you’ll find everything from purple computers to Harry Potter purple lightning bolts. Purple is a bold, fun color that brings a hint of mystery and magic to kids’ condiment creations.” Although the novelty sold well initially, Heinz’s colored ketchups were quickly considered a huge flop, a failed attempt at forward-thinking rebranding on the level of New Coke or Crystal Pepsi. By 2006 they’d been shelved.

Although ketchup accounts for the bulk of business, it’s merely one of the “57 varieties” of Heinz products touted on their labels. The “57 varieties” slogan was invented by founder Henry J. Heinz through putting together his lucky number, five, with his wife’s lucky number, seven, in 1896, although the company already sold more than 60 products by that point. Heinz felt “57 Varieties” carried some kind of subconscious numerical pull that would arouse the desire to buy things. The conspicuous placement of a bold “57” high on the iconic glass bottle is an intuitive suggestion of where exactly to smack the neck to make the viscous ketchup plop out. Heinz’s first product was horseradish, not ketchup, and the company was built on pickles and vinegar, hence the long-standing use of a pickle as the company’s symbol. Fresh tomatoes were considered a potentially dangerous nightshade in colonial America, but the popularity of vinegary ketchup helped assimilate them into mainstream U.S. food culture by the late 1800s. Ketchup became America’s signature condiment not just because of its sheer umami deliciousness, but also because of Heinz’s aggressive marketing campaigns.

Everyone secretly hopes they’re ketchup and not, say, salad cream. Unfortunately, only ketchup gets to be ketchup, while some people are doomed to be baked beans. Stan, wearing Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider leather fringe a year before the film comes out, would be happy to chain-smoke joints in a tinfoil-padded “Project K bunker” forever without ever producing a viable campaign. Don would probably be equally thrilled to spend the rest of his days trapped in the elevator with Sylvia. His former passion for his work has by this point been totally displaced by his longtime passion for off-the-clock activities. Don thinks sexual liberation means a traditional marriage with extracurriculars behind closed doors, and only for the man. His values may have been somewhat avant-garde (‘European’) in the buttoned-up ’50s and early ’60s, but they’re totally retro with regard to feminism and free love, doomed to put him entirely out of step with the forthcoming sexual revolution. This is not to say that Megan and Don should have gone for the full nelson ménage with Mel and Arlene, although the part of me that likes to watch obviously wanted to see that. It was suggested several times during the episode that the most intense sexual pleasure centers are located in the imagination, and can only really be activated through some form of restrictive denial. Don would hate polyamory because he gets all of his deviant kicks from lying.

New York radical feminist Carol Hanisch is often credited with coining “the personal is political,” the slogan that defined the second-wave feminist movement of the late ’60s as much as “votes for women” had the first. It was the title of a 1969 essay Hanisch wrote in response to the 1968 Miss America Pageant, but Hanisch has said that the title was selected by her editors Anne Koedt and Shulamith Firestone for the 1970 anthology Notes From the Second Year: Women’s Liberation. Gloria Steinem has said that the phrase was group-thought into existence, and that you could no more pinpoint its conception than figure out who first used the term World War II. That personal feelings and conflicts were as important as global ones was extremely radical at the time, long before the “Me generation” backlash. High-minded theories and hypothetical alternatives were useless unless they could be put into direct action, creating demonstrable positive change and enacting social justice in real life. Consciousness raising was a way for women to find out that issues they’d suffered with privately — abortion rights, glass ceilings, struggles with body image — were not isolated incidents but part of a much larger fabric of structural oppression. Women’s conflicts were linked with the other progressive social causes of the time like Black Power and the antiwar movement to demonstrate the powerful invisible forces that were affecting the ability of everyone but rich white males to practice free will.

Harry Crane can bang his secretary, Scarlett, during work and the only people threatened with potential job termination are Scarlett and Dawn, for protecting Scarlett. While Joan certainly got paid to spent her fair share of boozy naked lunches in nice hotels with Roger Sterling, she’s now at a better vantage point to recognize that there are sinister reasons that the secretaries at SCDP are considered replaceable and rarely advance into real power. Having made herself impossible to replace, she’s frustrated to find out that, even as a partner, she’s still treated like a glorified secretary. Her wild night out with Kate lets her play-act at being the powerful seductress CEO she’d convinced at least Kate she must be. Kate feels guilty and sad about cheating on her husband after the fact, figuring out the hard way that the glamorous peaks of Manhattan hard living come as a pair with equally unglamorous valleys. Kate’s fantasy of having an affair was probably more erotic than the affair itself. Endless scenarios may have unfurled in her mind during downtime between Mary Kay sales, but the way that picking up a guy and bringing him to Electric Circus actually played out was disappointing — and the aftereffects were much more dysphoric than TV, movies, and novels had promised her they’d be. Sure, she got what she came for, but it wasn’t as exciting as the anticipation of wanting it.

“Broadway Joe on Broadway”? Harry, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me. That’s exactly the kind of square backward nonsense that the ’67 Summer of Love aimed to crush. By 1968, musicals were no longer the dominant mainstream art form they’d once been, and they had to at least be as timely as Hair to work. The fact that Harry thinks a folksy football player in a straw hat will be strong enough to wipe out the clamorous national conversation about Agent Orange and Napalm B goes to show you how utterly clueless he is. Harry Crane is every idiotic television executive that has ever lived. He wants to play it safe, to shake money out of the medium without caring about making anything decent, let alone great. Today, he’d be the guy who signed off on the one-sheet for Dr. Facehands. Harry promises the client Joe Namath without having checked with Joe Namath about it. A musical revue starring Julie Andrews and Joe Namath promises to turn off fans of football, musicals, and entertainment in general rather than cross-promoting all three. A threesome might seem like the way to synergistically unite several disparate elements, but there’s an extremely high risk of alienating all three participants so that they feel more divided than ever from each other and themselves.

Harry Crane essentially calls Joan a whore in front of the major players on staff, and then demands to be rewarded with a partnership. Joan doesn’t mention the awful way Harry blocked her out of the nascent television department a few years ago because his ego couldn’t handle being upstaged by a busty ginger, probably because she still doesn’t even know it went down. Harry’s rivalry with Joan is similar to Paul Kinsey and Peggy Olson’s, in that it’s almost entirely one-sided on the dude’s part, rooted in well-justified insecurity that manifests as false arrogance.

Don goes to Megan’s taping and proves he doesn’t actually like to watch, no matter what habits growing up in a brothel ingrained in him. His eavesdropping session outside Peggy’s pitch proves that what he really likes is listening. It’s not clear what disgusts him more: watching his wife pretend to have sex with another man or hearing his ex-protégé use his own rhetoric to try and steal a client. He seems much more turned on by the latter, probably because it’s the closest thing possible to hearing himself pitch. He reacts to his wife’s soap love scene with visceral disgust, all but calling Megan a whore (or as Ralph Cifaretto would say it, “a hoo-er”). In 1969, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice would take the concept of swinging and mainstream it for Hollywood with no less of an icon of ’50s teen innocence than Natalie Wood, but (spoiler) the pledged foursome never actually takes place, except in your filthy mind.

If some of the new characters on Mad Men seem awfully familiar, it’s because you already know them from watching media all your life. Ted McGinley (Mel the head soap opera writer) is embedded forever in my brain as Jefferson D’Arcy from Married… With Children and Alpha Beta head Stanley Gable from Revenge of the Nerds. Marley Shelton (Joan’s blonde buddy Kate) played lifeguard dream girl Wendy Peffercorn in The Sandlot and was Dr. Dakota Block in both segments of Grindhouse. Kip Pardue (Ketchup) played football at Yale before falling into an acting career whose undisputed highlight is the “Victor in Europe” montage monologue from Roger Avary’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction, although you’re welcome to make an argument for his role as “Sunshine” in Remember the Titans. The high contrast between his rosy complexion and corny green plaid suit made Pardue’s Tim Jablonski uncannily resemble ketchup in a human form.

Just when it seemed like the late ’60s might pass her by, Joan proves that juggling a partnership and single motherhood won’t stop her from getting her late-night freak on at the club. The Electric Circus, a real one-time St. Mark’s club was originally promoted as a countercultural mecca to “tune in and turn on” at. Its mixture of music, flash, and debauchery influenced the coming ascent of disco, with the attendant hedonistic pansexualism. The experimental nightclub showcased early performances by bands like the Velvet Underground and the Grateful Dead, alongside carny sideshow performers and psychedelic projections. It was designed by the firm of Chermayeff & Geismar, who created the iconic (although hardly countercultural) logos for National Geographic, Mobil, and NBC. The Electric Circus closed down in 1970 after a bomb was planted on the dance floor by student Ishmael Brown, which an Associated Press story claimed he had done in conjunction with the Black Panther Party. The Black Panthers disavowed any connection to Brown, and the Electric Circus stood behind the Panthers. Club owner Stan Freeman swore “that he believed the explosion, which injured 17 persons, was an ‘individual act’ carried out by ‘a man who wanted to show the world he could wreak havoc.'”

Joan has built up her image as a masterful sexpot so carefully that even her friends seem to believe it’s real. Or at least they want to believe. Who wouldn’t? I want a spinoff that is Joan & Kate Plus Haight, where the buxom twosome move to Haight-Ashbury and join the Diggers. Actually I’d be perfectly happy if Joan stayed in New York, became real friends with Dawn, and they both became members of Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers. But I recognize that that’s just a sweet, sweet, fantasy, Joanie. It all stays the same. Dawn, for example, is encountering the same problems specific to being a woman at SCDP that plagued her predecessors. She works overtime cleaning up other people’s messes and emptying bottles from wastebaskets, which leaves her no time or energy for a life of her own. Her married male superiors not only have wives, they have mistresses on the side. The single ones haven’t shown interest as of yet, thwarting my desperate desire for a Dawn/Ginsberg pairing. Don’t worry, there’s still time! Given the way this season’s been going so far, maybe the annual SCDP Christmas party will just be a full-on orgy this year.

While Dawn is at work so much — it’s both the natural and only real place for her to meet men — there aren’t many bachelors left, and choosing her is their privilege, not hers. On top of that, a workplace romance could significantly increase her chances of getting sacked, and she really needs the job. It hadn’t occurred to her that working so much might kill her romantic prospects and personal life, because the men of SCDP seem to be able to have both. If she does manage to somehow land a husband, she might then get axed under the assumption that she’ll have kids and start putting her family before the business. Her engaged friend suggests condescendingly that Dawn ought to just look harder for love on the subway, as if Dawn wouldn’t have already tried that. It’s always the seriously coupled up people who seem to think dating is easy as pie, having conveniently brainwashed themselves about what it’s really like to be single. Dawn is the least neurotic person at SCDP not named Ken Cosgrove. She shares Ken’s ability to not bring the office’s problems with her everywhere she goes, which nobody else seems to be able to do. The sexual politics of the office are woven intimately and seemingly inseparably into the social dynamics of authority. Inevitably, money, power, and sex make uneasy bedfellows.

Filed Under: AMC, Don Draper, Jon Hamm, Mad Men, Matthew Weiner, Peggy Olson

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

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