I wasn’t expecting the “Mad Men” finale to give me an opportunity to plug one of the greatest documentaries of the 21st century, but when Don Draper ended up at a quasi-spiritual retreat on the California coast, all the pieces fell into place. Although the name and location of Don’s destination aren’t disclosed, it bears a strong resemblance to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, which was ground zero for what became known as the “human potential movement.”
Esalen’s website explicitly frames the HPM as the next step on from Freudian psychoanalysis, which puts Don a step ahead of his dying ex-wife, who in her final shot smokes a cigarette while idly flipping through the paper, her book of Freud open but ignored on the kitchen table. (Talk about the death drive.) To quote my essay on Curtis’ films from The Dissolve: “Exploiting his uncle’s insights into the unconscious mind, Bernays urged American businesses to create products that filled desires, not needs. Although the housewives of the 1950s said they wanted products to make their lives easier, Bernays argued that they were held back by feelings of guilt over abandoning their traditional roles. But when Betty Crocker, acting on Bernays’ suggestion, changed its instant cake mix to require them to add an egg, sales soared. (Bernays also argued that, in following the recipe, the women were subconsciously making a gift of their own eggs to their husbands.) Rather than buy a stove or a house that might last a lifetime, consumers learned to regard purchases as a means of self-expression, inaugurating an endless cycle of acquisitive self-realization.” In other words, don’t change the world, buy (it) a Coke.
But the connection goes deeper than that. As suggested in Adam Curtis’ brilliant essay film, “The Century of the Self,” the HPM was a direct outgrowth of the ideals of individualism and self-expression promulgated by Edward Bernays, who was both Freud’s nephew and the inventor of the term “public relations.” Much as Don sold Lucky Strikes before his change of heart, Bernays helped rebrand cigarettes as “torches of freedom” to make them more attractive to women’s rights activists. You’ve come a long way, baby.
“Century’s” thesis, which Curtis argues persuasively and with increasing dread over the film’s four-hour length, is that advertisers and the HPM conspired to convert the 1960s’ counterculture’s message of revolution into a movement focused entirely on the self, a kind of idealistic narcissism in which systemic political action became passé. As Curtis wrote, Esalen “gathered together a group of radical psychoanalysts and psychotherapists and encouraged them to give classes in their techniques. What united them was the belief that modern society repressed individuals inner feelings. Because of this the individuals led narrow, desiccated lives and their true feelings were bent and warped. Esalen taught people how to break out of this prison, how to let their inner feelings out and so become liberated beings. It was a wonderful dream—and thousands of people who had turned away from radical politics in the 1960s came to learn how to change society by changing themselves.”
Rather than pursuing, say, school desegregation or affirmative action, Esalen fought racism through encounter groups in which black and white participants were urged to disclose their innermost hatreds to each other, which, predictably, resulted in confrontations that produced little if any real change.
Excepting the departed Paul Kinsey, and, for a brief while, Pete Campbell, “Mad Men’s” characters have rarely had any use for politics: Peggy and Joan may have internalized some of the imperatives of the women’s movement, but you’ll never see them at a protest rally. Don’s series-long mission to reconcile the two halves of his life is an almost entirely self-focused project: What matters in the chorus of “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” is not the world but the “I.” So it’s perfect that he’d end up at a place like Esalen, and that he’d take what he’d learned there and use it to create an ad in which global, multiracial harmony is achieved through the purchase of the right soft drink.
Curtis’ movies, which rely almost entirely on archival footage, have never been commercially released in the U.S. because of the country’s archaic copyright laws, but you can watch the entirely of “The Century of the Self” below.