Monday, July 26, 2010

Hey, "Mad Men," give Jantzen its due!

By Barry Johnson

I watched the first three seasons of "Mad Men," the AMC channel hit about advertising set in New York City in the early '60s, but I haven't been a "Mad Men" analyst, dissector of episodes and characters, or critic, hunter of anachronisms or unreasonable plot twists.  I'm not about to start now, either. I just like to watch, note and speculate a little about a show that has been one of the very best things about television the past few years.

As a Portlander, the thing that struck me about Episode One, Season Four, which in general I found disappointing after all the hype for it, was the arrival of two men from Portland, representing Jantzen swimwear.

Oh boy. These guys are in for it, a couple of rubes who don't understand that the bikini is about to change everything in swimwear. At least that's Don Draper's position, and he's the creative genius at the center of the show, for those who haven't tuned into it yet.

Don's a sensualist in some ways (though we later learn he's taken to hiring a prostitute to come to his rather shabby apartment and slap him around during sex), and he considers the Jantzen position -- which is, we want to do swimwear for "modest people" -- hypocritical and worse, indefensible as a sales strategy. After all, are they not flesh peddlers? Are they not exposing the midriffs of women to the predatory gaze of men? And shouldn't they, therefore, celebrate those midriffs, that cleavage, those long legs and slim arms? OK, those weren't his actual words, but that was the idea.

His creative ad solution is a double entendre -- a play on "built," which described both the manufacture of the bikini and the attributes of the model, the top of whose suit Don artfully masked in the ad mock-up.  Don knows a thing or two about teasing.  Actually, I thought the ad was on the dopey side -- and entire campaign built on "built"? But in general, I find the analysis of advertising on "Mad Men" to be terrific, but the ads produced by the agency (now Stirling Cooper Draper Price) rarely reach the level of the analysis.

The Jantzen guys say, hey, we're a family company and we don't want anything to do with that ad, which aggravates Don to such an extent that he orders them out of the office, hustles them out himself. If only Jantzen had embraced Don's line of thought, the thong might have been invented half-a-decade earlier!

Historically speaking, the show is way off base. Jantzen is generally credited with turning the "bathing suit" into the "swimsuit," and in the process -- and in the name of fitness -- managed to overturn the old rules against baring the female (and male) body at the beach.  Jantzen wasn't prudish, as Don claimed: In 1960 Jantzen introduced the "Just wear a smile and a Jantzen" campaign, although the suits were relatively demure by "itsy-bitsy-teenie-weenie" standards, I suppose.   Begun in 1910 (as the Portland Knitting Company), Jantzen was built on the idea of "freedom of movement," and the functionality of the suit was probably more important to them than the hyper-sexual tease of it, the fashion of it. I like the value implicit in those suits: Form follows function, and when it does, that form can be pretty darn sexy without drawing attention to itself.

I don't know enough about the vicissitudes of the swimwear business to know if Don was right or not. Did Jantzen suffer in the mid-1960s because it refused to design ever-briefer bikinis? I don't think so, but I don't know for sure.

The primary problem with those rubes from Oregon, historically inaccurate or not, is that they are cliches, the dim Victorians from the hinterlands who don't understand this fast-changing world of the present. Or of 1964.  "Mad Men" has so far done a good job at subverting those early '60s cliches or at least giving them some complexity. These earnest fellows? Not believable for a second. Which is too bad and I hope just a momentary aberration, because the show's standard is so much higher.