A old man walks up to a woman in a bar. “I’m sorry to bother you, but my doctors have given me only two weeks to live,” the man says. “I’m very wealthy, and I was wondering if you would sleep with me for a million dollars.”
“Well,” says the woman, “I suppose I would.”
The old man smiles. “Would you sleep with me for ten dollars?”
The woman is aghast. “Of course not! What kind of woman do you think I am?”
“We’ve established what kind of woman you are,” the man says. “Now we’re dickering over price.”
Lots of people in business joke about prostituting themselves for their clients, but we in advertising are particularly aware of the parallels. Some of us have been asked to shill for products we don’t believe in. Nearly all of us have, at one time or another, smiled and agreed to do work for our clients that made us feel dirty.
More than anything, it’s because ad agencies are loaded with smart, thoughtful people. We understand reality: you work, you get paid, you leave your idealism at the door. We make excuses: sure, we’re trying to influence people to buy things, but people don’t load their shopping carts with stuff they don’t want. We’re whores, but so is everyone else. We’re just more aware of our status.
But most of us–god help us–have never actually slept with a client to win an account. Which is exactly what Joanie is asked to do in “The Other Woman,” Episode 11 of Season 5 of Mad Men. Herb Rennet, head of the Jaguar dealer group, makes it clear to Pete and Ken that he’d like to sleep with that gorgeous redhead he met at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce–and that SCDP doesn’t have a prayer of winning the account unless they can make that happen.
We like to think we’d be above that behavior. Fortunately for the sake of the story, Pete Campbell is not. He presents Rennet’s proposal to Joan, who makes the mistake of not refusing outright, instead telling Pete, “I don’t think you can’t afford it.”
Pete thinks otherwise. He suggests the partners offer Joan $50,000 to sleep with Rennet. Don storms out, Roger wants nothing to do with it, Bert Cooper wants to make sure Joan knows she doesn’t have to do it.
And Lane Pryce is in a pickle. Remember, in the last episode, Lane embezzled $7,500 to pay his back taxes. Also remember, Lane is a least a little bit in love with Joan. So it’s with a combination of self-interest, altruism, and self-loathing that Lane suggests to Joan that she not take a chunk of money; rather, she should parlay the proposition into a partnership at SCDP. Joan is that kind of woman; Lane is the pimp who’s helping her dicker.
Meanwhile, Peggy’s doing some dickering of her own. Fed up with being treated like shit by Don and the other men at SCDP, Peggy decides it’s time to test the waters elsewhere. She has lunch with Freddy Rumsen–he of the pissed pants and unceremonious exit from SCDP–who convinces her she should leave. So she meets with Don Draper’s arch rival Ted Chaough, who offers to pay her more than she asks–and make her copy chief. How can a woman say no to an offer like that?
Megan’s got offers, too–well, almost. She’s up for a part in Little Murders that’s going to start rehearsals in Boston. Don is furious, telling her she can’t just leave for three months. As if he owns her. As if anyone could own a beautiful woman–which, of course, is the whole idea behind SCDP’s pitch to Jaguar. “Jaguar: At last, something beautiful you can truly own,” is Ginsberg’s idea, and it’s perfect.
And so SCDP gets Jaguar. Joanie gets her partnership. Megan, who is treated like a piece of meat at her audition, does not get the part. Peggy takes the job–and walks out of the agency in the middle of the Jaguar celebration. The contrast in the looks on the faces of Joan and Peggy at the end of the episode tell the tale: Joan is a kept woman, Peggy is free–sad to leave, but determined. In the end, it doesn’t matter how much money Don throws at Peggy, literally or figuratively. She’s not whoring for him anymore.
That doesn’t mean she won’t be whoring. We’re all in it for the money. Some of us–I include myself–are lucky enough to work for clients we love and believe in. But we all have business propositions that test our moral judgment. Would you work for a cigarette company? A huge defense contractor? A political candidate whose views you don’t share? A product whose manufacture pollutes the environment? A perfectly legal business that charges poor people usurious rates for furniture or payday loans? For a million dollars? For enough money to live the rest of your life comfortably? Are you sure you’re ready to answer?
Are you sure?