Mad Men Season 5 opened with some frat-boy execs at the real-life ad agency Young & Rubicam dropping bags of water on African American protesters picketing on Madison Avenue. It was an effective scene, clearly indicating that the show has entered the era when the Civil Rights movement became unavoidable, even to the most obstinately old-fashioned and isolated parts of American society. It was also apparently based on a real event.
According to the New York Times, the scene — including the line from one of the protesters, "And they call us savages" — was taken nearly verbatim from an article The Times published on May 28, 1966.
The article, "Poverty Pickets Get Paper-Bag Dousing on Madison Avenue" describes water being thrown at protesters by execs at Y&R. And yes, a 9-year-old boy really was hit.
Apparently Allison Mann, the head of research for Mad Men's writers, found this article and gave it to show creator Matthew Weiner, who was "blown away" and decided to work the incident into the premiere.
Y&R's current chief executive, David Sable, acknowledged the incident in a statement on Tuesday, saying, "Part of that story is sad but true — a few idiots dropped water balloons on protesters some 50 years ago. What I don’t know was whether or not they were fired. I certainly hope they were. Needless to say, their behavior was completely repulsive and not in line with the values of our company.”
Interestingly, in a recent post at The Huffington Post, TBWA founder Bill Tragos, who apparently worked at Y&R around the time Mad Men is set, declares that "no young goof-offs would dare pull a prank like drop water on demonstrators from a window of the very proper Y&R." This is one point in what he claims to be a list of obvious historical inaccuracies in Mad Men.
Sorry, Bill, but when the New York Times and the chief of the company say it happened, we're guessing that means it happened. Apparently at least a few "young goof-offs" dared to be far more awful and racist than you think.
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Source: New York Times, The Huffington Post
Watch the next episode of Mad Men on Sunday, April 1 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.