Code Switch
5:12 pm
Sat March 1, 2014

'Mad Black Men': Yes, There Were Black People In '60s Advertising

Originally published on Sun March 2, 2014 1:23 am

When Mad Men first premiered on AMC in 2007, Xavier Ruffin — a young, African-American graphic designer from Milwaukee, Wisc. — really wanted to like it.

"I wanted to be a fan of it when it first came out," Ruffin tells NPR's Arun Rath. "I just had my own personal differences. Not liking the way blacks were represented in their universe. I just couldn't get over it."

Instead of getting over it, he decided to create his own series: Mad Black Men. The first part of the show premiered Friday on the video sharing site Dailymotion.

Mad Men, of course, takes place in the fictional world of 1960s ad agency Sterling Cooper and focuses on the lead character, advertising genius Don Draper. In the "parallel universe" of Mad Black Men, protagonist Ron Rapper gets a job in the Colored Marketing Department at Sterlin Copper.

"[Rapper] is a hotshot ad executive making a name for himself in the New York scene. It's just that when he shows up at places, people are thrown off by the fact that he is non-white," Ruffin explains.

The three admen in the colored marketing department have to take on campaigns targeted at minorities. Their first client: Mississippi Melons. In the show, the art director is asked to make a character's nose and lips bigger because he "isn't black enough."

The show is played pretty straight — it's more of a dramedy than a spoof. Though spoofs are popular, Ruffin didn't really want to be part of that. "What I wanted to do is kind of cater to people who are interested in Mad Men," he says. "I wanted to give them a different lens to look at that universe through."

Ruffin has an entire season written and outlines for five more. A crowdfunding campaign launched in September 2013 raised money to outfit the show in '60s style.

The show's opening sequence does take a poke at Mad Men's credit montage, where a silhouetted Don Draper steps into his office — which then falls apart, pieces tumbling to the ground.

"I just took a different approach to it and said, OK, if the furniture falls down, someone has to clean it back up, because every episode it falls down again," Ruffin says. "So one of our characters, Rufus, who is both the janitor and the colored campaigns accountant — he comes in and he cleans up the mess."

Matt Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, has been criticized for not having more black people on the show. In defense, he's said repeatedly, that's because there were no black people in the advertising business in that era. Last year, he took it further, saying there were still no black people in advertising. Ruffin disagrees.

"There are black people in advertising," he says. "There have been black people in advertising. There isn't a great amount of representation, but we do exist and we are here."

Indeed, some of Ruffin's idols are African-American designers from the 1960s. Like art director Georg Olden, for example. "He actually designed the Clio award [statuette] that Don wins," Ruffin says. "And he won way more than Don ever won."

There was also Caroline Jones, who had a story similar to Mad Men's Peggy Olson. She rose from secretary to creative director and went on to open her own agency.

Despite having five seasons planned out, Ruffin says he's not entirely sure what trajectory his protagonist, Ron Rapper, will take: "Ron could have a great career, or Ron could go the wayside."

"You never know as a black man," Ruffin says. "Anything could happen at any time."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Xavier Ruffin was excited for the 2007 premiere of "Mad Men." Ruffin was a young graphic designer, and here was a show about his world.

XAVIER RUFFIN: I wanted to be a fan of it when it first came out. I just had my own personal differences - not liking the way blacks were represented in their universe. I just couldn't get over it.

RATH: Instead of getting over it, he decided to create his own series - "Mad Black Men."

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SERIES, "MAD BLACK MEN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) Welcome to the Colored marketing department.

RATH: The new web series just premiered on the video sharing site DailyMotion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: In the famous animated opening sequence to "Mad Men," a silhouetted figure walks into an office, which falls apart, pieces tumbling to the ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RUFFIN: I just took a different approach to it and said, OK, so if the furniture falls down, someone has to clean it back up because every episode, it falls down again. So one of our characters - Rufus - who is both the janitor and Colored Campaigns accountant...

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SERIES, "MAD BLACK MEN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As Rufus) What the...

RUFFIN: ...he comes in and cleans up the mess. And he has a little quip to say every time.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SERIES, "MAD BLACK MEN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as Rufus) I ain't cleaning this up twice.

RATH: "Mad Men," of course, takes place in the world of Sterling Cooper and focuses on the lead character Don Draper.

RUFFIN: Our world is kind of like a parallel universe of sorts. So we're at Sterlin Copper - that's sterling without the G - and our protagonist is Ron Rapper, who's a, you know, a hot shot ad executive making a name for himself in the New York scene. It's just that when he shows up to places, people are thrown off by the fact that he is a non-white.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Judy) There was a misprint in the ad. We already have a custodian. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (As Ron Rapper) I'm sorry. You may have misunderstood me. I am here for the more lucrative position.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Judy) Security, this is Judy. You're needed on the 21st floor. Yeah. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (As Ron Rapper) Wait a minute.

RATH: We should explain how this is set up because it - this is not sort of like a Funny or Die kind of web parody. You do it with sort of high production values. It looks like it could be of that time period, and there are jokes there, but it's generally played kind of straight.

RUFFIN: Yeah. It's more of a dramedy than it is like a "Naked Gun 33 1/3"-type of parody because I feel like that's what's really popular on the Internet right now. What I wanted to do is kind of cater to people who were interested in "Mad Men," and I wanted to give them a different lens to look at that universe through. I did want to be a bit funny, maybe a little bit more silly than what "Mad Men" is, just to admit that we're poking fun at something.

RATH: Which brings us to the world of the "Mad Black Men." Basically, we have the main character, Ron Rapper, who's brought in to head the Colored marketing department. And they basically work out of a broom closet.

RUFFIN: Yes, this is true. Basically, they're working on what this ad agency feels are minority-specific clientele. So the first client that they're working with is Mississippi Melons.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SERIES, "MAD BLACK MEN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (as Mississippi Melons) I want you to make the lips and the nose a lot bigger because right now our character isn't black enough.

RUFFIN: So they're working on these racially insensitive campaigns that are being handed down to them by just racially insensitive bosses.

RATH: Now, Matt Weiner, who created "Mad Men," he's been criticized for not having more black people on the show. He said that basically there were no black people in advertising back then, and there still aren't to this day. How do you respond to that?

RUFFIN: There are black people in advertising. There have been black people in advertising. There isn't a great amount of representation, but we do exist, and we are here.

RATH: So on the show, on the "Mad Men" show in recent seasons, there's been a bigger role for Dawn, the black woman who's the secretary of Don Draper. But there's been nobody of color on the creative side. Who are some of the black advertising creatives that you look up to?

RUFFIN: Well, the first person that comes to mind is Georg Olden, who was a very high-profile figure in the 1960s. He actually designed the Clio Award that Don wins in season four. And, like, he won way more than Don ever won. Caroline Jones, whose story actually mirrors Peggy Olson's. She was a secretary who became a copywriter who ended up owning her own firm. So, yeah, there's more than just a few people of color that were working and operating at a high capacity during the "Mad Men" era.

RATH: So the final season of "Mad Men" is going to be kicking off in April, but you just got started on "Mad Black Men." So where are you going to go from here? Where do you want to take this?

RUFFIN: Well, I can't divulge those secrets just yet. But we do have right now a five-season arc planned out. We've been looking into different real-life figures that we could model Ron's career trajectory after. Ron could have a great career or Ron could go the wayside, because you never know as a, you know, as a black man, it's real. Anything could happen at any time.

RATH: Xavier Ruffin is a graphic designer and the creator of a new web spoof called "Mad Black Men." Thanks for your time today. Great talking with you.

RUFFIN: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.