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The Health Risks of Living a Mad Men Lifestyle

The high rolling ad executives on the show Mad Men live hedonistic lifestyles characterized by excess and decadence. The pivotal character of the show, Don Draper is a brilliant example of how to best destroy your health through a veritable catalogue of vices – come take a look at how to avoid the pitfalls of a Mad Men lifestyle.

*Caution, spoiler alert!*

AMC’s award winning drama Mad Men focusses on a fictional ad agency on Madison Avenue in New York City. Like all successful television shows, the ability to create characters that viewers are able to identify with, or at least understand the motivations of, is of paramount importance.

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A remarkably complex character, the handsome, enigmatic, dapper and charming Don Draper is the hard drinking, hard smoking protagonist of the series. Fueled by his lofty corporate ambitions, seemingly without the constraints of a strict moral code, Don Draper presents an intriguing case study in how not to live your life.



As any good advertising executive from the 1960s would be able to tell you, business relationships aren’t formed in the boardroom: they’re established in the bar. Whether it’s a three martini lunch or a few fingers of scotch in the office, alcohol is a pervasive part of daily life.

It could easily be argued that Don Draper is a chronic alcoholic given that even a stint at the maternity suite merits a half bottle of whiskey and a morning orange juice requires an extra kick courtesy of a splash of vodka. Despite this, Draper never seems properly sauced, indicating that he is a functioning alcoholic; so perpetually topped up with alcohol that he never gets that drunk.

The dangers of chronic abuse of alcohol are well documented, and a number of major health problems stem from regular overconsumption. Heavy drinking and alcoholism are linked to cancer, cirrhosis of the liver and cardiovascular disease. Alcohol also increases the risk of being in an accident, as we saw in  Draper’s Season 1 drunk driving fender bender.

By consuming alcohol in moderation, many of these negative health consequences can be minimized, and according to some studies, a glass of red wine each day can actually reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Fun Fact: Across the course of the show, characters’ choices of drink reflect America’s preferences over the years. Draper’s drink of choice, Canadian Club was an American staple, outselling heavier straight whiskeys by a factor of eight. Betty Draper is seen sipping on more ‘acceptable’ drinks like a Tom Collins or a vodka gimlet.



One of the biggest plot points in the Mad Men pilot episode was how Sterling Cooper, Don Draper’s ad agency, were best able to manage the fallout from a Reader’s Digest report that smoking can lead to various health issues. This information seems to be lost on the characters of the show, or simply disregarded as almost every character in the series continued to light up, smoking prolific amounts of cigarettes across any given episode.

In 1960 just over 42 percent of the American population smoked cigarettes, but these days less than 20 percent of the population smokes. One of the major catalysts for this drop was the American Cancer Society’s public health announcements, as well as a generally increased awareness of the dangers of smoking.

Whilst at the time contentious, there are numerous studies documenting the catastrophic effects of smoking. Treatments for tobacco-related diseases have improved, however smoking is still the leading preventable cause of mortality worldwide and is linked to emphysema, lung cancer, chronic respiratory diseases and other illnesses. If Don Draper was to continue smoking at the rate he did, there is a high likelihood that he would suffer from one or more of these diseases and almost certainly wouldn’t still be around today. Most ironically, there is a link between smoking and circulatory issues which can lead to impotence, surely a death blow to Don Draper’s womanizing ways.

Fun Fact: Due to health and safety laws in California, all of the actors on the set of Mad Men were actually smoking herbal cigarettes that contained no nicotine, so at least in recreating the hedonistic vices of the Mad Men characters, the show’s actors didn’t need to compromise their health.



The advertising industry is renown for being one of the most stressful industries in the world. The responsibility for acquiring and maintaining high profile accounts requires a high level of creativity, attention to detail and self motivation, all whilst juggling strict deadlines. Long and irregular hours all contribute to making Draper’s role an incredibly taxing one which can have long term negative health implications.

In small doses, stress can be helpful, providing an appropriate level of pressure to ensure you operate at your best, but when the body is constantly running in emergency mode, negative physical and cognitive symptoms can manifest. Some of the more common indicators that the body is too stressed include aches and pains, nausea, dizziness, frequent colds and illnesses and loss of sex drive, one symptom that Don Draper clearly does not suffer from.

Fun Fact: The rigours of the Mad Men filming schedule caused a skin disorder for Jon Hamm, the actor that plays the character of Don Draper, proving that sometimes art does imitate life.


Unresolved Childhood Trauma

Far from having an ideal childhood, Don Draper was born to a prostitute that died within hours of his birth. He witnessed the gruesome accident that killed his father, and was then raised by an emotionally and physically abusive stepmother and her second husband who referred to Draper as a ‘whore’s son’ and regularly served up beatings.

Like many others who have suffered from similar trauma, and coupled with terrifying memories of his service in the Korean War, Draper has trouble articulating and coming to terms with these experiences.

Don’s feelings of rejection, insecurity and vulnerability often manage to manifest themselves in his daily life, and across the course of the show’s six seasons, this past trauma increasingly leads to destructive behaviours and strained interpersonal relationships as Don projects these feelings on those close to him.

Draper would undoubtedly be a difficult and probably frustrating patient for any psychologist, and the very process of  therapy would likely be a painful and anxiety provoking process of revisiting those long repressed memories. Nonetheless, in dealing with his emotional trauma, Don Draper would be able to work on strategies for coming to terms with his past, improving his inter personal relationships with others and working on some of his other vices (of which there are many).

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