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Is Mad Men All Style and No Substance?

The cast of AMC's hit television show Mad Men.

Above: The cast of AMC's hit television show Mad Men.


Mad Men is one of the most popular shows on television and a multiple Emmy award winner. Three episodes into the latest season and the men and women of Sterling Cooper are still drinking, smoking, and living double lives. Over at Slate, three writers are hashing out each episode in the Mad Men TV Club. We talk to two of those writers about about the show.

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MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. AMC Network's hit series "Mad Men" is now in its third season. The show, which features, in painstaking period detail, the lives and loves of employees at a 1960s New York ad agency, has won a number of awards, including the first Emmy for a basic cable drama series. "Mad Men" has been praised for its great cast and its great look, but what may be most compelling about the series is its ability to take us back to the attitudes, the prejudices and the often creepy common practices of the mid-20th century. What am I talking about? Well, you may never know exactly how much you wanted to see people driving without seat belts or a crowd of men smoking on an elevator until you've seen an episode of "Mad Men." But is there more to this show than skinny ties and stiletto heels? Over at, three writers are hashing out each episode in the "Mad Men" TV Club, and joining us are two of those writers. I'd like to welcome Julia Turner. She's Slate's deputy editor. And, Julia, welcome to These Days.

JULIA TURNER (Deputy Editor, Slate): Hi. Glad to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And John Swansburg is Slate's culture editor. Good morning, John.

JOHN SWANSBURG (Culture Editor, Slate): Good morning to you. Glad to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. And I want to let our listeners know, if you're a fan of "Mad Men," or maybe you've got a question about what all the shouting is about, you can give us a call. The number is 1-888-895-5727. Well, I'm going to throw out an obvious kind of a first question. Julia, why do you think "Mad Men" is so popular? What is the appeal of the show?

TURNER: Well, I think it's twofold. I mean, honestly, part of the appeal is visual. The show has incredible production design, an incredible costume designer, and it really brings to life America in the 1960s in a way that you don't get to see anywhere else. So I know one reason I watch it is just because of the candy colors and the amazing sets and the amazing outfits. Another is, I think, what you mentioned in the intro, the idea that you kind of get to look back on a time when we didn't know as much about health or that you shouldn't smoke during pregnancies or we sort of had different ideas about how to conduct ourselves than we do now so it's sort of fun to look back at a time that's very different from our own. And then actually another reason that it's so enjoyable to watch is just that it's got great soapy plotting. There's – The characters are always falling into bed with somebody new so there plenty of soap opera appeal there, too.

CAVANAUGH: And, John, any other reasons for "Mad Men's" popularity?

SWANSBURG: I think Julia nailed it. But the one thing I would add, at least personally, I love the show's subject. I mean, it's about advertising. It's – That's such a wonderful American subject and a lot of the show, particularly in the first season, but still is given over to really good actors playing interesting characters who are trying to sell products. And some of the sales pitches that they're making are very 1960s and, you know, we sort of chortle as contemporary Americans, thinking, oh, my God, I can't believe that, you know, sales pitch worked. But a lot of what they're wrestling with in terms of how to get Americans to buy products are still, I assume, very similar to the conversations that ad agencies have today and I just – I think it's very thrilling to – that the show is set in that context. I find that to be a very compelling area.

CAVANAUGH: A lot of seeing of things – whirling them up the flagpole and seeing who salutes it, right?


CAVANAUGH: I wonder if you could give us an example, John, of – because the real products are used in this show, right? When they're trying to come up with their advertising programs about them?

SWANSBURG: Sure. I mean, one of – from the first season, one of the accounts that I thought was most interesting was Sterling Cooper, which is the New York ad agency that you mentioned that the show revolves around, was tasked with selling Lucky Strike cigarettes and it was at a moment when Americans were just realizing that, oh, cigarettes are actually not the best thing for your health.


SWANSBURG: And I think a report had just come out and a big Reader's Digest article had been published and the ad men at Sterling Cooper were trying to figure out how can we continue to increase the sales of this product that's been a mainstay of their business for a long time given that Americans are now confronting the fact that it's probably not a good idea to smoke in elevators, probably not a good idea to smoke while pregnant, and the – the episodes that dealt with the new attempts to repackage that product were pretty fascinating.

CAVANAUGH: Now I'd like you, if you would, both of you, to give us a sense of how the creator of this – of "Mad Men," Matthew Weiner, approaches the period setting. He's obsessed with period detail, it would seem, Julia, and I think, as you mentioned, that's one of the pleasures of watching this show. Just in a typical sort of an episode, what kinds of things do you see that just bring you back, even if you've never been there, to the early sixties?

TURNER: I mean, there were a number of pieces in the run-up to this season focusing on the kinds of details that they're obsessed with in the production design of the show. So a Vanity Fair piece about the show mentioned that Matthew Weiner was obsessed with the idea that apples in the 1960s were not yet the genetically modified super apples that we have in our stores today, so he wanted some apples that were smaller and more shriveled looking and less shiny and glossy. The stemware that they use in the many drinking scenes, they've gone for smaller glassware than what you would find at a modern bar because that's apparently what was popular then. I believe they've even checked to see what the weather was like on the given day when an episode was set to make sure that they get the weather right. They…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, my goodness.

TURNER: …they checked to see, you know, what the train schedules were between New York where Don Draper, the main character, works and Ossining in Westchester County, where he lives. And, you know, make sure that he's on the train that would've actually been running that day.

CAVANAUGH: That is – that's really just amazing. And, you know, there's something about the visual element of this show that is – you know, if you look back to an old 1960s TV show that's in color, everything does have this candy cane quality to it. You know, it's very bright and the colors are very vivid but there's also something else about "Mad Men." There's a depth to the color and the production style that you don't necessarily pick up if you see like an old episode of "Bewitched" or something like that. Would you agree, John?

SWANSBURG: Absolutely. And I think, you know, the attention to detail that Julia just enumerated is really something that's quite amazing. And a lot of it you can see. The stemware, for instance, it kind of jumps out at you. But something like the train schedule, that's something that only someone who lived through the period would know and then maybe not even them. I mean, does someone who went to work from Ossining to New York in 1960 remember that there was a 5:31? It's a level of obsession that's sort of almost hard to fathom in some ways. But one other remark that Matthew Weiner has made before that I think is really interesting, is that when they were coming up with the furniture design for the Draper household in Ossining, he didn't want it all to be exactly what was in catalogs and magazines in 1960 when the show began because he knew that no one's house in 1960 was full of stuff that was produced in 1960, it was full of stuff that was made in '59, '58, '55, so he's not just obsessed with nailing 1960 or 1961, he's – he thinks about what a home in 1961 would look like. And that might mean that it was, you know, a little bit – a few steps behind what you might find in a magazine and I think that attention to detail is really something spectacular and it's fun to observe.

CAVANAUGH: We are talking about the hit TV series "Mad Men." And I'm talking with Julia Turner, who is deputy editor for John Swansburg is culture editor for We're talking about a blog that's running on Slate, the Mad Men TV Club. And we're inviting you to join the conversation, 1-888-895-5727. You know, there is an awful lot of drinking that goes on during the "Mad Men" show and people are shown drinking at lunch hours, they're drinking when they're – they come home from work. I wonder, John, do we know, was there really that much drinking going on like in 1960, '61?

SWANSBURG: It's a great question. I have read interviews or articles by ad men of that period coming out on both sides of it. I've read ad men saying they don't drink enough on that show. We drank four times as many martinis at lunch as they're showing them. And then I've read people saying that's ridiculous, how could you possibly conduct the important business that we were conducting when you've had four martinis at lunch? One thing I would also add, though, is that, and this connects back to the point about the show's verisimilitude, you know, the martini glasses in 1960 were smaller than the martini glasses that we have today, so a three-martini lunch with a smaller martini glass is not quite the same thing as if, you know, you or I went out today and had a three-martini lunch. We probably wouldn't – we'd barely be able to stumble back to the office. They were maybe drinking a little bit less in each one so, you know, it's a little hard to say. I think that it was part of the culture and it's, of course, impossible to know exactly how much was imbibed every day but I got the sense that, you know, given the attention to detail in the rest of the show, I believe it.

CAVANAUGH: That's interesting. You know, Julia, when the show depicts characters smoking and drinking perhaps to excess and, you know, there are all sorts of issues, also health issues and sexual harassment, I wonder, are Weiner and the writers critical and judgmental in their depiction of these things that used to go on in the '60s?

TURNER: I mean, I think this is really one of the crucial questions about the show which is why are they being so obsessive about this era? What is Matthew Weiner's motive for creating a show that's set in nineteen – in the early 1960s and being so devoted about getting the details right. What's he getting at here? What's the point? And I think in the early seasons they were sort of really setting up this jewel box portrait of what the world was like then, showing all of its flaws. And there was even some criticism of the show, that it was a little bit too smug, sort of offering the modern viewer the opportunity to look back on a, you know, an earlier day and say isn't it great that we know better now? Isn't it great that we don't smoke when we're pregnant anymore? And we don't drive drunk as much as we used to? And, you know, we're not – our views of race relations and, you know, whether there should be Jewish people in your workplace are not as blinkered and prejudiced as we were then. One thing that I think's been really interesting about season three of the show and I'm really excited about in watching the show going forward is that I think, you know, the first two seasons really set up this world where we were less enlightened than we are today and I think what this season is really beginning to get into is how we made that change, how we got from there to here and sort of how these blinkered characters became more enlightened and began to reconsider race relations and gender relations and all of the issues that the show addresses.

CAVANAUGH: So basically you're saying perhaps the earlier seasons set up the idea that this was a very different time than ours and now we're finding out how that change occurred.

TURNER: I think so. That's what I'm hoping we're headed for this season.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take a call. We are taking your calls, by the way, if you're a fan of the show "Mad Men" or you have a question about it. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. And J.V. is calling us from Mission Hills. Good morning, J.V., and welcome to These Days.

J.D. (Caller, Mission Hills): Good morning. It's actually J.D. but…


J.D.: …I was call – That's okay. I was calling because I actually grew up in Ossining…


J.D.: …New York, and I'm a huge fan of the show. And I think that they've done an amazing job because there actually was or actually probably still is a 5:31 that comes – an express that goes into Ossining station.

SWANSBURG: That's amazing.

J.D.: And the neighborhood tot – the neighborhood that they live in completely looks, and the houses completely look like the houses in Ossining in Westchester County. And there were a lot of – I – you know, in elementary school and at, you know, the clubs, some club we belonged to, lots and lots of advertising executives. And, in fact, the 'please don’t' squeeze the Charmin' guy…


J.D.: …was from Ossining, and the guy who did the 'last night I dreamt I was at the opera in my Maidenform.' A lot of like really high end advertising executives lived in Ossining. So…

CAVANAUGH: J.B. (sic) you sound really young so, of course, you don't remember at – this 1960s culture but I wonder if it's a little bit like looking at old photographs your family might have?

J.D.: Oh, absolutely, and I'm actually not young. I was in elementary school in the early seventies in Ossining and it does, and so I definitely remember the cultural shift of, you know, pregnant women not smoking as much anymore and people not smoking as much anymore, people not drinking as much, and definitely also the shift of the town going from being very conservative politically to being – becoming more liberal politically.


J.D.: You know, from the late sixties on.

CAVANAUGH: I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you. I thought you were finished. But J.D., I really want to thank you so much for calling in. That was really nice to see this. I – The attention to detail is really true. Thank you so much. I wanted to ask both Julia and John, you know, we were just speaking about mores changing and we're now seeing where perhaps we went from where we were in the sixties to where we've come today. But, you know, the lead character, Don Draper, he's handsome, he's enigmatic, but he doesn't really show much of a moral guidepost and he – it doesn't seem like he has any morals. Would you agree with that, Julia?

TURNER: Well, I think we're beginning to get a more complicated portrait of Don. Actually, in the pilot episode of this – the whole series in season one, we do see Don interacting with a black waiter at a bar and the black waiter's white boss comes over and says, oh, is the waiter bothering you? And Don says, no, no, we were just having a conversation. So the show has been at pains from the very outset to suggest that Don is not entirely a product of his time and is not, you know, maybe has more enlightened views on race and social norms than some of his colleagues at Sterling Cooper and people of generational – generations a little bit older than him. This episode that aired on Sunday had a really shocking scene in which Don's boss performs in black face at a private party at a private club at a party he's hosting. And we see Don sort of recoil in horror watching this performance, and he excuses himself and leaves the scene and goes and sort of hides out and doesn't watch it. So I think Don – You know, Don is a man, a very slippery chameleon of a man, who certainly doesn't take his pledge to be faithful to his wife very seriously…


TURNER: …but he does seem to have some social compunction and I think it'll be interesting to see how that develops over the season.

CAVANAUGH: You know, since you brought it up, let's talk about the last episode because it was a stunner and at least one of you contends it was perhaps the best in "Mad Men's" history. And I'm wondering, besides this shocking sequence where Roger Sterling, the character Roger Sterling, appears in – to do a musical number in blackface, what was it about this that made this episode stand out from the rest? And either one of you, Julia or John, can take that.

SWANSBURG: I definitely think it's one of the best episodes. I think Julia actually came out and said it is 'the' best, and it may be. I think I'd need to watch – rewatch the first two seasons. But it's certainly in the top three. Certainly, you know, some of the elements of the episode that have already been mentioned are part of its charm. For me, a big part of what was so great about it was related to the form of the episode, just the brilliant structure of it. It really revolves around several set pieces that all involve performance. This is something that Julia wrote about on Slate. There's the aforementioned blackface performance by Roger Sterling, which is a really troubling scene but an also really powerful one. But there are also other scenes and performance that are staggered throughout the episode that are all interconnected. Joan Holloway, who's sort of the head secretary or office manager at Sterling Cooper, is forced by her husband to perform for dinner guests and she, it turns out, plays the accordion. This is something we didn't know until last Sunday, and she performs this amazing French song and the scene has a lot of meaning. And in another scene at the Sterling Cooper offices where some of the underlevel executives are working over the weekend, we learn that one of the copywriters performed in a singing group called the Tiger Tones during his time at Princeton and he sort of belts out a ditty in a way that's sort of revealing as well. So there was this really wonderful formal quality to the episode, too, kind of exploring themes through musical performance. It was just that's the kind of thing that "Mad Men" does. I mean, it was so meticulously plotted that it's just a pleasure to watch that kind of thoughtfulness.

CAVANAUGH: Would you like to add anything, Joan, about this? I'm sorry, Julia, about this. About…

TURNER: Would that I were Joan.

CAVANAUGH: I want to talk about Joan in a minute. But I just want to finish on this last episode. Would you like to add anything?

TURNER: I mean, I think John has it just right. These performances were delightful. The one I loved the most, I think, was Pete, who's sort of the evil, evil ad man at Sterling Cooper, a young striver, does a dance number with his wife, which was also just delightful to watch him looking graceful instead of smarmy for once. But I also think the episode was particularly brilliant in that it used these performances, in particular Roger's blackface performance, to set up a little bit of that shift I was talking about earlier where, you know, sort of the old world that's being – that's tumbling down in the sixties, that's about to be torn down by all the different social convulsions that are to come, is just being, you know, caricatured in this scene so we see Roger, it's shocking to see Roger perform in blackface but part of what this scene and the performance is perhaps foretelling is that, you know, we're going to see this world fall. We're going to see Roger's world shrink and get smaller, and we're going to see, you know, sort of the young copywriters, the women, the people who didn't come from hoity-toity backgrounds begin to take a bigger role in the company and sort of watch these social changes unfold. So I thought the episode did a really good job of marrying these performances that were really compelling with the larger kind of thematic shift in the show.

CAVANAUGH: You know, since I messed up and I called you Joan, Julia, I wanted you to talk about Joan, the character, in "Mad Men." And it – the – you know, she's like the office bombshell. She's the woman that, you know, was lionized in the fifties and early sixties for this hourglass figure. She's just – just really a concoction and yet there's such an empathy about this character. I wonder perhaps, Julia, if you could talk a little bit about what's going on with her.

TURNER: I mean, Joan, I think, is really a fan favorite. She, as you mentioned, is the office bombshell. She's a gorgeous redhead. She's incredibly curvy. She's gotten a lot of attention and, in general, the casting of the women on the show has gotten a lot of attention for being these beautiful women who might not be considered beautiful by modern standards. And so she's really kind of the, you know, paradigmatic woman of 1959, when the show begins, and it's been fascinating and really sad to follow her plotline over the past few seasons. In season one, she was having an affair with Roger Sterling. They broke off that affair. Roger Sterling ended up marrying a much younger and more modern woman, breaking up with his wife to marry a different secretary at the office. And I think what we really see with Joan is that she's kind of caught between the old world where a woman's job was to get married and run a home and sort of protect her future that way, and the future world where women have so many more opportunities, can advance themselves in an office. And she's a woman who has the smarts and know-how to have had an office career but she's just a generation behind, a generation too old, and she sort of can't quite convince herself that that's what she should do, that's the right world for her. So she has, herself, gotten married to a doctor who is a little bit of a lout. He raped her during season two. He just doesn't seem like that great a catch for beloved Joan but she doesn't seem to be able to extricate herself from this relationship because her notion of what she's supposed to do with her life is be married to a successful man and help him meet with more success. And so it's just heartbreaking to watch her kind of fall into this smaller and smaller role.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Jennifer is calling from San Diego. And good morning, Jennifer. Welcome to These Days.

JENNIFER (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. I just wanted to comment. I own an advertising agency and one of the things that really strikes me is the lack of technology, and I think about my office and how we are completely strapped to our computer and e-mail and we barely have time to sit around and, you know, have these creative meetings. And I look at the, you know, the characters and they're laying on their couches and they're having these brainstorming meetings and I am just wistful for those days of, you know, not being on all the time connected and there's just a – it's very interesting, so it's just more of a comment I wanted to throw out there.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I appreciate the phone call. And, obviously, you're just not drinking enough.

JENNIFER: I think that's the problem.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for the call. You know, Julia, as you were describing Joan's dilemma it made me think of a character on the show named Peggy Olson, because she is a young woman who's moved from secretary to copywriter at Sterling Cooper Ad Agency. She continues to make inroads at the firm despite the rampant sexism of the time. What is it, I want to ask you, John, first, what it is that you like about her storyline?

SWANSBURG: She's a fantastic character. She is a great counterpoint to Don and she is – she sort of offers up this hope that a young woman, even at this period, given all of the mores of the time, could succeed in this incredibly male dominated world. I think the show has done an interesting job of plotting her advancement. It started out almost by accident. I mean, she wasn't much of a striver compared to Pete or some of the other characters at "Mad Men" but Sterling Cooper sells products that are for women. It sells Maidenform bras, it sells Belle Jolie lipstick, and Peggy started out sort of being in the room when those conversations were having about how to pitch these products to women and it was just dawning on these men that maybe asking a woman what she wants to hear from a pitch would be a good idea. Prior to that, it seems like the Sterling Cooper guys were only about how men would see their ads. So she sort of got her start doing that but in this most recent episode, it was really lovely to see Peggy really trying to assert herself. She called out one of her colleagues, Paul Kinsey, for only ever asking her opinion when it came down to a question about a woman's product. She doesn't want to just be the person that gets a phone call or invited to a meeting when bras are for sale. She wants to be on equal footing with the men. And it's not clear what will happen. It's always a mistake to think you – to presume to know what – where the plot is going to head in the show but it was reassuring in this past episode. It seemed like maybe Peggy is going to have a chance to sort of – to reach that same level as her male colleagues and you can't help but root for her.

CAVANAUGH: And, Julia, Peggy had an interesting smoking section in this last segment.

TURNER: Her name is Peggy Olson and she wants to smoke some marijuana. Yeah, we saw the advent of the drug culture in this most recent episode. The higher up executives at the firm are all at Roger's party, which is sort of a blast from the past with the blackface and a restricted club, whereas the youngsters at the office, the women, a man whose writing partner is gay, a guy who had sort of humble roots in New Jersey, are stuck in the office over the weekend trying to come up with an ad for Bacardi and they get stumped so they call a drug pushing friend who brings some pot to the office and they all get high in a scene that's very funny and reminiscent of 'colleagues smoke together' scenes in other movies. And it was just kind of great to see Peggy confident enough to let loose. You know, she's not sort of cowed and hiding out in her office and feeling like because she's a woman her every action is going to be scrutinized, she's got to totally walk a fine line. You know, she sees – she – her only role models for how to do the job are the very entitled men in the office who do as they please and bed whom they want and drink whatever they want, and so she's beginning to act like them, and she gets high in the office on a Saturday and it makes her feel good.

CAVANAUGH: Now both of you have been doing so well in introducing us to these various characters on the show. I'm wondering, do either of you have a favorite "Mad Men" character? John?

SWANSBURG: It's very difficult to pick. I have a soft spot for a guy named Ken Cosgrove, who is…

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh, yeah.

SWANSBURG: …one of the ad execs at Sterling Cooper. He's on the sort of sales side. He's not a creative guy. He's sort of an account manager but he's a bit – he's not a major character but he plays important roles in episodes throughout the series and early on he very surprisingly placed a piece of short fiction in the Atlantic Monthly, which was completely surprising. He'd never given any indication that he was a literary type. He's a very happy go lucky guy. He's often got a funny witticism at the ready. There's something I find very charming about him. He's not the most important character but whenever he's on the screen, I'm pretty happy. So that might be my sort of dark horse pick for a favorite character.


TURNER: Ah, I love them all. It's a little hard to pick. But one we haven't talked about who I'm particularly fond of and he's had an interesting thread this season is Salvatore Romano, who's the art director who produces the images for a lot of the ads. And he's gay and closeted and married and actually has a little bit of a crush on Ken Cosgrove.


TURNER: And he's – You know, it's just been sort of fascinating to watch him emerge over the seasons and begin to reckon with his own sexuality and I think that's something we'll probably see more of over the season.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, is there a best fashion moment so far this season, Julia?

TURNER: Oh, my God, they're all so fun. I loved the dress that Betty wore in this most recent episode. Betty is Don's wife, much put upon, and very pregnant this season. And she managed to doll herself up in some chic white lace for this Kentucky Derby party and she looked pretty smashing.

CAVANAUGH: And I can't let it go without asking you both about predictions for the rest of the season. You each get one, and, John, what would be your prediction for the way the third season of "Mad Men" is going to go?

SWANSBURG: Well, one thing we haven't talked about, this past season – this past episode on Sunday was just very portentous. There were all these references to these changes that are about to happen. One of the characters is reading "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." One of the characters quotes T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Man," (sic) the line about, you know, this is how the world will end. It was not subtle that there's a big – there are big changes coming. What are those changes? It's a little hard to say but I think Julia hit on it earlier. I think that we're really going to see an accelerated plotline where the old line wasp establishment at Sterling Cooper is going to be losing power and the young women, gay men, state school educated ad – young ad folks are going to take a bigger role. I think the big question that I just don't know the answer to is where Don fits in this. He is somewhere between those two worlds, as we discussed earlier, and I just don't know where he's going to end up. I wish I did.


TURNER: Well, I think the one other thing that's a big mystery about Don this season is he's – so Don has got a secret identity. He was actually born Dick Whitman and he's sort of been pretending to be Don Draper and it's a very soapy plotline but one thing we've seen a bit this season is him beginning to reconcile with his true Dick Whitman self, and he's kept this self a secret even from his wife Betty, so I'm fascinated to see whether, as the show moves forward into the future and sort of being honest about who you are becomes a bigger part of what American culture is all about, we see Don forced to confess his true identity to his own wife. I don't know if that's going to happen this season but I think we're sort of headed along that track somewhere in season three or four.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I think you've made us all fascinated about seeing what comes next on "Mad Men." I want to thank you both so much.

TURNER: Thank you.

SWANSBURG: Thank you. It was fun.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Julia Turner. She is Slate's deputy editor. And John Swansburg is Slate's culture editor. We've been talking about "Mad Men," the TV show, and also about the blog, three writers from and the blog is called the Mad Men TV Club. Coming up on These Days, we will be talking about the winners of the Art of Photography show here in San Diego. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

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