Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Mad Men invade Twitter!

It’s 3 a.m. on Thursday morning and I’m writing text messages to a fictional character. Peggy Olson wants to read “Atlas Shrugged” and I’m trying to stop her.

Hollywood hasn’t really figured out the Internet yet. I remember a good friend in 1993, promising to boycott any movie that had its own web site. I presume he’s reading books now.

These days, all movie web sites look the same — struggling to be different in exactly the same way. Buggy, flash-heavy pages that require dozens of plug-ins and fail spectacularly when you don’t have them.

Most promoters try to impress us with video, eye-candy and sound effects, but every now and then, somebody gets creative.

The first attempt I remember was an elaborate puzzle game used to promote Steven Spielberg’s “AI.” It started as a murder mystery on the web — a series of interlocking pages, all written as if they were coming live from this fictional universe.

One site was mentioned obliquely in the promotional material, leading fans to a vast collection of graphics, games and audio clips, all feeding into a unified story.

Microsoft provided the funding and Sean Stewart provided the text. Visitors could solve riddles and flash puzzles to see extra content and get more clues to the mystery.

The complete game, including puzzles, discussion, and all those beautiful web pages, is archived at Cloudmakers.org.

Production values were superb all around, but it was the story that made it work for me. Stewart’s description of a teetering dystopia populated by intelligent machines played better than the movie.

Now AMC has taken this concept to the next level to promote “Mad Men.” As our culture sinks into confusion and postmodernism, there’s a growing desire to discover the “real” 50s. Not the idealized Norman Rockwell version, but the gritty, contradictory reality from a time when technology could solve everything and white men ruled the Earth.

Main characters from the show have shown up with Twitter accounts and are interacting, live and in-character, with the audience.

Twitter is a social networking service that allows you to send short messages from your phone or desktop and give friends “breaking news” updates about your life.

Twitter posts run the gamut from “Broke up with my girlfriend” to “Just bought a sandwich” and the “Mad Men” characters have embraced the concept, posting updates as if they were working at an advertising agency in 1960.

This is groundbreaking because the characters are making the audience part of their performance, playing their parts totally straight, answering the most ridiculous questions without breaking character.

My favorite so far is from Don Draper (writing as don_draper on Twitter.com), responding to one rude commenter last night: “Maybe you should put down the joint and work on your spelling, punctuation and grammar.”

I’ve found half a dozen characters so far and I expect to see others popping up as the experiment continues. Just start with Don and follow the people he references in his posts.

I don’t know who’s responsible for this, but they’re very smart and very fast. I gave peggyolson some advice about “Atlas Shrugged” and she wrote back in a couple minutes.

The promotion looks too slick to be a fan thing, but I’ve been fooled before. I suspect it’s a side project from the writers or the marketing people at AMC.

Whoever started it, my hat is off to you.

This promotion tickles me because it puts a new spin on one of the oldest geek hobbies. This is a kind of fantasy role-playing, not the swords and sorcery stuff my generation grew up with, but a modern variant that branches into genuine interactive theater.

I remember a Dungeons and Dragons cartoon about fantasy characters sitting around a table pretending to be lawyers, accountants and office workers in modern day.

Now people on the net are interacting, in character, with people pretending to be office workers in 1960. AMC has resurrected my hobby in a surreal and beautiful way, in a context that ordinary people can understand.

I hope it works, and I hope other media companies follow in their footsteps, using words and drama to draw people to their products — deliberately courting a smart audience and trusting them to get the joke.

Written by Michael B. Duff

August 25, 2008 at 11:35

Posted in TV

6 Responses

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  1. […] ← Mad Men invade Twitter! […]

  2. The D&D cartoon you recall is Bizarro, April 20th, 2007 (a copy is stuck to my fridge.)

    Briefcases and Bureaucrats: “Well, I protect myself with a +13 Defense Lawyer against your Unlawful Search.”


    August 26, 2008 at 16:18

  3. Nah, he’s thinking of the cartoon from the 1st edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide – “We’re playing Papers and Paychecks – we assume the roles of lawyers, accountants, and so on in a modern industrialized world”. Or something very close to that.

    Another Tom

    August 26, 2008 at 21:26

  4. […] I spent 800 words praising AMC for their innovative marketing campaign. It turns out to be a fan project, and the giant clueless corporation invokes copyright to shut […]

  5. Another Tom: Hey, you’re shattering my delusions about commercial cartooning being original!


    August 28, 2008 at 20:08

  6. […] @peggyolson is a Twitter account run by a fan of the show, one of a group of fans who decided to impersonate characters from Mad Men and post in character on Twitter — a kind of grass-roots promotion that galvanized AMC’s audience and took the Internet by storm. […]

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