On AMC's hit show Mad Men, character Peggy Olson is the ambitious secretary-turned-copywriter at fictional Manhattan advertising agency Sterling Cooper. On the show, which is set in 1962, she's excellent at keeping secrets—such as how she bore a child out of wedlock. Off the show, she's more forthcoming. Olson—or rather, a person posing as her—uses the microblogging service Twitter to give fans a peek into her inner thoughts: "The men in the office are headed to the Oyster Bar. I'm going to the library. It doesn't seem quite fair," she wrote on Aug. 25.
Olson isn't the only Mad Men character on Twitter. Sterling Cooper creative director Don Draper began it all by issuing his first status update on Aug. 12. A few days later, seductive secretary Joan Holloway joined the fray, writing on Aug. 19, for instance: "Hoping @don_draper will be eating lunch outside of office again today, as he usually does. There's a sale on intimates at Macy's." That was the day Peggy Olson popped up.
In all, more than 15 Mad Men characters are Twittering, and more appear every week. All are posted by individual fans of the show and to date, none are known to be associated with the series. At least one blogger has speculated that Don Draper, Peggy Olson, and the others are actors hired by AMC interactive marketing agency Deep Focus, but AMC spokeswoman Theano Apostolou emphatically denies it. Several of the Mad Men Twitterers also said in interviews that they're independent fans, unaffiliated with Mad Men or AMC.
Don Draper's Behind It
The unofficial Mad Men are using Twitter to push fictional characters into a new digital frontier—at the same time blurring the lines between brand infringement and brand extension. While a show's creators and distributors might ordinarily welcome the publicity that comes with seeing it depicted in a positive light beyond normal viewing times, they're also on alert for signs that their brand is being misused in some manner. Content owners are especially vigilant in an age when users can spread content quickly by means of social media, such as Facebook or Google (GOOG)'s YouTube. In July, Hasbro (HAS) sued the creators of an unauthorized version of its Scrabble word game (BusinessWeek.com, 7/24/08) that had become wildly famous on Facebook. For a time, Twitter disabled Mad Men accounts amid inquiries from AMC as to their origin—though AMC denies having asked for the accounts to be blocked.
It's nothing new for fictional characters to show up unofficially outside their shows and movies. But the Mad Men on Twitter are in a class of their own. There are now more than 15 characters who interact with one another online while sticking closely to plot points. They never break character. The identities of Peggy Olson, Don Draper, and the others remain closely guarded secrets. Messages sent to Peggy Olson's Twitter account were answered by someone who refused to reveal an identity; he or she agreed to an interview only if it could be done in character. In real life, the unidentified person who plays Peggy Olson helps coordinate a complicated effort to bring Mad Men's characters to life on Twitter.
The idea originated from the person behind Don Draper's Twitter account—who refuses to identify him or herself.
The characters also answer questions from fans. Don Draper, known for his infidelity on the show, has even fended off digital advances from multiple women. "Betty doesn't go out for the night unless she comes into the city to meet me," Don wrote on Aug. 21 in response to overtures from one fan. "Please don't ask to come to my house again."
A Mystery to Them, Too
Though the charade may appear well choreographed from the outside, in reality the effort is more haphazard, with independent fans creating characters that need to be integrated into the whole. One of the characters, Sterling Cooper copywriter Paul Kinsey, is played by a fan in Canada. He outed himself in an Aug. 26 blog post the day some Mad Men Twitter accounts were suspended. In real life, he is Mario Parisé, a project manager at Twist Image, a digital marketing agency based in Montreal and Toronto. "I'm not sure if I'll keep tweeting as Paul. It was all just meant as a little bit of fun and geekery and now that people know who I am, any veil of mystery is effectively nonexistent," he writes in an e-mail message. "I started participating simply because I love Paul Kinsey," he says, "He basically embodies every guy who's ever admired both [advertising pioneer] David Ogilvy and Ernest Hemingway."
Being a Mad Men Twitterer is akin to being in the Mafia; characters are told the identity of other characters on a need-to-know basis. Parisé doesn't know how all the Mad Men Twitterers are connected. "I know a few, but whether or not anyone knows everybody is a mystery to me," he says. Everybody may not know one another, but from the outside the effort looks pretty slick. The Mad Men Twitterers have even created a Web site called WeAreSterlingCooper.com.
"Whoever is writing this is sticking close to the narrative of the show, and it doesn't look like they're creating their own stories," says Nathan Wright, founder and managing partner of Lava Row, a social-media strategy firm in Des Moines. Wright is a fan of the show and follows a number of the characters on Twitter, though he says he's unconnected to the Mad Men on Twitter. Wright has helped at least one brand establish a presence on Twitter, and he says that many companies struggle with brand control when it comes to social media.
Choking Free Publicity
In fact, AMC was caught by surprise when the Twitter accounts started popping up and the network noticed AMC logos appearing on the background of some of the Mad Men Twitter accounts. The network asked Twitter to determine the origin of the accounts. There had been reports in the blogosphere that AMC persuaded Twitter to take down the accounts. AMC spokeswoman Apostolou says the network never asked for the accounts to be halted. In any event, Twitter suspended the accounts on Aug. 26, arousing a backlash from upset fans in the blogosphere. AMC asked Twitter to restore the accounts because it became evident they were fan-based.
Lava Row's Wright says he advises companies to embrace fan participation as long as it's not harming the brand. "You can't beat people out there talking about your brand and creating content around that for free," he says. Case in point, the popularity of the Mad Men Twitters continues to grow. As of Sept. 3, Don Draper had 2,000 followers and Peggy Olson had 1,317, more than any of the others.
Still, being taken out of commission couldn't make Don Draper or Peggy Olson break character. Draper's first tweet when he returned on Aug. 26 said: "Doing what I do best—moving forward with my life like today never happened." Fans of the show recognized that line from a recent episode. As for Peggy, her response that day was simple: "I'm back. And I feel like the new girl at Sterling Cooper."