The saga of Don Draper is starting its long walk into the sunset as the first part of its seventh and final season airs on April 13th. It’s the beginning of the end for the award-winning cultural phenomenon that not only boosted sales of skinny ties and pomade, but also the collective ego of the advertising industry. Being romanticized by stellar story-telling and flawless production design can do that. And yet, why are we not more excited?
When Matthew Weiner’s epic character study of modern U.S. society disguised as an advertising period drama launched in 2007 it sparked a media frenzy, both in the coverage of the show and its stars but also the fan chatter online. But since then, the fervor has slowed its pace like Roger Sterling in a stairwell, particularly in the social media sphere, drowned out by the sword-swinging, zombie-killing, meth-cooking, president-humping competition like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and Scandal.
According to Nielsen, there were more than 1 million tweets sent about the season four finale of AMC's The Walking Dead on March 30th, seen by 6.6 million people, and more than 300,000 sent about the recent season four premiere of Game of Thrones, seen by 6 million people. Last June, there were just 52,000 tweets sent about Mad Men's season six finale. Not exactly encouraging in the age of second screen viewing.
Of course, that episode also attracted 2.7 million viewers, the show's most ever for a finale. By comparison, Breaking Bad's season four finale netted a similar 2.9 million viewers. But unless Draper & Co. step up their social game, don't expect the show to reach the dizzying heights of Walter White— whose series finale was watched by over 10 million people— or their AMC brethren The Walking Dead. The zombie apocalypse-set show has such a devoted and engaged audience that even its post-episode talkshow The Talking Dead had more than 6 million viewers after the show's season four mid-season finale. By the simplest social accounting, Mad Men is not on the same scale as its contemporaries— Game of Thrones has 1.2 million Twitter followers, Walking Dead, 2.4 million, compared to Mad Men's 183,000.
The social stats imply the momentum behind some of Mad Men's contemporaries is much stronger, despite the actual content and quality of the show arguably being equal or better. But what accounts for the social disparity—and does it matter, in terms of how Mad Men is, and will be, viewed in the pantheon of TV dramas?
Jason Sullivan, managing director of Publicis Seattle says Mad Men's lack of social cache right now is two-fold. "For one, it’s later in its life cycle compared to Game of Thrones and Walking Dead so part of it might be fatigue," says Sullivan. "Second, Mad Men used to be really good at social, with the Mad Men Yourself type stuff, but it’s been hard to keep up that momentum because of the content. When you think of Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad or Walking Dead, there’s an intensity to them that actually spurs on that impassioned group of fans. You have zombies, a fantasy world, a chemistry teacher-turned-meth kingpin. In Mad Men, they’re more real people and it's definitely lowest on the escapism scale. Sure people really like Don Draper, but there isn’t quite the fever for what’s going to happen next as there is for the other shows. It’s a bit unfair to judge Mad Men in this context. It’s like asking what you like better between a pair of Keds or the newest Nike flywire running shoe." Indeed, as show creator Matthew Weiner has made clear, Mad Men's drama is of a smaller, more human nature, not the stuff of OMFG moments that make for Twitter explosions.
Ricardo Diaz, director of digital at Los Angeles-based agency Zambezi, says the show's dynamic doesn't lend itself to the kind of jaw-dropping moments and layered storylines seen elsewhere week after week that spurs some of the more animated conversations on Facebook or Twitter. "Its social presence is set up in a way that encourages audiences to simply like and share," says Diaz. "Twitter lives for the kind of nail-biting week-to-week drama Mad Men is not, and it would seem that AMC understands this truth. Showing restraint with social media efforts may not necessarily be a bad thing if it means staying true to their brand."
But Josh Crick, director of digital at creative agency David&Goliath, says that just because characters aren't dying every episode and there aren't massive cliffhangers, doesn't let Mad Men off the social hook. "Obviously the show has amazing art direction and if you look at their out-of-home pieces, they’re beautiful," says Crick. "What you don’t see very much is that kind of thoughtfulness pulled through to the social side in the way they craft the conversation. It doesn’t have to be stuff like ‘What character would you want to go on a date with?’ But if their show is really about strong story-telling and strong visuals, they can still carry that same tone over to social and weave their own offline stories that keep people thinking, guessing and chattering about the show."
Sullivan would like to see Mad Men more often tap into its variety of appeal. "What was amazing in the first few seasons is how much it triggered this look back to a different time, dressing up to travel, liquid lunches, all these things people might like a taste of today," says Sullivan. "How do you tap into that emotion to give people that escape? It would be great to see them do something more than just promoting the show."
The second screen experience may not resonate as much with this particular audience, but Diaz says there's room for Mad Men to amplify the conversation after each episode airs. "Jon Hamm himself is practically a walking meme and Draper's character is a prominent social media motif, so with minimal effort AMC could leverage the user-generated content audiences are sharing," says Diaz.
Crick sees potential for Mad Men in the kind of visual teasing shows like House of Cards and Game of Thrones have used to string fans along and spark conversation and excitement. "Some of the content that’s been successful has been small screen grabs with a line of the show sitting on top of it," says Crick. "Very quickly those give you a glimpse into the art direction and content of the show. It’s easily shared on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and compelling enough to interest fans. And if you look at what Mad Men has done recently on Facebook, there are very beautiful shots with an AMC and Mad Men logo in the bottom corners but nothing to give any context. If I’m a hardcore fan I get it, but for friends of friends or getting that conversation going on a bigger level, there’s nothing compelling or a reason for them to click it to explore more and try to figure it out. These are the kinds of things that get people to the show’s site or on Netflix making sure they’re caught up and ready. The season premiere is so close and there doesn’t seem to be any real level of anxiety about it."
Case in point, while the three preview trailers for Game of Thrones boast YouTube views of 21 million, 12 million and 6 million, the Mad Men trailer featuring a trippy animated manipulation of the Milton Glaser poster for the show has 20,000.
There's also a re-hash of Mad Men Yourself, which Crick says he's already heard complaints that it’s not mobile- or tablet-friendly enough. "It felt a bit reheated and not a lot of effort behind it," says Crick.
Mad Men's lack of social status likely won't hurt its status as a drama giant but could hinder its ability to attract new viewers for a big final hurrah à la Heisenberg. Word of mouth, particularly online, has helped spark new interest in shows like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, acting as cultural peer pressure and driving new fans to catch up on Netflix and then add themselves to the growing roster of overall viewership. Without that momentum, even a brilliant show like Mad Men risks becoming one of those shows that drop out of conversation with a "Oh yeah, I watched the first few seasons of that but..." Kerplunk.
More than anything, fans like Sullivan, Diaz and Crick just want to see its social status reflect the quality of the actual show. "In terms of the most culturally relevant TV shows, Mad Men is one of them, it’s just lost some steam to others," says Sullivan, who as an ad man can't help but recognize the show's brand power. "Still, most consumer brands would kill to have the engagement and following that Mad Men has, it’s just they’d kill multiple times to get where Game of Thrones is."
[Images courtesy of AMC Networks, Jordin Althaus, Michael Yarish, Frank Ockenfels 3]