Mad communication in Mad Men

December 14, 2009

Sometimes the best ideas emerge when we simply think of our favorite things.

While trying to develop a compelling communications-oriented topic for her upcoming fall junior seminar, lecturer Rodda Leage batted around some ideas with associate professor James Schwoch.

Jon Hamm in Mad Men
Jon Hamm has a lot to explain - and Northwestern communications studies had a lot to learn - in Mad Men. A fall quarter class taught by Rodda Leage looked at the show through a communication lens.
Photo courtesy of AMC.

"What do you love?" Schwoch asked Leage last spring when the two were both teaching at Northwestern University-Qatar.

"At the time I was really into Mad Men," Leage confessed.

Mad Men, a critically acclaimed television series now in its third season on the cable television network AMC, follows the lives of men and women in the Madison Avenue advertising world of the 1960s. Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper, an advertising creative director who also creates another life for himself.

As Leage considered the themes of the provocative drama, she saw ample opportunities to explore the cultural issues of the early '60s through a "communication lens." The junior seminar "Mad Communication in Mad Men" was born.

While the 15 students in the seminar were required to watch a Mad Men episode from season one for each class, Leage said the class focus isn't so much about the television series itself, but more about examining the forms of communication in early '60s American society. Students explored issues such as civil rights, gender roles, workplace equality and family life through what happened on the Mad Men screen and through related reading materials.

"Analyzing the show is great, but the background readings really help in allowing us to understand the times of the 1960s," said junior Makda Fessahaye, a student in the course. "I understood the '60s to be a decade of the civil rights movement and hippies, not necessarily housewives and conservatism."

Junior Simon Han said he enjoyed comparing communication from that era to that of modern day.

"In the '60s, communication was straight-laced, hierarchical and often dominated by stereotypes," Han said. "Today, with the prevalent use of internet and social media and all this new technology, there are so many new ways to express yourself."

Leage was impressed by the insights and observations students made in class. And as a working woman herself, comparing '60s society to today had its own personal impact.

"Watching the show, I'm grateful for how many more opportunities we have now than 50 years ago," Leage said.

The second half of the quarter-long class involved writing a 20-page research paper on a student-selected topic.

Han analyzed the rhetoric of JFK/Nixon and Obama/McCain during their respective presidential campaigns. "My aim is to learn how a strategic use of language can shape a general public's perceptions," he said.

As an added bonus, both Han and Fessahaye said that while they were not Mad Men fans prior to taking the class, they both became avid watchers and are looking forward to viewing subsequent seasons. But they're not just fans; they're still watching Don Draper and his friends through that communication lens.

"The class has made me realize just how much care the writers put into the show —every bit of detail seems to carry weight," Han said.

Coincidentally, School of Communication alumna Cathryn Humphris (C98) is executive story editor on Mad Men and graciously participated in a Skype session with the class to talk about the show.

"Talking with Cathryn gave my students the opportunity to learn about the behind-the-scenes work of writing for television and to understand how the writing process, whether it be for a research paper or an award-winning television series, is actually quite similar," Leage said. "They really enjoyed hearing about her career path and how Northwestern helped to prepare her for her current position. Understanding how much time and care is put into the writing of each line in the show gave the students an appreciation for the careful analysis we have done throughout the course."

Humphris said talking with Leage's class was a "great experience," finding it "cool" that the school offers a class using Mad Men.

"I remember loving classes like that back when I attended Northwestern," she said. "School can definitely be more fun when it relates to current events, or things you love doing in your own life, like vegging out in front of the TV. Though you can't do a lot of vegging when you watch Mad Men, which I suspect is part of the reason Rodda chose it."

Since its debut, Mad Men has garnered an Emmy® Award for Outstanding Drama Series; two Golden Globe® Awards for Best Television Drama Series; a Peabody Award; a Producers Guild Award; two Writers Guild Awards; and a number of other accolades.

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