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Who is Sterling Cooper?

Lots of brouhaha around the characters of Mad Men (AMC's highly rated TV series about an advertising agency in the 60s), hijacked by fans gone wild on Twitter, in a highly self-referential plot. Here's what happened (so far): When Mad Men fans opened Twitter accounts under the names of the show's characters, AMC initially urged Twitter to close them, insinuating copyright misuse, but then, after some reflection, they realized that prohibiting the social media extension of the series would anger the fan base and in fact hamper free advertising. AMC made a U-turn and now endorses what is cross-media, interactive TV at its extreme: Fictitious characters representing a profession of fiction (advertising) are given a virtual double life by their most ardent viewers.

The "Mad Men on Twitter" drama is a case study about what happens when fiction and reality, TV and social web converge, and an old medium doesn't know how to respond to the conversations it spawns on a new one. "The medium is the message" was yesterday; today the media are the messages. If they're compelling, brands are transgressive and expansive; they become a movement of their own and as such harder to control.

The fans said it best in their manifesto "We Are Sterling Cooper," "a rallying cry to brands and fans alike to come together and create together:"

"Fan fiction. Brand hijacking. Copyright misuse. Sheer devotion. Call it what you will, but we call it the blurred line between content creators and content consumers, and it's not going away. We're your biggest fans, your die-hard proponents, and when your show gets canceled we'll be among the first to pass around the petition. Talk to us. Befriend us. Engage us. But please, don't treat us like criminals."

"We are Sterling Cooper" indicates that the napsterization of the music industry has shifted to good old TV, posing poignant questions about intellectual property: Who, indeed, is Sterling Cooper? Is it the authors, is it the production company, is it the network, is it the actor, or is it the viewers? At the very least, if ownership becomes "socialized," content developers and authors are well-advised to make the echo of the social web an integral part of their creations. Sharon Jaffe has some good suggestions. If the kids want to play, you gotta let them play. Listen to the Mad Men!

Or are digital marketing agencies already a step ahead?. Deep Focus, AMC's digital marketing agency, is rumored to be behind the Mad Men on Twitter. If that is the case, we can usher in a new marketing paradigm that makes things even more complicated and, wow, really post-modern: marketers as the impostors of the impostors, the fiction of the fiction of the fiction. Or simply: "Fake Authenticity."

Tim Leberecht is the CMO of frog and the publisher of design mind.