July 27, 2021
Mad Men cast in front of office building.

Analyzing Audience Psychology Through Mad Men

Television can go beyond the realm of entertainment, it can be applied to scientific theories.

The world consumes media everyday. Whether it is books, movies, TV, or music, media has become an integral part of everyone’s life. For as long as media has been around, people have come up with theories as to why we engage in certain media, and how it affects audiences.

Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, and more specifically, self-actualization, is a theory that is mentioned both in the fields of science and media. This hierarchy is often related to the uses and gratifications theory, which is by far one of the most fascinating and logical ways of thinking about media consumption. 

To show how powerful and relevant these theories are, I am going to analyze one of my favorite TV shows of all time, Mad Men, and how these theories are present in the show. 

Mad Men (2007-2015) takes place from the late 50s through the late 60s. 

Viewers follow the central character named Don Draper, a suave ad man who is living the American dream, or so it seems. As the series goes on, viewers get an inside look into Draper’s past, and it doesn’t take long for this pristine image of an American man to spiral out of control.

Don Draper Meditating in front of an ocean.
Don Draper fights to reach self-fulfillment on Mad Men. (Photo courtesy of Justina Mintz/AMC via The New Yorker)

There is an individual inside of Draper who is desperately trying to get out, and that is his true self. Draper builds this wall to masquerade the poverty of his upbringing, and the dishonorable actions that he committed while serving in the Korean War. 

He is ashamed of this part of himself, and he hides it away in order to be welcomed into the rich, white, conservative image of America during the 50s, but this ideal image is challenged as the story enters into the 60s. 

Draper lies about his true identity, similar to how he lies (warps the truth) of certain products that he helps sell as an ad man.

Mad Men is a show that deals with the struggle of identity and how everyone tries to conform. Hundreds of teen movies have tackled this topic before, but not as profound and beautiful as Mad Men

People who desperately try to conform with those around them in real life can relate to Draper’s character. This is where the uses and gratifications theory comes in. 

The uses and gratifications approach to media is the idea that media doesn’t do things to people; people do things with the media. There are several needs and gratifications that people often seek such as cognitive, affective, personal integrative, social integrative, and tension-free needs. 

Personal integrative needs deal a lot with gratifying the self-esteem of the viewer and is the most relevant to the topic of discussion. How does the audience use Mad Men to meet their personal integrative needs?

Well, Draper is a womanizer and a bit of an alcoholic who struggles to stay faithful with his wife. There is actually a scene in season 6 episode 11, where Draper’s daughter Sally catches him having sex with a woman next door. His daughter’s disgust is a catalyst that leads him to strive for change. 

Mad Men cast in front of office building.
Mad Men explores the lives of an ad team during 1960s America. (Photo courtesy of PRWeek)

When viewers see Draper struggle and triumph over the same issues that they may experience in real life, it reassures and even motivates them about the future. Or, audience members can feel satisfaction about their own good moral choices as compared to the dark and often conflicted choices that Draper partakes in. 

This effect on the audience is caused by Draper’s personal journey of fulfilment. The journey to “self-fulfillment” is based on meeting a range of human needs, both psychological and basic. 

In 1943, Abraham Maslow introduced a theory that was based upon meeting these needs and composed it into a pyramid which he labelled a hierarchy. Self-actualization, or self-fulfillment, is at the top of this pyramid.

The relationship between the audience and the show is extraordinary because while the fictional character of Draper is fulfilling his needs, the audience in part is being helped as well. 

To be clear, in no way can a single show such as Mad Men cause a person to reach the top of the hierarchy, but it can certainly broaden one’s outlook on self-fulfillment and what to do and not to do in order to get there.

What makes Mad Men such a beautiful show is that we slowly see Draper and other characters climb this pyramid of human needs. The final moments of the show are a representation of the top of the pyramid. 

The ending to the show is bittersweet, because not all characters are granted a “storybook ending,” but in a way, all of the characters reach self-fulfillment. This is why arguably Draper’s ending is so satisfying to experience. The audience sees this man who has been through some of the darkest times and has fought an internal battle with himself, finally reach a state of peace and happiness. 

Draper’s true self prevails and he finally embraces who he is and where he comes from. That is such a powerful message that audiences can use in their own lives to gratify themselves; it is a call to action.

Viewers can take a lot away from Mad Men. The show teaches lessons such as the importance of honesty, and how the lies that you constantly spin will only make you more unhappy. Viewers are able to take these lessons from a show about fictional characters and apply them to their own lives. 

This process is represented perfectly by the uses and gratification theory. This theory pretty much sums up why art still exists in the first place. 

Art is a representative of the human condition; it’s reflective of societies. People turn to art in order to find strength, because when they see their favorite fictional characters work out problems, that gives them hope that they can do the same in their own lives.

  • Robert Cumberlander is the Editor-in-Chief of The Chimes and a senior at Capital University, majoring in Film and Media Production with a minor in Entrepreneurship.

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