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Art & Copy: A Look at the Creativity Behind American Advertising

by Jessica Mosby

This summer Don Draper and company return to AMC for the third season of the hit TV show Mad Men. The stylized drama has made the 1960s advertising industry seem like the glory days of creative freedom, complete with noontime cocktails in the office and young feminists breaking through the almost impenetrable glass ceiling.

The new film Art & Copy, perhaps unintentionally, capitalizes on this momentum by documenting the real “Mad Men” (and women) that built the American advertising industry. The film premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, and has since screened at a number of other festivals including the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Art & Copy takes its name from the two departments found at every ad agency: Art and Copy. When these two departments – visuals and words, respectively – work together, innovation and creativity flourish. Or at least that what’s everyone involved in the heyday of advertising recalls. Director Doug Pray (best known for the 2007 documentary Surfwise) interviews the advertising executives responsible for some of the most well-known advertisements of the last four decades: “Got Milk,” Macintosh computer’s “1984” commercial, Nike’s “Just Do It” mantra, and the still-going-strong “I Love New York” campaign. The film doesn’t go into famously terrible and embarrassing advertisements, or the shady side of the industry; the filmmaker exalts, rather than vilifies, his subject.

Pray glorifies the importance of creativity and the glamour of the industry, and the interviewees play into this romanticism. Mary Wells, a feminist trailblazer who worked at Wells Rich Greene, describes advertising as the “most exciting business you could possibility be in.” Lee Clow, an avid surfer and chairman/chief creative officer of TBWAChiatDay worldwide, says that in advertising, creativity – not the client – dictates content. For Clow, advertising is where “creative people rise up.” This ideology is responsible for Clow’s memorable Macintosh computer, iPod, and Energizer Bunny commercials.

The film traces the advertising industry to its inspired prime of the 1950s. Inventive marketing was seen by those in the industry as a reaction to the more solemn eras that preceded midcentury optimism. While working as the first copy chief at Doyle Dane Bernbach, Phyllis K. Robinson wrote ads that “reflected rather than created the mood of the time.” This can best be seen in her successful ads for Clairol hair products, which touted “It Lets Me Be Me” and particularly spoke to the “me” generation of women.

According to the documentary, the best advertisers are a combination of talented salesman and entertainers who believe in what they’re selling. This couldn’t be more apparent than with the self-proclaimed “fighting Greek from the Bronx,” George Lois. His most famous work, which hinged on name-recognition and celebrity, were the “I want my MTV” ad that helped launch the music television network and the ads that compared a young Tommy Hilfiger to more established fashion designers. During an onscreen interview, Hilfiger admits to being initially “embarrassed” by how bold Lois’s ads were, but ultimately it made him work harder. “George turbo charged my success,” Hilfiger says.

As Art & Copy traces the historic roots of the business, the emotional ads of the 1970s and 1980s are seen as a turning point; advertisements had little to do with the products being marketed. The late Hal Riney, who the film is dedicated to, brainstormed campaigns that married commercials with music, and made the decision to buy something (or vote for someone) an emotional choice influenced by the advertisement. His ads for Crocker Bank featured a young couple starting out with the sappy song “We’ve Only Just Begun” playing in the background, and had almost nothing to do with banking. Riney’s “Morning in America” commercial helped reelect President Ronald Reagan in 1984, and completely changed the way political campaigns are conducted.

Is advertising really just coercing people into buying things they do and don’t need? Has everything become an advertisement? Is a 30-second commercial during American Idol (at the cost of approximately $750,000) really an expression of creativity?

The moral implications of advertising are not answered by Art & Copy because the film is an advertisement for advertising. The documentary is an enjoyable and trivia-filled 86 minutes about an industry whose products Americans are bombarded with every day. We may not like or agree with mass consumerism, but it is synonymous with what it means to be an American – or so the film leads you to believe.

Art & Copy might influence the next generation of would-be industry wonks to give advertising a chance because the film paints a very enviable picture of the industry. All of the ad firms featured have very posh offices. In particular, the Portland, Oregon office of Wieden + Kennedy looks like an awesome place to work complete with a basketball court and performance space. Exercising at work seems like a requisite because W+K represents Nike.

The origin of Nike’s famous mantra is an ironic testament to the power of advertising’s ability to shape public perception. In an interesting bit of Art & Copy trivia, “Just Do It” was what murderer Gary Gilmore said just before being executed by a firing squad in 1977 – a case made famous in Norman Mailer’s novel The Executioner’s Song. Today, the motivating mantra has become a cultural phenomenon.

Doesn’t that make you want to run out and buy a new pair of Nike running shoes?

About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she’s not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.

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