Call it the Mad Men effect. Suddenly transformed from Alpha-shills to sensitive seers into the American soul, Art & Copy continues the portrait of ad men as masters of the universe.
Director Doug Pray made the extraordinary 2007 documentary Surfwise about a doctor-turned-surfer who dropped out of the rat race to raise his nine children off the grid, and this time he takes another insider look at some outside-the-box thinkers. In the case of Surfwise‘s surfing dad Dorian Pakowitz, his decision to raise his children non-traditionally earned him a fair share of his adult children’s resentment. But for these ad men and women, unconventional thinking has resulted in fat paychecks and impressive office real estate.
Art & Copy talks to some of the country’s top ad men — big guns like Hal Riney of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” spots and Doyle Dane Bernbach’s glass-ceiling exploding Mary Wells — largely in their own words and insights into the business. Also weighing in is Lee Clow (of the Apple “1984” and “Think Different” campaigns), whose TBWA/Worldwide office boasts a basketball court and art installations. The firm also allows employees to bring their dogs to work. Though they range from the stylishly dressed to the surfer-shaggy, there doesn’t appear to be a shrinking violet among them.
Mad Men fans will recognize advertising superheroes like ’60s mavericks Bernbach, who came up with those revolutionary, still hip ads for Volkswagen proclaiming “Think Small,” and also created the now-standard practice of having copy writers and art directors collaborate on ads. Also weighing in on the work that has defined them is George Lois, who convinced a group of A-list rockers to shout “I want my MTV!” and created a generation of punchy covers for Esquire magazine, including one with Muhammed Ali posing as Saint Sebastian. These are the guys who took advertising out of its prep school past and sexed it up, the boomers who conjoined the radical zeitgeist of the Woodstock era and carried it over into no-rules advertising — that is, if your idea of radical is juicing America’s calcium intake in the “Got Milk?” campaign or spawning one of the most annoying catch phrases of the 20th century, “Where’s the Beef?”
The peek into what makes ad men tick and their indelible influence on 20th century life — not to mention a look at a lot of great vintage commercials — makes Art & Copy come alive. Where it tends to lag is in a strange storytelling device Pray uses, contrasting the bombastic big buck ad men with a lowly California billboard installer whose family has put up billboards for generations. The point — two sides of our inundation with media imagery — feels poorly expressed in this unequal match-up of stories. Making a case for how much our culture values the shill, Pray also cuts between these stories to present an array of statistics — for instance, a 30-second ad during American Idol will set advertisers back $750,000 and the average city dweller encounters 5,000 ads a day.
Just don’t expect much deep thought in Art & Copy. In a year defined by docs like Capitalism: A Love Story and Food, Inc., Art & Copy is an anachronistic doc about corporate sway that doesn’t go under the surface for a closer look. Instead, Art & Copy is a valentine to these men and women who have done so much to inform our consciousness. There’s no denying they are psychological seers and masterful button-pushers. More than anything, you long to know what these people really think of all of the money that is spent to convince people to buy things they don’t need.