Art & CopyReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/18/09 14:16:43
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2009: If there's high art and low art, advertising must be considered the lowest of them, with perhaps only grudging admission that any part of it can be considered art at all. Advertising is creative work, though, and for better or worse, a good ad probably has a much larger impact than a good piece of non-commercial artwork.Director Doug Pray's Art & Copy focuses on the good ads, whether you measure that by artistic merit or commercial success. Those looking for an examination of the rightness and wrongness of pervasive advertising as a phenomenon should look elsewhere; this is an overview of how the medium works combined with a look at some of its more noteworthy practitioners. A key example of both comes early, as we're told about Bill Bernbach, who changed the face of advertising by putting the art director and copywriter in the same room. Before this, ads were very text-heavy, a far cry form the punchy, slickly-designed ads of today.
We get insight on some of the simpler, and most pervasive, advertising campaigns of recent years. Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein, who describe their job as "entertaining society using clients' products" talk about their "got milk?" campaign, pointing out how the much-imitated catchphrase was originally the punchline to a very elaborate commercial, while also breaking down how it evolved from the client's specific needs. Pray also talks to Dan Wieden, who came up with "Just Do It". His stories are less about how they built the campaign (although the inspiration for the phrase is amusing), and more about how it took on a life of its own.
Some of the more intriguing segments, though, are as much about the individuals as process. George Lois, for instance, is always an entertaining interview at the very least. He's most notable for the brash advertising campaigns that introduced MTV and Tommy Hilfiger to the world, and his personality is a match for them, not yelling but gleefully swearing away or calling things stupid while everybody else is being very polite. Then there's Hal Riley, kind of standoffish and near retirement, whose work tends to have a nostalgic or sentimental component. His best-known work is probably the "Morning In America" ad he did for Ronald Reagan's 1984 campaign.
Pray gives us plenty of examples, although the film does not become a Clio awards reel. He frames the film with a look at the way advertising affects the economy beyond just getting people to buy things, with a fourth-generation billboard rotater and an Ariane satellite launch. The interviews are generally very friendly, and though Pray's subjects are slanted toward the creative people with the ideal work environments, there is plenty of discussion, at least, of bad environments and bad practices to give the audience some perspective. There's also something a little unnerving about some later aspects of the film, where we see how the tail can sometimes wind up wagging the dog as these advertising firms can wind up with a large voice in setting a company's policy.
Even with those ideas, the film may seem something like a puff piece, an ad for the advertising industry. I think the film comes just short of crossing that line - it doesn't try to sell us on advertising being a noble endeavor, but instead demonstrates that, whether we like the idea of advertising or not, it often come from creative people doing work worthy of study and understanding. It's also a somewhat intriguing look into the creative process - there are plenty of documentaries that do that, of course, but they tend to focus on art for art's sake. Here, even when the film's subjects talk of using advertising as a means of self-expression, there's always a clear purpose to it.By the end, I had come to maybe appreciate advertising a little more - not enough to stop using my DVR's Advance 30 Seconds button or growling in frustration when a magazine's table of contents doesn't appear until thirty pages in, granted, but enough to differentiate good from bad, and maybe get a handle on why some ads work (on me or in general) and others don't. After all, it's worth at least trying to understand something that pervades our lives so much.
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