Wednesday, August 19, 2009

ART & COPY: a look at advertising from Doug Pray, the man who gave us Surfwise

I can't remember the last time a movie made me as angry as has ART & COPY, the new documentary about the adver-tising business and some of the talented people who, over the decades, have brought us a bevy of smart ads. The aging process, which gives us seniors an inordi-
nate amount of crap to deal with,

has at least taught me one useful lesson: When I get very angry at a movie, chances are that this has more to do with me than with the film itself. Be-
cause Art & Copy has been made by Doug Pray, the man respon-
sible for one of my favorite documentaries -- Surfwise -- I looked forward to his new film with great anticipation. This can also make for a letdown when, as in this case, the film disappoints. All of which leads me to ask that you bear with me, while I try to coherently work out my ideas and feelings below. I'll try to be, if not brief, at least smart....

Mr. Pray's documentary (he's shown above) is a kind of paean to clever advertising and the men (mostly) and women (a couple of 'em, at least) who, over the last half-century, have given this country some of its better ads. (The movie doesn't get near the ads of Europe and Scandinavia, which to my mind have often done an even better job.) As it happens, TrustMovies has earned a good deal of his living from advertising over the decades, and so he does not come to the subject as a novice. He remembers first-hand those initial ads for Volkswagen that Pray makes much of in his movie. In the copywriting/design pool of which I was a part at Prentice Hall publishing -- yes, our bosses at PH were smart enough even back in the mid 60s to understand the idiocy of separating copy from design -- these VW ads were gospel. The surprising "Got Milk" campaign and even the earliest Tommy Hilfiger plugs (before anyone knew who the hell Mr. Hilfiger was; in fact, initially, we called him "Hillfinger") that Pray shows us in his film -- all of these struck me not just as old news, but news of ad campaigns that we have heard about again and again, over the years. And despite the relatively interesting interviews with "ad greats" George Lois (shown below), Mary Wells, Lee Clow and others, nothing particularly ground-breaking gets said.

The press kits for Art & Copy begins with these words: Hate advertising? Make better ads. If only it were that easy. What if, rather than the ads themselves, it is what's behind the ads that is hated: The fact that reams of money are spent to create messages to brainwash the masses into feeling a need to purchase an unnecessary, sometimes harmful product -- and then reams more are spent buying media time and space to show these ads? This, the movie doesn't even come close to addressing. Even the film's hosannas to the Morning in America ads created by the late Hal Riney for the Ronald Reagan campaign (talk about a harmful product!) and how good they made people feel are countered only by another ad man's raised eyebrow and dismissive word, "Reagan."

Praise appears to be heaped upon the Michael Jordan ads for Nike. This is the same Nike involved in child labor, right? Of course there's no mention of this Nike scandal. We see the funny end-of-frogs commercial shown during SuperBowl for Budweiser beer; it's clever. But only last month we learned from our interviews with Richard O'Barry regarding The Cove that the movie couldn't get proper media attention in areas where Budweiser's corporate owner Anheiser-Busch reigns supreme. And about those early Tommy Hilfiger ads: Even Mr. Hilfiger excuses himself from any knowledge of this campaign-- which was much more about tons of advertising money being used to tout a young and unproven designer than about "creativity in advertising." Any other young (or not so) designer -- or really any other product -- could have been used in place of Hilfiger and and the outcome would have been roughly the same.

Money talks, but you'd never imagine that from watching Art & Copy. Only in the final 15 minutes, does the documentary give a tiny warning sign -- before bouncing back into its inspirational, rah-rah mode. The movie shows us and makes much of the famous Apple "1984" commercial, in which a young woman, in color, runs, through bleak hallways and tunnels until she reaches a vast auditorium where Big Brother, via a movie, is blathering to a colorless, hypnotized, zombie-like audience. She throws her torch at the screen, which would seem to indicate that she has broken the spell. Not really. Any audience that can watch any of the supposedly "great" ads shown during the course of the film without asking itself, "What is the product here, who is the seller, and why am I being asked to buy it?" is really no better off than the hypnotized audience in that Apple commercial. Same drones, same message, different product.

In both the film and its press materials, the idea of advertising being true art keeps coming to the fore. Advertising, however, exists to sell product. Art does not. Doug Pray never addresses this difference. Comparison is even made to prehistoric petroglyph art. What product, I'd like to know, where these folk hawking? Self-congratulation hovers over all of Art & Copy, which is certainly allowed. You can hardly blame people who've done a good job in their field for wanting some credit. But when, toward the finale, we're told, "There will always be somebody with a message," the proper rejoinder might be, "Yes, but only the big corporations can afford to get that message out. (You might want to watch again that fine documentary The Corporation after viewing Art & Copy.)

The final (or nearly so) words in the film tell us "We can solve anything!" Really? Well, how about some of our "ad greats" turning their skills toward health care for America or saving our environment? Of late (hell, of early, too) advertising has not solved anything important. It has sold product and people. In the press kit, Mr. Pray notes that a non-profit advertising organization called the One Club funded this project but did not dictate the creative content of the film. Hello: They didn't need to. Sometimes fun and interesting, Art & Copy is nonetheless one 90-minute, nonstop commercial.
So, how far off-base am I here? Is the above all about me and my prejudices? I'll be very interested in reading what others have to say about Art & Copy. Regarding Mr Pray's earlier doc, Surfwise: It opens up so many doors into the meaning of family, love, trust, abuse, sport, education, and alternative life styles -- then leaves us to make our own judgment. Has the filmmaker actually done the same thing here, but more subtly? After all, the film has gotten me to address much more than I initially thought it contained. Perhaps Pray is simply a master of stealth. I'd love to think so, but in this case, I kinda doubt it....

Art & Copy opens Friday August 21, in NYC (at the IFC Center),
and in Chicago, Denver and Seattle. You can find
other specific theaters here.

(All photos are from
Art & Copy -- or the making of it --
and are courtesy of OutNowImageGallery)

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