Art & Copy [Full Frame 09]

Doug Pray’s love letter to the advertising industry, Art & Copy (IMDB), explores the explosion of “creativity” in the advertising industry after the “Creative Revolution” of the 1960s (associated with William Bernbach, among others) when advertisers began putting the art department and the copy writers in the same room, spawning a number of the more famous and iconic advertisements in history.  Pray uses this hook to explore the more general theme of the source of creativity and the role of adevrtising in our daily lives, including the “responsibility” to produce good advertisements that many advertisers claim to have.  Pray’s approach is to interview several of the prominent names in the advertising industry, inviting them to reminisce about their most successful ads or about more general changes in the industry, and it is probably indicative of the film’s stance that no one working outside of advertising, no one who is not benefitting financially from ads, is interviewed for the film.

In fact, the closest the film comes to offering “balance” are a few interludes where titles list the amount spent on advertising or the number of ads that a “typical person” encounters on a daily basis, often while a billboard “rotator” replaces one bilboard message with another.  There is little consideration of the relationship between advertising and a consumer culture that has left countless people in debt, overextended on credit card debt, often with items we don’t particularly need or even want and only the most benign discussions of how advertisements shape our wants, desires, or even our sense of self (one female exec comments proudly at one point that she “was born with a gift of sensing what it is that will turn people on”).

That being said, I don’t think that yet another dry condemnation of advertising is going to take us very far, either.  In one scene, we see the number of rip-offs, parodies, subverions, and détournements of the Got Milk ads (many of them very funny), only to realize that these subversions often do little more than underscore (and reinforce) the power of the original.  And instead of merely condemning advertising as a “false ideology,” one that merely seduces cultural dupes, I think there is value in exploring the meaning-making functions of advertisements and how they operate.

Perhaps the most compelling segments here involved Hal Riney, creator of the famous 1984 Ronald Reagan ad, “Prouder, Stronger, Better,” describing the fact that advertisements allowed him to create an imagined world that he lacked as a child.  Others point to the role of Nike ads and their famous “Just Do It” slogan in empowering a new generation of fitness fanatics (while selectively ignoring fast food’s role in creating childhood obesity and Nike’s checkered labor rights history).  But most enjoyable of all were the scenes featuring the blunt-talking ad man, George Lois, who describes how he cajoled and badgered unknown fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger into becoming a household name. Even with my skepticism about the role of advertising in daily life, Lois’s unapologetic and brash defense of his industry is entertaining to watch.


  1. dave Said,

    April 5, 2009 @ 11:26 pm

    I’ve been a follower of Pray’s work since Scratch. He has a real knack for picking interesting and hip documentary subjects (Surfwise, Big Rig, etc) but he never seems to invest much personality into the films. I always want them to be better, deeper, more developed, and more personal. The films consistently give me this odd feeling that the author (filmmaker) is somehow absent or distanced from the process (but at the same time the films are very far from objective). I read once that he’s not connected or even much aware of the subcultures/subjects he investigates before starting a project, which shows. That said, I still look forward to seeing this one.

  2. Chuck Said,

    April 6, 2009 @ 7:49 am

    I’m less familiar with Pray’s work, but the film made me want to go back and check out Scratch and others. I found your comments about his relationship to his subjects interesting. In a sense, the film seemed to transpose the activity of advertising from something institutional to something done by a collection of individuals, most of whom were hippies or rebels of some form, so that advertising oddly becomes a way of challenging the status quo rather than reinforcing it.

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