Sundance Review: ‘Art & Copy’

01.19.09 9 years ago


It’s unclear if advertising today is better than ever before, but we’re certainly in the Golden Age of celebrating the Ad Man. Presumably this is the fruit of the loins of AMC’s “Mad Men,” perhaps TV’s finest show. TNT’s upcoming “Trust Me” isn’t on that level, but friends in the biz have told me it gives a very realistic portrait of the advertising world.

Entering the fray from the documentary side of things is Doug Pray’s “Art & Copy,”  a look at the actual ad men and women who created some of the most memorable and successful campaigns of the past 50 years.

TV’s fictional Don Draper may offer more drama and tension, but the Real World Don Drapers in Pray’s film are every bit as persuasive and engaging.

[Review after the bump…]

I’ve heard a couple naysayers say that Pray’s documentary is an extended commercial, basically giving free exposure (and probably licensing money) to companies like Nike, Apple and Clairol, companies that probably don’t need the bonus pub.

That’s slightly true — I mean, I can’t protest that a lot of commercials aren’t seen in the movie — and slightly bull-pucky. More than a commercial for the companies involved, “Art & Copy” is a commercial for the art of commercials, quite literally. It was paid for largely by The One Club, a non-profit dedicated to the craft of advertising.

And why shouldn’t the craft of advertising be admired? “Art & Copy” begins in the late ’50s and early ’60s as big thinkers on Madison Avenue came up with the idea of pairing copywriters and art directors, melding a business necessity with creative talent. 

As much as the television programs or magazines or newspapers they accompanied, ads are a glimpse into the culture of the moment. Perhaps they’re even more illuminating, because the most successful ads are all about giving the people what they want or making the people want what you have available, so they’re about the needs of business and the needs of society. 

Most people don’t know names like Lee Clow or Hal Riney or Rich Silverstein and Jeff Goodby, but they know “The Energizer Bunny” or “It’s Morning in America” or “Got Milk?” “Art & Copy” isn’t just about putting faces to campaigns. It’s about understanding how a tag line like “Just Do It” was developed and why it worked. It’s about the development of several media and the way advertisers learned to tailor their messages. 

If that were all “Art & Copy” offered, it would be solid and informative, but Pray, whose “Scratch” is a favorite of mine, is smart enough to broaden his gaze. He examines the satellites that transmit the information and the corporate interest that funds the satellites. He also gives screen time to a team of sign revolvers, a family that’s been rotating billboard advertisements in and around Los Angeles for many decades. It’s a soup-to-nuts approach to the creation, distribution and reception of information in the modern age.

As I look over this review, I fear I’m giving a dry and dull explanation for a documentary I found intellectually thrilling. It just isn’t often that you get to watch a movie about this sort of process, hearing smart people talk about the genesis of ideas which, whether you like them or not,  have shaped the way we eat, drink, drive and dress. 

If you love commercials, it good stuff. But if you’re horrified by the way that our lives are trapped in a cycle of capitalist detritus, “Art & Copy” shows how things got that way. Either way, it’s indispensable.

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