The Advertising and Design community has been talking about Art & Copy, the new documentary film about the ad industry. With anticipation, we’ve been sharing the trailer all over the various Internet outlets.
Well, last night I snuck out to a preview and managed to watch the film. The two words on my tongue after seeing it: “so what?” The film is a little more than a trophy, acknowledging the rare moments in advertising that do, somehow, manage to cut through the shouting, and that can, admittedly, touch our lives. But we already knew that.
From the title, I imagined Art & Copy would be a sort of inside story into the day-to-day lives of ad agency workers. For once, the lay public will get a glimpse into how it happens, and see that behind these ads are real people, waking up and going to work. But instead, we see a reinforced stereotype of frustrated artists and eccentric creative directors who swear they are changing the world simply by breathing.
There has always been in our society a cynicism towards advertising. We don’t enjoy being interrupted, be it on television, radio, in magazines and newspapers, or even while walking down the street peering at bus shelters and billboards. We’re sick of this shit. But the film does nothing to assuage this cynicism, and instead helps solidify it by highlighting how each of the famous ad-men (and women) featured share a general hatred for their own profession. This is more apparent in the nature of the film itself — interview segments are intercut with montages of ad-saturated cityscapes. Statistics are displayed on-screen that quantify just how many ads we’re exposed to … and how the figures are getting worse over the years. So after a heart-warming tale about the golden age of the biz, we’re brought back to Earth by the reality that those days are, indeed, gone.
Advertising (at least in America and Britain) is overwhelmingly white and male. The industry continues to take criticism for this. And that lopsidedness is reflected in this film. I’m just saying. It also misleads the public by featuring only successful, distinguished industry veterans, thereby sidestepping the ugly issue of burnout, which is infamous within the profession. A lot folks don’t make it to the corner office, and are pushed out well before their hair goes white.
But to be fair, the Art & Copy does entertain. Featuring some of the most notable ad campaigns of the last 50 years, it literally makes us laugh and cry. After all, aren’t emotions slightly heightened by nostalgia?
There is an odd meta quality to the film — the whole thing is one giant ad in the sense that they use the medium of film, combined with moving music, well-chosen imagery, and clever text, to evoke emotions in the audience. And maybe we’re not supposed to notice, but I did, can still testify that in that regard, it’s done very well.
Sadly, the film represents very few campaigns (or thinking) from the 21st Century. Obviously, the Century is young, but with media and consumer habits changing so rapidly, I reckon it’s worth at least mentioning. One line, I believe, mentioned the need for more integrated campaigns going forward, and a few of the on-screen graphics acknowledged that advertising is no longer confined to the television set. But no attention was paid to the trans-cultural nature of brands, user-generated content, the push for online, the death of newspapers (and magazines), or TiVo, all of which are huge players in the constantly-evolving landscape of advertising today. With this oversight, Art & Copy might have been perfectly suited a release in 1999.
I am cynical about advertising. Perhaps because I like to focus more on the branding side of things, but I’m one of those guys who wouldn’t mind if all advertising disappeared overnight. (yes, I know there are economical logistical issues to work on) But even I, the cynic, have to give props to some of the campaigns over the years that have moved us forward. These are one that do become art, and do end up in that same corner of our brain where we store fond memories of childhood Christmases. Here are a few featured in the film. They are indeed timeless. (in no particular order)
Wendy’s – Where’s the Beef (1984)
MTV – I Want My MTV (1981)
Nike – Failure (1999)
Nike – If You Let Me Play Sports (1995)
Milk – Got Milk? (Aaron Burr) (1993)
Braniff Airlines – End of the Plain Plane (1965)
Reagan ’84 – It’s Morning in America (1984)
Johnson ’64 – Daisy (1964)
Apple Macintosh – 1984 (1984)
Apple iPod – iPod+iTunes (2003)
[someone please correct me if I got the years wrong. I’m not the expert here.]
So what’s the takeaway from all this? Basically the same thing we’ve been saying all along: advertising can push the limits of art, media, communication, storytelling, and society. But it usually doesn’t. If you’re a client, take a risk once in a while, it may pay off. If you’re an agent, try not to be a dick. Be creative. And don’t take yourself so fucking seriously. (I added that last one myself.)
PS, I think I might have voted for Reagan. A little hyperbolic, but man, what an ad.