"I hate most advertising, just like anyone else. I find it just appalling what passes for culture," documentarian Doug Pray told BW. "But when it's really good, when it's really well done, it's completely transformative, it's powerful and exciting. That's really good communication, human communication at the very top level."
Pray is best known for exploring social subcultures. His debut feature Hype! (1996) was a peek into the explosion of the Seattle grunge scene, which he followed with 2001's Scratch, a study of turntablism and the DJ lifestyle. So why the switch from subversive filmmaking to the most commercial topic possible: a documentary about top ad execs and their most profitable campaigns?
"I compare it to a film I made about graffiti," said Pray, referring to his film Infamy (2005). "Most people just hate graffiti in almost the same way that most people say they hate advertising. You can hate advertising, but you should at least know these guys ... For those guys to have successfully operated in that world, the only way they got there was by being rebels. In their own mind, they are revolutionaries. It's like the opportunity to meet the Wizard of Oz and have coffee with him."
Art & Copy, Pray's documentary unveiling the men and women behind the advertising curtain, uncovers a fascinating bunch--enormously creative thinkers pressured by profit concerns, and each with a different idea of what advertising should be. Take George Lois, the idea man behind such winning campaigns as "I Want My MTV" and Robert Kennedy's successful run for a senate seat.
"Advertising is like poison gas," Lois says in the film. "It should tear you up, should choke you and maybe you should pass out when you watch it."
Mary Wells, who soared after designing Braniff Airline's rainbow-colored fleet in the '60s, came to advertising from the theater.
"People flew with us because they were having a theatrical experience," Wells says in the film. "People loved fun ideas."
Starting with a dynamic shift in the '60s, which changed how ads were produced--the art department and the ad copy staff working collaboratively rather than in sequence--Pray traces many of the acmes of advertising history. Several of the top ad men, apart from selling specific brands of shoes or make-up, were involved with political campaigns, rebranding entire foodstuffs--the "Got Milk?" movement endorsed all milk companies--and selling an idea of what America should be. Nike's "Just Do It" motto, which told nothing about the company's product, has become one of the slogans of an empowered generation.
Despite the stigma attached to our advertising-inundated era--Art & Copy asserts that the average American child views 20,000 commercials a year--the film makes a compelling case for viewing ad creators as artists. Like their starving compatriots, a salesman views society either critically or concordantly; his product either celebrates the culture or seeks to change it. As with any revolutionary artist, this can occur with either flamboyance or subtlety. And the egos in this film certainly can rival those of an artiste.
"It is an art form," said Pray. "It's just different because it's supposed to make you do something."
Art & Copy mostly omits mention of advertising's failures--offensive campaigns or propaganda--but the successes, carefully examined and given more study than a channel surfer's attention span allows, are incisive, brilliant and thrilling to review. Any creative type, whether loathing or loving the consumer culture that has given rise to the importance of smart advertising, should see this film. It's a fascinating, sometimes aggravating look into the headspaces of these priests of products, the men and women who herald and, in some ways, shepherd our culture's direction.