REVIEW: Art & Copy [2009]

“Advertising should be like poison gas”

George Lois is my new hero. The guy has confidence and pride to spare, exuding a self-image of Hercules, able to sell anything with a couple hours and a decent budget. While he may rub you the wrong way—full of himself to the point you may rather punch him in the face than want to do anything he asks in fear of inflating his ego more—the man is a genius and understands what it means to sell. You must go for broke, reach for the jugular and pull it out. There can be no apologies and there can be no memories of failures. Wallowing in self-pity will only cultivate an environment of cautiousness, staying safe so as not to fall again. Without that drive to be willing to crash and burn, however, nothing that will stand the test of time can be created. It is the people unafraid to look at the edge of a cliff and jump off with the knowledge they’ll somehow land on their feet that have created the brands and marketing material so ingrained in our everyday lives that the artifice has become invisible. These are the people Doug Pray’s documentary Art & Copy shows us.

The film really is a who’s who of advertising visionaries—men and women who not only changed the game, but who actually recreated the rules from scratch. Working in the industry myself, I cannot imagine a time when the art director and copywriter weren’t in the same room creatively brainstorming. How could anything new, vibrant, or mind-blowing come to life if a sheet of words was just passed up a floor to be designed onto a page with pictures? How could this be an innovation rather than a intrinsic component? Just the fact some upstarts began showing what standing up to the establishment could produce is more profound than initially thought. With a firm like Doyle Dane Bernbach turning preconceptions on their head, advertisers began to realize the amount of power they wielded. By taking the pulse of America, they could see the tides were changing and knew they had to reinvent what works and grabs a person’s attention to sell a product. From Volkswagen’s tiny German car that appeared more a symbol of a country that murdered millions than the stylish, cool vehicle DDB made it with their “Think Small” campaign, to Lyndon B. Johnson himself and his famous “Daisy” ad, marketing would never be the same. “Daisy” makes the opening commercial for Bill Murray’s television station in Scrooged look like a children’s cartoon; and my uncle actually got me into DDB Los Angeles in 2004 for a tour and sit down with creative … boy was I clueless to the royalty to which I was privy.

Pray does a bang-up job showing his audience the eccentrics behind these ad campaigns that we take for granted. A single commercial is no longer a make or break type deal—we are inundated with advertising 24/7 on buses, tv, radio, billboards, and clothing. We can’t escape it. To really succeed in this world, a company needs a brand that people can grab hold of and not let go. It must be shown in the kind of light that makes it indispensable to the consumer, to make him feel like he is a member of the ‘in the know’ crowd by acquiring it, always on the pulse of cool. My new idol, George Lois, knows this fact and he revels in it. No one else would have had the gall to do what he did for Tommy Hilfiger. Here was a young upstart cutting his teeth and seeing if there was a way into the fashion industry. A modest and shy guy, he couldn’t fathom what Lois was telling him he should do. Unless Hilfiger wanted to spend millions of dollars to saturate the market with his name and product, they would have to do something brash and big. Lois came up with the idea of comparing the unknown designer with giants of the field Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis, billing him as the next descendant of their creatively genius family. It could have completely backfired, showing the world that this unassuming man was a self-righteous prick without respect for the forefathers of his occupation. Instead, just like Lois anticipated, the campaign created a mystique around Hilfiger, making him an instant overnight success, causing him to buckle down, work even harder, and prove the attention was deserved. I’m sure putting his posters in taunting distance from his established competitors didn’t hurt in lighting that fire either.

Lois knows how to push buttons and get what he wants—two traits essential to the job. Then there is Mary Wells with a theatrical eye and knowledge of people’s need for new experiences; Hal Riney’s projection of his own idyllic dream world on the masses to look forward to and fantasize of themselves; Jeff Goodby’s ability to realize a phrase like ‘Got Milk?’ may not be correct English, but still could be transcendent; and Phyllis K. Robinson ushering in the ‘Me’ Generation single-handedly, or at least opening her client’s eyes to the changing climate at hand, if she tells the story. But one of the best, the consummate anti-establishment hippie, shirking the system and bringing down the man for quality rebirth of the industry, is Lee Clow. Here is the man behind one of the most famous commercials ever aired—possibly because it only saw television screens once—Apple’s ”1984” Macintosh Super Bowl spot. It may have never showed the product, it may have cost a ton of money, and it may have alienated the company’s board to have it never see the light of day, but founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak saw the vision and paid for it themselves, spawning a new era of advertising and making their new computer the most talked about item of the year. Let’s just say TBWA\Chiat\Day hasn’t stopped since, creating the iPod ads that have become part of our everyday lexicon.

With numerous examples of full commercials, print ad examples, and first-hand accounts from the creatives themselves, Art & Copy is a must-see for any design/advertising person out there. These are visionaries that paved the way for what we aspire to achieve and become. But the film doesn’t only work for insiders to the craft; it is also a very funny and informative account of the birth of the constant assault by corporations and consumer products. With stats finding their way on screen, startling in the numbers of images we assimilate per day, and a minor diversion showing a billboard ‘flipper’, changing out ads of which he has no knowledge of the artists behind them, Doug Pray has compiled a well-constructed piece of filmmaking that documents the one industry we take so for granted, we may not even realize it exists. A billion dollar business that is controlled by very few, you can only truly understand the skill and incomparable genius of those at the top by seeing how they are light years above the drivel we generally experience. The people put on screen here could feasibly be spoken of in the same breath as Picasso or Rembrant, but, unfortunately, the industry carries too big a stigma to give it the credit it deserves.

Art & Copy 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] iPod Billboard, the work of Lee Clow and TBWA. Credit: Michael Nadeau
[2] Cliff Freeman of Cliff Freeman and Partners, collector of vintage radios and the man who created Where’s the beef? for Wendy’s, in his New York City office. Credit: Chris Glancy.


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