Last weekend, the AMC television show “Mad Men” returned for another season of drinking, smoking and character-driven product pitching in the mid-’60s heyday of Madison Avenue advertising agencies. A documentary now available on DVD looks at the reality behind the age of advertising.
Last weekend, the AMC television show “Mad Men” returned for another season of drinking, smoking and character-driven product pitching in the mid-’60s heyday of Madison Avenue advertising agencies.
“Mad Men” (9 p.m. Sundays on AMC) has great writing, fully realized characters and grown-up storylines that respect the intelligence of the audience. But for my money, the show is at its most interesting when it draws back the curtain on the world of advertising.
Take the final episode of season one (“The Wheel”), in which leading man Don Draper is pitching an advertising campaign to Kodak. The company was about to introduce its soon-to-be-ubiquitous circular slide projector.
Kodak wanted to call the device the Wheel, a fine descriptive title for a disc that ostensibly stored slides. But Draper saw an opportunity to tell a story, to tug at the nostalgia of its customers.
“This device isn’t a spaceship; it’s a time machine,” Draper says, clicking through photos of his own family. “It goes backwards and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the Wheel; it’s called the Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels — around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.” (Watch the video of the scene.)
We can all point to the ads that have made us laugh or even brought a lump to our throats, but we rarely stop to consider how the messages were crafted to achieve just that effect. So I was particularly excited when the DVD of the documentary “Art & Copy” recently landed on my desk.
The film, made by director Doug Pray (“Surfwise,” “Scratch”) and distributed by PBS, purports to be a behind-the-scenes look at the creative side of the advertising industry. It consists mainly of interviews with men and women behind some of the most memorable ad campaigns of the past 50 years, from politics to Perrier.
“Art & Copy” is visually beautiful. The interviews are intercut with scenes of crews applying new signs to billboards and satellites being prepared for launch. It also has more than a little of what you might call swanky office porn, with reverential shots of the opulent workspaces of firms such as Wieden+Kennedy in Portland, Ore.
There are scenes of employees playing basketball on a hardwood court emblazoned with the firm’s initials (not surprising, since we learn the firm is responsible for Nike’s “Just do it” slogan). In a large, open atrium often used for performances, founding partner David Kennedy recalled that someone once described the firm as “high school with money.”
“That’s pretty much the case,” Kennedy says. “But come back at 3 in the morning — it’s like Santa’s workshop. The elves don’t go home at 5.”
In another scene, Kennedy touches a wall that contains 400,000 clear plastic pushpins. He says it took people four days and four nights to complete the project. The entire wall is covered save for the script letters “fail harder.”
It’s good advice, another of the things “Art & Copy” is good at delivering.
“It’s like Babe Ruth trying to hit a home run,” Kennedy says. “If you miss, you miss. But at least you swung the bat as hard as you could.”
The film then segues directly into a 1999 Wieden+Kennedy commercial for Nike. It features Michael Jordan walking into a stadium as though on his way to a game, recounting the number of times he’s failed: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot — and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Of course, you don’t make a movie with nearly a dozen of the most successful creative businessmen and women of the past 50 years without the occasional divergent opinion.
“I never had a failure in my life,” George Lois says. “I probably have, but I forgot them, because there is nothing you can learn from a failure.”
Lois, who is old enough to have lived the life depicted on “Mad Men,” projects brash self-assurance. He’s credited with creating the “I Want My MTV” campaign that pushed reluctant cable operators to finally add the station to their lineups.
“If you sit there with a failure and try to figure out how you failed, you just (bleeped) yourself,” Lois says, jabbing his finger in the direction of the camera on the most colorful word in that sentence.
If “Art & Copy” has any limitations, it’s that it fails to cast a skeptical eye at the way advertising manipulates us. We’re told how the best advertising connects with viewers and readers, but there’s little in the way of questioning whether that’s an unalloyed good.
That could be because the film was sponsored by The One Club, a group that “exists to champion and promote excellence in advertising and design in all its forms.”
Rather than questioning the effect of seeing thousands of advertising messages a day, the film sees the problem as a question of quality.
That idea is put best by Lee Clow, whose surfer-dude appearance belies his importance as chairman and chief creative officer of TBWAChiatDay. (He and his firm are responsible for many Apple ads, from the famous “1984” Super Bowl spot to the recent iPod campaign that depicts a silhouette listening to the device’s distinctive white earbuds.)
“Most advertising is pretty offensive, intrusive, aggravating, annoying and intellectually based at the lowest common denominator,” Clow says. It’s a message that will likely sound familiar to fans of “Mad Men.”
“So it’s a hard business to remain prideful,” Clow says. “But I happen to believe that when advertising is done well, the wall or the billboard that celebrates a brand artfully and beautifully can be a part of our culture as opposed to some form of pollution.”
State Journal-Register writer Brian Mackey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.