Copy Cats

Doug Pray, Art & Copy, 2009, color film, 89 minutes.

IT’S THE DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH that receive their due praise in Art & Copy, Doug Pray’s selective chronicling of evolutions in print and television advertising through the second half of the twentieth century. Navigating this pivotal period in the industry, when copywriters and ad directors were first brought together to fuse image and word, Pray has molded a fawning tribute to the creative teams that gave corporations public faces and personalities in the form of shrewd brand identities. There’s Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign, which went beyond sneakers to articulate a universal mantra of motivation. There are two of the most acclaimed product launches in history—the original Apple “1984” Super Bowl ad and the ubiquitous promotions surrounding the Tommy Hilfiger debut. In the political realm, Pray dissects the nuclear paranoia of Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 “Daisy” ad and the wholesome Americana of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign, molded by Hal Riney—the master of employing nostalgia to forge emotional relationships between product and consumer.

Using a case-by-case structure, Pray profiles the creative directors who came to define their era—the real-life Mad Men who convinced us that goods and services were more than just commercial transactions, they were a way of life. These were the masters who pioneered a shift away from copy-based advertising and toward a theatrical mold, convincing generations that one airline company was more fun than another, that MTV was a must-watch, that a major indicator of a healthy life was a morning jog (one that made use of Nike shoes, shorts, and windbreakers). Particularly fascinating is the film’s discussion of the moment when modern advertising splintered into postmodernism: In Pray’s narrative, it’s a 1998 Super Bowl ad that features the Budweiser lizards assassinating the Budweiser frogs. The commercial had absolutely nothing to do with selling beer, the admen assert, but then again maybe it didn’t have to. If you like the lizard ad, they claim, you’ll be more inclined to like the brand associated with it. All that matters now is that the brand “gets” your sensibility.

Pray’s fatal mistake is that he all but ignores the larger ramifications of these campaigns. Ironically, many of the marketers interviewed have nasty things to say about Riney, deriding him for using emotions to mask the underlying commercial intentions of his picturesque advertisements. But they fail to acknowledge any connection between Riney’s manipulations and their own campaigns to convince generations of consumers that they cannot live without exercise equipment, name-brand attire, and personal MP3 devices. What Art & Copy lacks is a discussion of the downsides to brand fixation. Most of the documentary’s creative voices express pride in creating ads with an artistic dimension, making of corporate communications a sort of Pop art. And while Pray sprinkles in bleak facts throughout the film—statistics revealing that people are now bombarded with five thousand advertising messages a day, as they gorge on more than fifty-six hours of television a week—he fails to link these dire figures to the stories viewers are being told. Yes, there have been creative, compelling, possibly revolutionary ad campaigns, but there’s a social cost to this melding of business smarts and creative style—a consumerist con job that Art & Copy never addresses.

Art & Copy runs August 21–27 at IFC Center in New York. For more info, click here.