“Art & Copy”Film: Ad Geniuses Have Their Say

Directed by Doug Pray (Surfwise, Scratch, Hype!), “Art & Copy” is a new documentary about advertising and inspiration. George Lois, Mary Wells, Lee Clow, Dan Wieden, Hal Riney, Rich Silverstein and others featured were behind “Just Do It,” “I Love NY,” “Got Milk,” “Where’s the Beef?,” “Think Different” and brilliant campaigns for everything from cars to presidents. The social and cultural impact of their ads is brought to light in this exploration of art, commerce and human emotion. The film is underwritten by The One Club, founded in 1975 to recognize and promote excellence in advertising. “Art & Copy” is now playing in select theaters.

Director’s Statement by Doug Pray

Hate advertising? Make better ads.

When I began making ART & COPY back in 2005, it seemed like a significant departure from my previous documentaries. Instead of dark clubs, back alleys and truck stops, I was now filming in light-filled, architecturally breathtaking West Coast ad agencies and pristine New York City penthouses. Instead of underground artists and angry independents, I was interviewing people who were worth millions and were pioneers of an industry that literally defines mainstream culture. Now that the movie is finished, I see more similarities than differences. My subjects in ART & COPY, though dressed in finer clothes and a few decades older, have actually exhibited a rebellious voice not unlike the graffiti writers or screaming rock singers I’ve shot in the past, even though they’re working from deep within the system. They still regard themselves as underdogs. They think they are misunderstood by society. They’re all fiercely independent mavericks. But mostly, they too have a personal message—one that transcends the commercial messages they create—that seemingly has to get out. Like my other films, this ad film is about the innate human urge to express oneself creatively.

It crystallized for me in the jungle in French Guiana last summer. We’d gone there to film the launch of a commercial satellite to make the documentary less talking-heads and more visually exciting. I figured that if satellites bring us television, and television is paid for by ads, then… ads launch satellites. It was a way to marvel at the lengths we go to deliver dog food commercials. But there in the forest, a short distance from the Arianespace rocket launch site, was a small outcrop of boulders with a dozen ancient petroglyphs carved into them (the ones seen at the start of the film). The drawings told stories about what once happened to some prehistoric person, and what they did or didn’t want their lives to be. They had something to say, and they used communication tools to say it. Art and copy. Same thing… different format.

What’s different and perhaps surprising about this movie, is that it isn’t about bad advertising, that 98% which so often annoys and disrespects its audience. I didn’t want to make a doc that just trashes trashy advertising. Too easy, too obvious, and why bother? Instead, granted access to a handful of the greatest advertising minds of the last fifty years, I felt it could be a more powerful statement to focus the film only on those rare few who actually moved and inspired our culture with their work. And that higher standard made me want to make a film that reflected the same kind of disciplined artistic approach that my subjects used.

Therefore, director of photography Peter Nelson, editor Philip Owens, and I avoided a gritty, handheld doc vibe, and aspired to a classier, more artistic approach in our coverage and editing. We shot lots of steady B-roll and wanted to create a film experience more like “Koyanisqaatsi” or Errol Morris’ “Fast Cheap and Out of Control.” Musically, I chose to work with Jeff Martin (a.k.a. Idaho) whose mesmerizing compositions put me into a deeper state of mind, while moving the picture along. In my interviews, I stuck to emotions, creative motivation, and big-idea philosophies of the ad creatives rather than “how-to” stories, industry-insider talk, or the politics of their clients’ products (which is a different film altogether). I knew the film wasn’t going to be “Adbusters,” it wasn’t “Mad Men,” and none of us wanted to just make a straight tribute film to these ad legends—not even the One Club, the non-profit advertising organization who funded the project and provided access to them (and, for the record, did not dictate the creative content of the film). I simply wanted to know: who are these unknown people who’ve so profoundly shaped our culture, and what can we learn from them?

It was, of course, inspiring to meet these creatives and hear their passion for effective communication and their anger at boring clients and market research, but what amazed me was how much their commercial work was a direct reflection of their personal lives. How Mary Wells’ zany and theatrical ads were a result of growing up in a family that hardly ever communicated. How George Lois spent his youth fighting on the streets of West Bronx and kept right on fighting the status quo in his ads for MTV and Hilfiger. Or how the late Hal Riney’s depression-era childhood robbed him of the very emotions that he spent a lifetime recreating in his ads for Saturn, Gallo, and Reagan. By interviewing these icons, they became real for me, and I saw advertising as an art form with enormous potential—when done well.

Yes, I’ve made a positive film about ads. I’d once believed that our systems of commerce might go away, and with them, all unwanted commercial messaging, but they haven’t yet, and won’t soon. Advertising, in fact, may actually be an innately human act itself. But like all creative endeavors (books, paintings, movies, architecture) most of it is mediocre. Ultimately, I hope “ART & COPY” inspires artists and writers to strive to make more meaningful, more entertaining, or more socially uplifting ads. With so much advertising surrounding us these days, it would be great to get that 2% figure a bit higher.

c. 2009 The One Club for Art and Copy

One thought on ““Art & Copy”Film: Ad Geniuses Have Their Say

  1. Saw this film in September courtesy of the NW Film Center. The older ads reminded me of my inspiration to get into the design field. George Lois is classic, and I think I learned some new words from him.

    There are a few photos of the Fail Harder wall (and the W+K auditorium) on the swissmiss flickr page.

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