“Any performer that ever sells a product on television is now and forever and for all eternity removed from the artistic world, I don’t care if you shit Mona Lisas out of your ass on cue. You’ve made your fucking choice.” — Bill Hicks
There’s a very awkward relationship between content providers — be that on television, the Internet, in the newspapers, or even in film — and advertising. Nobody really likes advertising — it’s intrusive, manipulative, misleading, and brain rotting. Worse, the reason why many of us consume products that are terrible for us — be they movies, food products, or clothing — is because advertisers told us to (and you could even argue that Pajiba is an unintentional arm of the advertising world: We provide exposure to film and television, even if that exposure is often cynical or negative). It’s a $555 billion a year industry, and it basically controls most of our purchasing decisions. In many ways, advertising also dictates content — we’re all vying for our tiny piece of that $555 billion and to get it, you’ve got to keep the advertisers happy (something we’ve not been hugely successful at here, having lost a few sources of income over the years because of our inability to straddle the line).
But the documentary Art & Copy is not about that relationship, nor is it about the destructive powers of advertising or the corporate hegemony or about advertising’s role in the nation’s obesity or increasing America’s level of stupidity. Art & Copy is more of a celebration of advertising, a historical look at some of the campaigns that have impacted the industry — Apple’s 1984 ad, Got Milk?, Just Do It, Where’s the Beef, etc. — and it’s told to us by the people behind those campaigns. The documentary, in fact, was funded by The One Club, which is the “the world’s foremost non-profit organization for the recognition and promotion of excellence in advertising.”
I’m not Bill Hicks. As much as I admired his perspective, I have no fear or hatred of advertising. It’s a necessary evil, and sometimes, when it involves promoting Zombieland or certain political candidates or the launch of, say, the iPhone 4, I don’t even find it all that evil, as long as it’s not misleading or targeted at children. I worked in Internet advertising, in fact, for several years to launch and sustain this very site (some of you may remember the ads that brought you here from GoFugYourself — those aren’t the only ads I created. I wrote literally thousands of those little Google textual ads that you see every time you perform a Google search, many of which still exist. That makes me an evil fucker, too).
Advertising, however, is not a sexy industry, as many of you in the field can attest. I was an ad major in college for two years before I toured an ad agency in search of a job and it fully set in: The creative side — or what you see on “Mad Men” or “Bewitched” — accounts for, like, five percent of advertising. A lot more of it involves poring over demographics, networking, or the tedious hours-long selection of a (fucking) font. Even the creative side isn’t exactly what you see on TV. It’s not like some quick-witted intellectual genius came up with “Got Milk?” Some dude wrote it down in a dry-erase board and a roomful of suits said, “Ooooh. I like that.”
That’s why Art & Copy doesn’t make for a particularly compelling documentary, either. Because while the output might be interesting, the process is not. The documentary consists mostly of a bunch of old guys — usually Ben and Jerry types with pony tails — reminiscing on the groundbreaking nature of this or that advertising campaign. Most of them have narcissistic tendencies, which you’d need to have in order to believe that this or that campaign was a kind of “art,” when in fact the only thing that separates most advertising execs from a bumper sticker maker is about $554,000, 975,000 a year. Indeed, to talk,at length about how depressing or taxing or stressful a career in advertising is, as the people involved in this documentary do, undermines the very efforts of others who aren’t in the creative industry. (Personal peeve: The use of “bust my ass” by anyone who doesn’t do manual labor). A couple of guys even spend an entire segment talking about how much the “Just Do It” campaign changed the lives of so many people. Real inspirational, there. It’s probably the same thing the foreman was screaming at the thousands of people working in sweat shops to create Nike shoes.
While the documentary does pay lip service to a few statistics and, even, inexplicably interviews a man whose job it is to hang up billboards, there’s nothing particularly compelling about the film. If you’re in advertising, you might find it somewhat interesting in the same way you might find listening to your boss talk about the old days interesting. But if you’re not in the industry, there’s nothing here at all for you. Nothing illuminating, anyway. Not unless an anecdote about creating a giant sign that says “Fail Harder” with push pins excites you. It certainly didn’t me. In fact, the only thing that kept me awake (mostly) was the thought that, when it was over, I could ramble solipsistically about myself in the review. Because we’re all self-important narcissists.