One side effect of not owning a television is that, when you do get around one, at a friend's house or while staying at a motel, the advertisements all seem clever and screamingly funny. For the first hour, at least. On a related note, whenever I go to a bigger city like Portland or Seattle, the billboards and banners on the sides of busses all seem hipper, the humor more selective and often racy. It must be said that Missoula is still fairly provincial in these matters. Also, billboards in outlying Missoula areas need to be rotated more frequently. This dawned on me a few years ago when I noticed I was developing an unwholesome, squirmy kind of attraction to a pair of trashy girls on an anti-meth billboard on seemingly permanent display in East Missoula.
Art & Copy, a whirlwind documentary tour of American advertising in its post-World War II heyday, takes a fairly surprising stance on its topic: namely, that advertising is not necessarily always a blight on the landscape or a caustic solution Roto-Rooting into the minds of our children to the tune of—what was that statistic again?—something like 20,000 TV ads per year. A lot of people would say that television advertisements in particular are the lowest form of art: fifteen-second blurts of sound and image calculated to part you from your money, probably for something you don't need. Here's a documentary that dares to say maybe advertising is worthy of appreciation and is willing to portray the people who create it as something besides whores to capitalism.
"Art in service of capitalism," says one subject interviewed. "Entertaining culture with its products," opines another, creating a "mass communal happening" when a "Where's the beef?" or a "Got milk?" or a "Fahrvergnugen" burrows deep into popular culture, mutates into "Got weed?" or "Fukengruven" and everyone knows where it comes from. As we learn from Art & Copy, some of the most memorable catchphrases in American advertising history were complete flukes. You'll be downright amazed to learn the inspiration behind "Just do it," perhaps even more so by its creator's aptitude for spinning it into advertising gold, his rare gift for recognizing "a likable human emotion in parallel with a corporate mission."
These "creatives," as they've long been known by their corporate clients, have several things in common. As interview subjects, they're engaging and articulate. They worship at the altar of their own creativity, and most of them are pretty full of themselves. And they're all equally gifted at shrugging off insinuations that advertising also has some serious—and, for many, grave—effects on society and politics. Hal Riney's "Morning in America" campaign, for example, oozing what seems on the surface to be cunningly calculated sentimentality, played a significant part in getting Ronald Reagan re-elected in 1984. Will Democrats be more forgiving on learning that Riney himself, who also created Gallo's Pachelbel-powered wine-schmaltz campaign in the '80s, was raised by absentee parents and so has spent most of his career conjuring the family he always wished he had?
And now the huge corporations are increasingly turning to ad agencies to tell them who they are and what they stand for. They spend huge sums of money on "creatives" to pinpoint and define their corporate identity for them. Scary, but terrific watching.
Sprinkled liberally throughout Art & Copy are some of American advertising's greatest hits ("I can't believe I ate the whole thing.") and radical breakthroughs (Apple's 1984-themed Superbowl spot to introduce the Macintosh), but the movie is more than just a Clio Awards trip down memory lane. Director Doug Pray is admirably even-handed with the material, stopping well short of making a case for TV commercials as high art, but showing us plenty to admire, or at least consider. He clearly respects his interview subjects, all unabashed in their love of advertising but some decidedly less circumspect than others.
As a counterpoint to the millionaire ad heavies who mostly populate the interviews, Art & Copy returns frequently to one of advertising's lowly foot soldiers: a fourth-generation billboard-paster, or "rotator" as they're called nowadays. Like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him, he's never been out of work.
As for billboards standing at the outskirts of Missoula: When I first saw pictures of São Paulo after that Brazilian city hauled down some 16,000 billboards after a 2007 ban on outdoor advertising, I thought it was an Adbusters prank. Now I think it's perhaps the one thing Missoula could learn from a city with 20 million people.
Art & Copy shows at the Wilma Theatre as part of the Big Sky Film Series Friday, August 7, at 7:30 PM. Free.