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Art & Copy: Exploring Advertising

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"Advertising is the work of the devil." These words were delivered to me, in no uncertain terms, by a fellow filmmaker at a recent film festival as we chatted in the hotel lobby. He said them straight to my face, grabbed his tea, and walked off. I felt humiliated. And though I wondered how people would ever know about his movie without a trailer, posters, or the 27 advertised corporate sponsors who'd paid for the festival we were screening at, I've nothing against the guy. That is, I get where he's coming from, even if I don't believe in the devil. I made a movie about people who grew flowers in hell.

My documentary is called Art & Copy and it's about advertising. It's a bit of heresy for purists because the movie plays as a rather inspiring celebration of that rare 2% of commercial messaging that is really good. It may also be suspect to entrenched cynics because I've ignored the easy-to-hate stuff, that other 98% of advertising which often demeans, condescends, or is just ugly, annoying, or boring. It's as if I made a movie about architecture that focuses only on buildings that make us feel good inside them, but doesn't eviscerate suburban tract homes or urban atrocities.

My film features the ideas and work of some of the most creative minds in advertising of the last 50 years, larger-than-life personalities who've sold us everything from cars to presidents. Seldom interviewed, and barely known outside their industry, I was honored to have rare access to these legends via the One Club, a non-profit whose mission is to elevate creative work in advertising. They funded the film and gave me final cut and free reign, but obviously, demonizing the Hall-of-Famers wasn't a key strategy in our planning. I wanted to humanize them. And share my discovery that what sets them apart is the way their best advertising transcended the job at hand. Sure, they were just selling us stuff, but along the way, their ads actually inspired us, entertained us, or might have even been socially redeeming.

For example, Doyle Dane Bernbach's "Think Small" campaign for the Volkswagen Beetle promoted a "small is beautiful" ethic that was utterly counter-cultural in 1959, yet still pushed bugs. Mary Wells' crazy campaigns and colorful paint schemes for Braniff Airlines in the '60s uplifted a dull airline industry and made flying -- for all passengers -- a better experience (at least for awhile). Lee Clow's Super Bowl ad that introduced Macintosh in 1984 framed for the first time the revolutionary idea that the personal computer could be a liberating tool for the masses. And despite the politics of sneaker manufacturing, Dan Wieden's combination of three simple words -- "Just Do It" -- for Nike arguably changed sports from being the exclusive domain of professional athletes, encouraged millions to run and exercise more, and inspired more than a few women to just up and leave their lousy husbands. In other words, when advertising is great, it has enormous potential for social impact, irrespective of the commerce for which it exists.

Having made Art & Copy, however, I'm painfully aware that commercials are hardly ever seen as a potentially positive force, even by those who say they love watching them. They're considered suspect and evil by so many. Personally, I don't think advertising is evil just because it exists. We're not as weak-minded as everyone worries, we're fairly resilient and have an incredible ability to filter out unwanted messages. What we hate, when forced to watch a bad ad or see an ugly billboard, is the feeling of being repeatedly disrespected. We don't like advertising that treats us as unintelligent, needy, or easily manipulated. But we don't mind clever manipulation when it's brilliant, funny, or emotionally charged, any more than we mind the manipulative performance of a great actor or statesman. Hence post-Super Bowl raves about the ads and not the game (notwithstanding 2008 Giants fans).

But as anyone who works in advertising knows, it's extremely difficult to create inspirational campaigns. Your flower of an idea really does have to withstand the fires of hell: unimaginative clients, market research dictates, budget constraints, entire fleets of "lets-design-this-by-committee" committees, directors' egos (yes, I have worked in advertising), all played out in hundreds of conference calls and presentations over months and years. Like bills in Congress, the majority of finished ads are disappointing to those in the agencies who initially authored them. Most great ideas get killed instantly, some get killed later, and a few survive with integrity. "Art & Copy" honors some very successful mavericks who challenged the status quo, worked with their clients in bold ways, and made good campaigns that still glow with the DNA of human inspiration. Like memorable paintings or books, they told a truth or shared a great story, they somehow moved us and had something to say beyond just "buy this."

The significant difference between the artists and writers in Art & Copy and the DJs or graffiti writers I've celebrated in my other documentaries is that they were well paid for their struggles and worked inside the system. They defined mainstream culture even as they challenged it. For me, this is significant: while I love documenting social outsiders, I equally applaud anyone in mainstream society who finds a way to use their jobs to elevate our daily lives, from architects to admen.

So I hope my film helps fight bad advertising by encouraging people to make better ads. Advertising really is omnipresent. It is an unavoidable part our environment, and the only other way to clean-up that environment would be to make it all go away -- and I don't see that happening anytime soon. Right or wrong, advertising is the daily language of our entire system of commerce. And those brilliantly designed propaganda posters of the Soviet era suggest that communists need ads, too. I'm beginning to wonder if the act of advertising, itself, is somehow an innately human behavior. When anthropologists dig up our remains in 10,000 years, they'll certainly think so.

In the meantime, I've got a creative challenge...This is a hell of a tough film to advertise. (Where's the devil when you need him?)