Art & Copy Dir. Doug Pray

[The One Club; 2009]

More so than any television series or film, advertisements have shaped the image of the archetypal American citizen. We probably read more copy -- that is, the words of an advertisement -- in our lifetime than we do any other form of print media, including books. Most copy is simply hyperbolic product descriptions, but according to Art & Copy's insider ad execs, in order to truly affect the consumer, copy has to become something more profound and important. Copy has to become art.

In Art & Copy, documentary filmmaker Doug Pray turns his lens on the people and PR firms behind some of the most resonant ad campaigns in American history: NIKE's "Just Do It," Mac's "Think Different," New York City's "I Love NY." Under the conceit that "creativity can solve anything," Pray attempts to fill the runtime with "wisdom" from these advertisers, but it's instead filled with many vague, self-aggrandizing statements about advertising. Amidst all the talk about the advertisement as both a reflection of humanity's core truths and the advertiser's incessant self-congratulation, the primary purpose of advertising is rarely explicitly stated with any sort of bald honesty. Yes, advertising is more successful when it reflects some fragment of the human spirit and is relatable to the target demographic, but no matter how inspirational an iPod ad purports to be and how much "individuality" it attempts to sell, that ad exists for the sole purpose of inciting more purchases.

Ulterior motives aside, the advertisers' position -- that in order to sell your point, you have to connect with your audience -- is perfectly valid. Unfortunately, it's this advice that Doug Pray chose to ignore with his film. For an hour and a half, Pray intercuts talking heads of famous advertising geniuses with monotonous, tangentially-related footage of traffic, satellite dishes, billboard hangers, and the launching of a commercial satellite. Statistics are overlaid across the images, like how much money Super Bowl commercials cost and how many ads the average person sees in a day. When used to bolster an argument, statistics are an indispensable tool, but when they scroll disconnectedly across the screen, they are cheapened and dulled.

According to Pray: "I stuck to the 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." This was a noble goal, but one that ultimately doomed the film to failure. In his more focused music documentaries, Hype! and Scratch, Pray's interviewees waxed poetic about why they chose to wear flannel or about the transformative power of hip-hop, musings made effective when dispersed throughout a clear narrative structure. The world of advertising is rife with stories of revolution and reinvention too, but without providing contextualization, it's hard to truly understand why these folk believe their work was so important. Plus, interviews with corporate CEOs, members of the Macintosh brand cult, or the Adbustin' opposition would have given additional depth to the documentary and allowed it to expand beyond an insider back-patting session.

In the last century, advertising has grown from a humble sales pitch to a multi-billion dollar industry that incorporates social science, psychology, statistical research, and, yes, art. Somewhere in that rise exist tales of inspiration, moral compromise, artistic freedom, and high-concept campaigns that have changed society. If Pray had tackled this film with a clearer purpose, a plot, or an appeal to greater humanity, it could have been an eye-opening documentary rich with insight into the capitalist-consumer paradigm and the ubiquity of advertising in modern life. Instead, Pray set out to make a film about the most recognizable art pieces of the modern era, but ended up with an annoyingly vapid piece of copy, leaving viewers to wonder, "Where's the beef?"

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