Doug Pray's new documentary, Art and Copy, chronicles the evolution of creative advertising by exploring connections between great art and great ads and how the latter influence our lives.
Advertising has been around forever, but over the last century, it has evolved at a remarkable rate. Creative geniuses like Hal Riney, Lee Clow, Mary Wells, George Lois, Dan Wieden, and David Kennedy helped transform the business into an artform. Doug Pray's new film, Art and Copy, is something of a love-letter to those great minds, delving into the ways their work helped reshaped the business, and how advertising, for better or for worse, continues to both mirror and shape our world. He spoke to GOOD about what advertising means to him and where it goes from here.GOOD:In your film there's a banking ad by Hal Riney from 1970 that unfolds like a love story between young people, set to popular music. At the time, this was revolutionary. It makes me wonder: Did advertising start getting creative at precisely the moment that rock music sold out?DOUG PRAY: That's really interesting. I'd consider that, but not quite how you phrased it in terms of rock 'n roll. I would say that advertising generally mirrors society. And my movie is more about the reaction to what we call the creative revolution. These people were trying new ways to break ground in advertising, which had been around forever. But it wasn't until the sixities, seventies, and eighties that people started thinking, We can do so much more with this. We can actually use this to make great art or movies or sitcoms. Like Mary Wells's Alka Seltzer ads or Lee Clow's 1984 Macintosh commercial, with Ridley Scott and these Orwellian overtones.G:We tend to create a conceptual divide between art and commerce. But those ideas are wholly united in the people you profile. They see themselves as artists, but are quite comfortable with their roles in commercial society. Is that why they're so successful?DP: Well, pretty much everybody in my movie has a conscience, and most of them think that most advertising is really bad. They definitely think of themselves as artists, but they're at peace with the concept that they are using commerce. So instead of looking at that like it's some horrifying, manipulative thing, they look at it like they have this inordinate task: not only to move people artistically or emotionally, but then to make them buy something. There, it instantly takes a left turn from all the other art forms in the world, which exist just for the sake their own experience. Plus, they have thick skin, because they make their art for these giant committees and people saying "no" all the time.G:And they all seem to have this perspective that committees are the enemy of good creative work.DP: Very much so.G:But that's fascinating, given the nature of marketing departments at most companies.DP: Some of their greatest work came when they were working directly with the client themselves, like how Dan Wieden, working directly with Phil Knight at Nike, was able to oversee some of the most brilliant advertising ever. Regardless of what anyone thinks about Nike-that's a totally separate point. Same thing with Hal Riney. My movie is almost misleading because it only profiles the greatest of the great. But unless you're really at the top, with most advertising, you're dealing with like middle managers. Every single business is being brought down by that kind of thinking-market research, committees, the sort of MBA mindset. It gets in the way of pure creativity, which is never about being safe.G:That reminds me of a New York Times interview where George Lois, whom you profile in the film, said that creating a committee to make decisions about magazine covers equates to gang rape. He said, "you need to get one guy who understands the culture, who likes comic strips, goes to the ballet, visits the Metropolitan Museum." DP: Only George would use that terminology. Ha.G:Your film touches on the volume ads we see on a daily basis, but it does so really quietly, with text running over long, sweeping shots of satellites and billboard towers-vehicles for the transmission of advertising. So structurally, we have audible conversation about the excellence of ads, and silent words about the volume of them. Why did you make that choice?DP: The statistics that, as you say, we quietly added in, were very much the last step. I wanted to subtly remind the audience how much of our economy revolves around advertising, and how big a part of our modern environment they've become. Even if you hate advertising, you're wearing pants because of it. Like being a socialist living in a capitalist economy: Whether you're with it or against it, you're being shaped by it. In pointing out some of the more negative things, like that children watch 20,000 ads a year, it was about responsibility. I know I didn't make a negative, ad-bashing movie, and I've taken some heat for that. What I'm saying is, Look, advertising is not going to go away, but can't it be better? If you hate advertising, then make better ads.G:That's a more nuanced approach, I guess.DP: Well, plenty of people who've seen the film have just said, I can't believe he's not just taking these guys to task. But, I'm just so bored with the exact same arguments, that all advertising is nothing but pure manipulation, or that we're these weak little sheep being lead around. If it was that easy, we would have been living in a 100 percent totalitarian society way back in the 1930s. It's really hard for corporations to figure out how to advertise. And there's an enormous number of campaigns that just fail. Look at Microsoft.G:What direction do you see advertising going?DP: As long as our system of commerce is based on having to tell people about what you're making, it's going to take any form that exists. People are talking about the death of the 30-second commercial, but it hasn't really died. It's just that now there's internet advertising. And newspapers are clearly taking a major hit, but now there are ads on your cell phone. I don't find all of these things pleasurable, but as long as people are sensible and fighting it when it's really invasive, as long as you can turn it off, that's the key.G: One phrase near the end of the film is, Everything is an ad. Is that true or a little hyperbolic?DP: I don't know. Maybe. I mean, it's just gotten more subtle. ... But if they ever put big ads in space at night, that's when I'm done.Header image: Chad Tiedeman, erects a billboard for iPod during the filming of Art and Copy. Photo by Michael Nadeau.<a href="http://www.good.is/departments/q-as"><img src="http://user.good.is.s3.amazonaws.com/community/etling/q-a-footer-090109.gif" border="0" alt="Read More" /></a>