Real life Mad Men

13 11 2010

Last night I caught a documentary on PBS that took a fascinating look at the advertising industry.

My instinct would be to never put the words fascinating and advertising in the same sentence, because, as Art & Copy director Doug Pray puts it, “98 percent of it is bad.” But Pray focuses on the other 2 percent, and specifically, the artists and writers who’ve been the most successful at combining art, communication and commerce.

Pray interviews a handful of the greatest advertising minds of the last 50 years, and their insights on what people respond to and how they come up with their ideas is enthralling. The film makes advertising — when done well — seem like the coolest job in the world.

On the one hand, you have the bold, artful style of a George Lois, who once paired avant-garde guru Andy Warhol and tough guy boxer Sonny Liston in an ad for Braniff Airlines. The odd-couple commercial turned out to be a huge hit for Braniff.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the folksy approach of a Hal Riney, whose “Morning In America” TV spot for Ronald Reagan in 1984 is considered by many the most effective political campaign ad ever made.

Some common themes emerge among the various ad icons regarding effective and persuasive communication: human interest; shared experiences; simplicity.

In a piece he wrote as a reflection on the film, Pray tells a story that breaks advertising down to its essence:

“It crystallized for me in the jungle in French Guiana last summer. We’d gone there to film the launch of a commercial satellite to make the documentary less talking-heads and more visually exciting. I figured that if satellites bring us television, and television is paid for by ads, then… ads launch satellites. It was a way to marvel at the lengths we go to deliver dog food commercials.”

But there in the forest, a short distance from the Arianespace rocket launch site, was a small outcrop of boulders with a dozen ancient petroglyphs carved into them (the ones seen at the start of the film). The drawings told stories about what once happened to some prehistoric person, and what they did or didn’t want their lives to be. They had something to say, and they used communication tools to say it. Art and copy. Same thing… different format.

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