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Art & Copy (DVD Review)

10 May, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$24.99 DVD
Not rated.

Someone had to dream up that famous old Volkswagen print ad that pictured the Beetle — initially thought to be a tough sell in an America full of anti-German World War II memories — in a long shot next to the words, “Think Small.” The same goes for “Where’s the Beef?” — which was almost pulled by skittish corporate naysayers a week before the first time it aired. Or that cheeky Esquire cover — back when Sonny Liston was an object of sheer terror to white America — that pictured the troubled heavyweight as Santa Claus.

There are no specific allusions to “Mad Men” in Doug Pray’s documentary about 1960s ad men and women, but you feel its presence everywhere in this story of how a once stale business and “old boys club” got creative just as the country was changing and getting out of its own cultural doldrums. One fundamental brainstorm, hatched at roost-ruler Doyle Dane and Bernbach, was to put the copywriter in the same room with the art director so that one might actually have an idea of what the other was thinking. DDB is the agency that came up with the still famous (though it aired just once) anti-Goldwater spot for the 1964 election that featured the little girl, the daisy and the nuclear blast. You can almost imagine the two office roomies looking each other and going, “Do we dare?”

You can view this puff portrait in two ways, which is reflected in some of the polarized reviews it got during limited theatrical engagements last year. The veteran ad whizzes interviewed here — Lee Clow, Hal Riney, Mary Wells and many more — found and find almost spiritual solstice in their profession, which can naturally prompt a negative “hey, this is advertising we’re talking about” response from a lot of people. But to do a first-rank job, you have to believe in what you do — and most of the people here reserve their real pride for having helped sell the products that were genuinely good.

The result is something like listening to a savvily programmed oldies station. Wells talks about getting Braniff International to paint its planes and dress up its seats to look about as Mod as fleets could ever get. Pugnacious George Lois — a real character — explains how a pouty Mickey Mantle’s “I Want My Maypo” commercial of the 1960s (now, there’s one I’d forgotten) inspired the “I Want My MTV” harangues of a succeeding generation. “Got Milk?” turned out to be the most concise way to sell a product that has never changed (as compared to a pair of Nikes, which can always switch colors). One of the best segments tells of running the groundbreaking Apple spot in the 1984 Super Bowl, which did just about everything but emphasize the product in any direct manner.

The interviewees, tops in their craft, bemoan the mediocrity of so much current advertising and miss the days when the top agency people actually talked to the top corporate people (the way, you’ll note, they do in “Mad Men”). Today, it’s committees who make the decisions, and as everyone knows (it’s also pointed out here), committees are formed because no one wants to take the blame for a misfire.

The DVD extras let these most articulate talking heads talk some more, bonus material that’s as entertaining as the rest. The final defense of a cagey profession that spends and makes obscene amounts of money comes when someone alludes to the works of Toulouse-Lautrec — who in his heyday (that means when he was living) was mostly just trying to get patrons into the Folies Bergere. Today, of course, they’re art.

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