Hot Docs 2009: Art & Copy Review

Art & Copy

Directed by Doug Pray
USA, 2009

Official Hot Docs Synposis:

You see an average of 5,000 ads every day. Most of them suck. A handful are good. Only a few look and feel like-and indeed really are-art. The most innovative advertising campaigns of our time and the creative rebels behind them are the fascinating subjects of acclaimed filmmaker Doug Pray’s Art & Copy. Slick footage and stories from industry legends chart the creative revolution that sees a splinter group shift from merely moving product to moving culture. Phyllis K. Robinson empowers the “Me generation” with a Clairol slogan and Hal Riney re-elects Reagan with “It’s morning in America.” Yes, they sell widgets, but just as artists do, they also tap zeitgeists and rouse emotion: Lee Clow’s “Think different” tagline grows more than Apples and Dan Wieden’s “Just do it” makes athletes of us all. Pray’s captivating tribute- like an ad itself-sells you on the undeniable art of advertising. Myrocia Watamaniuk.

I think modern film audiences have been forced to sit through so many pre-movie car commercials that they’re more likely to accuse the world’s greatest ad designers of cheapening their craft and damning their souls by helping rich and greedy corporations becoming richer and greedier before they’d even consider accepting them as visual artists. I, on the other hand, have an appreciation for the advertisement. Actually, let me rephrase that; I have an appreciation for the GOOD advertisement. And as Doug Pray’s Art & Copy so boldly proclaims, if you don’t like advertising, you haven’t seen a good advertisement.

Like graphic design, I’ve always had a casual interest in the art of the ad. It’s the ‘boutique’ commercials that always catch my eye; award winning, creative and more often then not, visually stunning. Some of my favourite directors have either gotten their start in or currently pay their bills by doing commercials: Spike Jonze, David Fincher, Errol Morris, etc. There’s no question that some of our greatest visual storytellers have clearly benefitted from cutting their teeth in the advertising world; and with good reason. The task of capturing someone’s attention – and imagination – in a two to three minute spot is quite the feat. In Doug Pray’s film, Ridley Scott’s famous dystopian ‘1984’ Superbowl ad and Michael Bay’s clever ‘Got Milk?’ ads are shown in full and we get to meet the people behind the ideas. It’s interesting hearing that the creation of one of the world’s most imitated ad campaigns (Got weed?, Got boobs?, Got fleas? Got Pus? – that last one is brought to us courtesy of the creative folks at PETA) was created almost by accident and came close to being canned due to bad grammar. Proof that you can’t really predict what will work. These ad guys seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to taking chances on some of the weirdest ideas.

Comparisons to Gary Hustwit’s ‘Helvetica’ – and its ‘sequel’, ‘Objectified’, which I actually caught on the same day – are unavoidable. Both films manage to fetishize the seemingly mundane, illuminating an art form that by every day standards might be considered trivial or even annoying. However, the crucial part of this successful equation is the interviews. I’m drawn into these films because of the infectious passion exuded by their subjects. Art & Copy features the who’s who of the ad world, all of which I have never heard of. But to design freaks, the guy who invented the ‘Just Do It’ slogan – which interestingly enough was inspired by words muttered by a death row convict facing a firing squad: ‘Let’s Do It.’ – is on par with Michael Jordan or Wane Gretzky. These people are stars in their fields, and boy do they exude confidence. They present potential clients the opportunity to allow them to make shit loads of money for their companies, and if they’re too close minded or stupid to see how brilliant their idea is, fuck ‘em. This is a bold attitude considering the occasionally abstract and ridiculous nature of these ad campaigns. Imagine one of the world’s greatest ad designers telling you you’re an idiot for not embracing the brilliance of the Budweiser frogs? I guess it’s a matter of trust.

Thankfully, Art & Copy pretty much sticks to the design elements of advertising, remaining somewhat neutral regarding the negative effects of ad saturation. The closest we get to any sort of commentary on the subject comes in the form of facts and figures presented as text over footage of two of the films framing devices; the mounting of an iPod ad to a billboard and the launching of a commercial shuttle. Both of which I thought were nice substitutes to what, in the hands of a less imaginative filmmaker, could have been your typical white text on a black background. So if you’re hoping for some biting commentary on the adverse effects of advertising on society, you will likely be disappointed. Art & Copy plays more like a celebration. If you equate the Nike swoosh with sweatshop labour or if you turn your nose up at the site of an iPod ad, you might find yourself rolling your eyes at the idea of advertising as art. But for those of you open to the idea of illumination and inspiration via the Superbowl (at 2 million bucks a pop!), Art & Copy will give you a fresh perspective on new and interesting ways of communicating ideas and images first and selling products second. — Jay