Art & Copy

The Herald: July 2010

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Art & Copy

Directed by: Doug Pray


“The frightening and most difficult thing about being… a creative person, is that you have absolutely no idea where any of your thoughts come from, really. And especially you don’t have any idea about where they’re going to come from tomorrow. “ The opening line for Doug Pray’s Art & Copy sets the tone for the documentary – a rumination on the creative process behind some of the most iconic advertisements of our time (the Got Milk? campaign for example), the ephemeral nature of this process and the struggle to take an idea from its initial germ to fruition, while protecting it from the manipulations of profit-seeking corporations. Pray meets some of the giants of the American advertising world – George Lois who created the ‘I want my MTV’ campaign that catapulted the music channel into the hearts of teenagers across the country, Hal Riney who is credited with creating some of the most evocative political television spots in American history and Lee Clow, the mastermind behind Apple’s first advertisements.

Pray explains that he wanted to pay tribute to the 2% of “good” advertising in the market, while putting a face to the men and women who crank the ‘dream machine’ that taps into our desires as consumers. What sets his interviewees apart, Pray explains, “is the way their best advertising transcended the job at hand.” This is illustrated clearly with Hal Riney’s television spot encouraging voters to choose President Reagan – when shown the spots, Reagan allegedly teared up, saying “I wish I was that good”. “Sure, they were just selling us stuff,” says Pray, “but along the way, their ads actually inspired us, entertained us or might have even been socially redeeming.” Pray revisits Nike’s world-famous ‘Just Do It’ campaign, tracing its origin from the words uttered by a man on death-row in Utah, who encouraged his executioners, saying “lets do it.” Nike executives were shocked when Americans applied the ‘Just Do It’ philosophy to various aspects of their lives – this manifested itself in women leaving abusive relationships, seeking new employment or following their passions.

“Making great advertising is a very difficult, very emotional process,” says Liz Dolan, former head of Marketing for Nike. Pray visits various firms across America, seeing how they nurture and protect their creative employees – one firm has intriguingly created a replica of a bird’s nest, where employees can feel safe or cocooned. Pray acknowledges that such measures are necessary in an industry where “the majority of finished ads are disappointing to those who initially authored them. Most great ideas get killed instantly, some get killed later and a few survive with integrity.”

Pray also speaks extensively with Hal Riney, who explains that his troubled past with his family has lead him to use advertising as an outlet “to express some of the things that I might not have experienced in my life.” When you review Riney’s body of work, replete with images of happy families, joyous wedding celebrations or fathers playing with their sons, fellow advertiser Jeff Goodby argues that you are yearning for a “a time in America’s past that people wish had happened, but probably never did.” Therein lies the insidious nature of advertising, which is often maligned as an industry that creates and exploits desires and needs. Pray, however, chooses to focus on the handful of advertising campaigns that somehow enriched our experience of our culture or the product itself.

In his determination to present advertisements as works of art where human emotion and commerce intersect, Pray fails to analyze the often toxic nature of the industry where there are more often misses than hits. The documentary is slow-paced, ironic for a meditation on ideas and advertisements that hold your attention from the first few seconds. The documentary scores points for delving deeper into the thought-processes of men and women who have created some of the most iconic moments in our generation’s visual culture.