Doug Pray's 2009 Sundance entry Art & Copy finally hit DVD and Netflix Instant this week, and I'm always intrigued about the advertising world so I consumed it immediately. But that was extremely underwhelming so I went looking for another documentary on the topic and came upon the 2004 Frontline episode The Persuaders. Does the PBS series count as documentary in the way I approach it here? I don't want to discuss that just now. I will say, though, that this isn't the first time I've been more fulfilled in my cravings by a Frontline episode after watching an unsatisfying doc feature. Following my viewing of Robert Greenwald's Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Living, for example, I checked out the much better Frontline: Is Wal-Mart Good for America?
Art & Copy and The Persuaders aren't quite as similarly focused as the Wal-Mart films. The former concentrates on the creative side of advertising while the latter is more interested in the psychology and marketing aspects. Yet they do have some interesting parallels. Each spotlights an airline that went out of business (Braniff in A&C; Song in F:TP). Each spotlights the re-election campaign of a Republican president (Reagan; Bush). And each puts some attention on Apple, though A&C pretty much comes across as an Apple ad itself, while F:TP basically classifies the success of the Mac branding as cultish. As in the negative sort of cult, not the positive connotations that go with entertainment-based terms like "cult classic" and "cult following."
At the end of the day (or, the end of my double-feature, as it were), neither gave me either a greater sense of modern advertising nor much to think about afterward. I also would have appreciated a better treatment of the history of advertising and marketing, even if minimally. A&C did at least, in it's jump-around chronology, tell me a few interesting things about some classic old campaigns. I learned that Nike's "Just Do It" slogan was inspired by a man's last words before his execution. I learned that the hit song "We've Only Just Begun," made famous by The Carpenters, was written as a jingle for a bank.
Most importantly I was reminded that clever ad campaigns don't necessarily lead to lasting success of the product. I wondered if my kids will have no knowledge of what an iPod is, just as I had no idea what an AMC Rebel was (it's a car that you could "drive like you hate it"). Of course, that's absurd, and the fact that Apple and Nike will likely last for decades longer than Braniff and American Motors, has a lot more to do with the psychology explored in The Persuaders than the artsy adman attitudes and talent displayed in Pray's film. A&C, with its sponsorship from the pro-ad non-profit The One Club, is basically just a Dogtown and Z-Boys for admen (some of whom are into surfing).
How many documentaries aren't commercials for something, though? Even Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Living is a commercial for not Wal-Mart, like some political ad that focuses on why not to vote for the other guy. And plenty of docs can have product placement in addition to being commercials for a cause. The recent Oscar nominee Food, Inc. was at times even an ad for Wal-Mart, while being more an endorsement of Stonyfield Farm and obviously mostly a feature-length PSA for organic food. And while maybe not intentional, and certainly not technically classifiable as advertising, Oscar-winner The Cove made me want to watch Ghostbusters 2 because of one scene in the film. But a documentary can be entirely an ad for something and be entirely justified by being a fascinating, informing and entertaining work. See Gary Hustwit's Helvetica, for instance.
Is The Persuaders completely guilt-free in this regard? Well, it might turn some companies on to market researcher Clotaire Rapaille and consultant Frank Luntz, but otherwise Frontline is clearly more of a news show with more journalistic integrity than something like Art & Copy. Even if Song wasn't to cease as a brand within a year and a half of F:TP's air date you'd likely foresee its demise. So that's hardly positive product placement. And speaking of product placement, other highlighted brands like Absolut and Pontiac are probably going to make you mad at Hollywood while somewhat growing some distaste for those products.
As I said before, there can be a larger conversation sometime about why Frontline is very different from "movie" documentaries, but the one thing that's necessary to point out is that generally movies should tell stories. A&C does somewhat have a narrative, but not a very good one. And since it's no better an investigative report of its subject than a six-year-old Frontline episode, it's hard to see it's exclusive worth. If anything, I hope it inspires someone to make a better film about the ad world, or at least one that addresses the internet with more than a passing reference to this game-changing new arena.
In the meantime, I've become very nostalgic for the commercials from my youth, particularly those directed by Joe Sedelmaier (Wendy's "Where's the Beef" campaign; the FedEx spots starring fast-talking John Moschitta, Jr.) and collected in the old VHS-based board game Commercial Crazies. I bet you could simply watch that tape used for the game and come away with a pretty decent understanding of both the creative and the psychological sides of advertising. Just by watching the commercials with no narration, no investigation, no interviews, no agenda (well, except the obvious agenda of each ad), you can see what works and why, even after 30 or so years. It is, after all, what inspired my interest in the topic of advertising as a kid and has stayed with me ever since.
If you're interested in checking out the Frontline episode, you can watch it free on the PBS website here.