Review: Art and Copy

Posted inFeatured
Thumbnail for Regional Design Awards: 2018 Winner Galleries

There’s a point somewhere around the middle of Art & Copy, the new documentary about the ad business from filmmaker Doug Pray, when the camera follows David Kennedy through Wieden + Kennedy’s stunning Portland, Oregon, headquarters. He leads us through the airy, wood-rich spaces filled with artwork, pointing out some employees jamming in an office rehearsal studio along the way. This, it appears, is the home of advertising: spotless, soul-stirring, a place where creativity thrives.

That sense of uplift runs throughout the doc. Swelling music accompanies the stories of the giants of the ad world—Kennedy, Dan Wieden, Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein, Mary Wells, George Lois, and others—and the iconic ads they’ve made. An instant shot of pleasurable recognition comes with practically every anecdote: Mary Wells using color and design (and sex appeal) to reinvent Braniff Airways; Silverstein saying how he initially hated the “Got Milk?” tag line; Lee Clow of TBWAChiatDay getting Ridley Scott to direct the “1984” spot for the Macintosh, a machine destined to change the actual production of ads.

Insiders and Joe Consumer alike can thrill to these stories, connected as they are to something we’ve all shared. “People want to be part of a community,” says Goodby. Undeniably, these ads bring us together. As the ever-quotable George Lois puts it, “Everything should be so ambitious.”

If only the film had been a little more ambitious itself. Given that these ads are so important to us, culturally, we could only gain by delving deeper into the process that produces them. With its focus on individual genius, the film barely touches the collaborative aspects of advertising, for instance; only once do we get to look over Clow’s shoulder as he sifts through iPod “silhouettes” with his colleagues. And the film is almost eerily free from mess of any kind. We see no pesky clients, no young people sweating it through a project, not even a speck of dust in Goodby Silverstein, and Partners or Wieden + Kennedy’s impeccable workspaces.

Art & Copy was produced by the One Club, so it would be naive to expect the film to be critical of the industry. But a little more self-examination would have made the film richer. The closest it comes to grit is silently posting stats about the industry (most telling of all: Eighty percent of all ads are produced by four global holding companies). But these numbers often feel like an afterthought, mere abstractions held up against the heroes and their tales.

Doug Pray and the One Club have to be pleased that their film is coming out when the craze for Mad Men is at such a high. And it is fun to hear from the real people who worked in that world. (Says Wells of her ’60s audience, “They loved the drama we were giving them.”) But Mad Men does what Art & Copy doesn’t: It shows the glamour and the grime of the business at the same time, and uses both to tell us who we are. Advertising isn’t clean. It would have been more rewarding to see Art & Copy get its hands a little dirty.

Art & Copy is being shown at the IFC Film Center in New York, the Denver Film Society in Denver, the Music Box Theater in Chicago, and the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle through Thursday, August 27. Additional dates and theaters are on the film’s site.