Art & Copy director Doug Pray offered during the film's Q&A at the Prospector Square theater that he didn't want to make a documentary that did nothing but re-play classic advertising, and he didn't want to make a talking-heads documentary. He achieved in both those aims, but there's also the uglier question of if he made a documentary at all. Backed by The One Club -- an organization, as the press notes observe, "dedicated to the craft of advertising" -- Art & Copy talks to some of the greatest names in the field and recounts their successes. Combining clips of ads with interviews with titans in the field like Dan Wieden (Nike's "Just do it"), Hal Riney (Ronald Reagan's "It's Morning in America") and George Lois ("I want my MTV!"), Art and Copy is meant as a celebration of creativity; it winds up being a circular tautology: Great advertising is great because it's great advertising. Art and Copy is, essentially, an ad for advertising -- all of the attractive features of the business are shown in a glorious and shining light, and any concerns or deeper questions are brought up briefly before being shoved away briskly, or, more often, simply left unasked.
It's unfortunate, really, because Pray's an inventive and quick-minded documentarian who can normally show the fullness and contradictions of a topic; Hype! chronicled the rise (and fall) of the Seattle music scene; Scratch captured the quicksilver world of turntablism and of DJ'ing; Big Rig showed the lives of America's truckers and their role in commerce. I was excited by the prospect of Art & Copy, if only because Big Rig did such a great job of showing how consumer goods get from point a to point b; I was hoping Art & Copy would examine exactly how the people at point a make the people at point b want their consumer goods. (And, yes, I was hoping for a little hint of Mad Men's bleak, chic look at the industry, as well; I'm not proud to say it, but it's still true.) Opening with the Oscar Mayer and Meow Mix jingles, Art & Copy then shows us ancient stone carvings, while one of the film's ad men notes that there's not much difference between modern advertisers and the ancients who painted "on the walls of caves." Well, actually, there is -- whoever painted the bison on the walls at Lascaux was not, in fact, attempting to sell bison at a tidy profit. Art tries to encourage you to think; advertising wants you to stop thinking and buy. (And trust me, I'm aware that as you read this, you scrolled past several ads telling you how you can lose weight fast and promoting Paul Blart: Mall Cop, so let me briefly mention that you can lose weight inexpensively and safely by eating less and exercising more, and that our own Nick Schager found Paul Blart: Mall Cop an uninspired mess of fat jokes.)