Covering up the inconvenient facts of his résumé, donning new identities the way other men change suits, the hidden persuader at the center of AMC’s Mad Men has a talent for duplicity that would seem to place him squarely in pop culture’s rich canon of ad industry villains.
But even with his fake name, appropriated past, perfect show family, and less than ethical approach to client management, Don Draper stands apart from the cynics, hoodwinks, hacks, and evil mesmerists who populate the pages of such anti-advertising tomes as The Hucksters, The Hidden Persuaders, and No Logo. At home in his dining room or at a fancy restaurant wooing clients, Draper may be a lying, boozing con man. But when he’s in his office, dreaming up catch phrases to sell products, the specters of candor and authenticity possess him. “You are the product,” Draper tells a neophyte copywriter. “You, feeling something. That’s what sells.” He doesn’t just want to sell us the sizzle of girdles and popsicles; he wants to sell us their souls.
Art & Copy, a 2009 documentary about the advertising business, is built around interviews with eight of the industry’s most celebrated practitioners. One of them, the legendary ad man George Lois, echoes Draper’s passion. “I can get excited about selling a new kind of pin,” growls Lois, a pugnacious blusterer whose campaigns for MTV and Tommy Hilfiger helped turn them into cultural mainstays. Contemplating a pin’s very pinness—identifying the precise qualities that make it useful to us and enhances our lives—is the path toward great advertising.
The contrarian theme that advertising is at heart a medium for profound truth telling runs throughout Art & Copy, which will be out on DVD this summer. The more common nonindustry view is of advertising as a fundamentally crooked enterprise that aims to brainwash us into buying products we don’t really need to solve problems we don’t actually have and attain ideals we don’t genuinely aspire to.
Art & Copy departs from this stereotype in large part because it’s not a nonindustry depiction. While aimed at general audiences and directed by Doug Pray, whose past work includes documentaries on surfers, graffiti artists, turntablists, and the Seattle music scene, the movie was funded by The One Club, which describes itself as “the world’s foremost non-profit organization for the recognition and promotion of excellence in advertising.”
In other words, it’s a documercial. But if advertising is indeed a powerful medium for truth telling, then so what, right? Watch Mary Wells, founder of Wells Rich Greene and one of the most successful and influential ad executives of the 1960s and 1970s, explain how she helped Braniff Airlines make air travel hip and fashionable by convincing the company to paint its planes, redecorate their interiors, and clothe its stewardesses in new uniforms. Watch Tommy Hilfiger explain how, after George Lois devised a campaign that equated the then-unknown designer with Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, he worked harder than he ever had on his next clothing line to measure up. Great advertising, these anecdotes suggest, isn’t about figuring out clever ways to hide a product’s flaws or tricking us into buying things we don’t really want or need. It’s about showcasing a product’s inherent desirability in ways that resonate, even if that means going back to the drawing board and revising the product itself. Wells’ campaign for Braniff turned a formerly utilitarian part of travel—getting there—into an entertaining experience. The artificial status Lois conferred on Hilfiger inspired him to produce his best-designed clothing yet. Advertising, in short, can make the world better.
But not without something to sell. Look at Art & Copy’s high-water marks of the business, and what’s striking is how often the brands and products associated with them are revolutionary game changers (Volks-wagen, Macintosh, MTV, FedEx, Ronald Reagan), or at the very least delicious (Wendy’s hamburgers, milk). While the interview subjects show no shortage of confidence in their own abilities, all seem to recognize that their powers of persuasion have limits. The best way to produce great advertising is to produce great products. Give the best pitchman a pig’s ear, and even Don Draper couldn’t turn it into a silk purse. The best he could do is make you think about how a pig’s ear might improve your life.
Contributing Editor Greg Beato (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes from San Francisco. This column first appeared at Reason.com.