FEATURE: Advertising - The Movie

We're used to the way films and novels portray the neurotic, nasty world of advertising. But Rachel Nouchi discovers it was not always so...

The ad industry has proved to be a rich source of inspiration for novelists and filmmakers throughout the decades. The seductive sheen of glitz associated with that fast-paced snappy world of ideas, has often been used as a glamorous backdrop in celluloid classics such as Hitchcock's North by NorthWest, where Cary Grant plays a suave ad exec, or the saccharine Doris Day in Lover Come Back who truly believes in the products she's selling.

But the world of 50s black-and-white movies full of smartly turned out men and women did not last long and was soon to become a distant peachy dream. Without so much as a backward glance, the ad man became a metaphor for emptiness in a cynical consumerist culture.

Recognisable plots in contemporary books or films typically involve an ad executive who either ends up divorcing his wife because he's really married to his ad agency, or is nursing some drugs problem stemming from overwork. The movie Kramer versus Kramer, for example, features art director Dustin Hoffman, who can't withstand the pressure of agency life as his marriage fails. Or watch as Richard E Grant's pimple gets bigger to the point that it actually talks to him because of the stress of pitching to his pimple-cream client in the movie, How To Get Ahead In Advertising. And even those on the periphery don't escape - as Kevin Spacey's character in American Beauty proves. His job (editor of the equivalent of AdAge) and life both seem meaningless. The message: advertising drives you nuts.

But mostly these books and films are not really anything to do with the ad industry, they just happen to host a bunch of characters who just happen to work in advertising.

Recent books by those working in the industry have taken a more lighthearted, send-up approach. Frederic Beigbeder's novel £9.99 is a scathing, violent, tragic and hilarious expose of advertising, with inspiration garnered from his time at Young & Rubicam.

Toby Litt's hero in Adventures in Capitalism, meanwhile, falls prey to the subliminal power of advertising. He buys everything that he sees until he finally runs out of money.

Novelist and former ad man, Matt Beaumont, used his experience of being a copywriter for 15 years (and being fired from three agencies) to write his irreverent books, 'e', The e Before Christmas, and The Book, The Film, The T-Shirt. All present a rich tapestry of the industry's insincerities, back-stabbing and bitchiness.

Beaumont says the idea for his brilliant plot, featuring a complex web of lies and intrigue, was purely based on his time at McCann- Erickson.

"The company was email mad. There were so many stories played out over the email. I started wondering if I could turn this farce into a 300 page frolic," laughs Beaumont.

Although it was actually his wife, Maria Beaumont, also a former creative, who gave him the confidence to break out of the 30-second spot and write books, Beaumont still had his fears.

"I was worried if it would really work as a novel. Would anyone want to read it? Would anyone outside advertising want to read it?" he confides.

In fact, not only did 'e' become a bestseller - it even went to outer space. A British astronaut was so taken with the book that a photocopy of Beaumont's picture accompanied him on his mission.

Meanwhile, US bestselling thriller writer, James Siegal, vice chairman and executive creative of BBDO New York uses his experience of the industry in both writing and marketing his novels. He believes that books and films mostly portray a phony ad world that doesn't exist, which is why he decided to make his chief character an ad exec who takes the wrong train one morning.

While both authors deny using their ability to know what the audience want, the skill of recognising a strong idea and sticking with it is certainly a skill picked up in the halls of creative departments.

See Siegal and Beaumont on the tape to find out how both recent best-selling novelists turned their experience of working in advertising into successful writing careers.