CAMPAIGN FOR BEGINNERS: DO THEY MEAN US? - Advertising and the cinema have always had a love-hate relationship

Advertising and the cinema have always had a love-hate relationship: adland loves the cinema but the cinema hates adland. John Donnelly assesses 60 years of films on advertising.

In his wonderful book Adventures In The Screen Trade, William Goldman opines: "In Hollywood, nobody knows anything."

He's been around. He's done a bit. He's probably right. But maybe not totally right. Because in Hollywood, they do know one thing. They know that they don't like the advertising business very much. Of that, they're certain.

It's a bit odd really. Because - you can't deny it - the ad world is head-over-heels in love with the movie world. It can't leave movies alone.

It's nuts about them. And no wonder, because they're a cornucopia of moments and ideas that never fail to delight and inspire. And perhaps that's it: adland may be in such bad odour with Hollywood (and Pinewood too, for that matter) because adland, like a magpie, snaffles so much of their shiny stuff.

The occasional US picture at least acknowledges the allure and the glamour of advertising. Several movies in the late 50s and early 60s showed the ad business mirroring a sunny, frothy optimism based on the rise of the Great American Consumer. But, particularly on this side of the pond, the industry has been portrayed as a stressed-out, crazy, crass, home-wrecking, contemptuous, shallow, incompetent and worthless pursuit. It's a world that its practitioners must inevitably attempt to seek redemption from.

They mean you: the art director, copywriter, photographer, producer, director, account man, planner, bloke in the post room. Or more conveniently and usually in the movies, just the one unbelievably brilliant and handsome type who does the lot. (David Abbott does meet those criteria, but that's entirely beside the point.)

There are tell-tale, tantalising clues here that the advertising business on celluloid might not be any good. And guess what? It's not. Not only are most "ad movies" appallingly inaccurate, they're just - well - mostly appalling.

There are some terrific movies about advertising. Honestly, there are.

The problem is, they aren't really about advertising. They're spy movies or romantic comedies or thrillers or domestic dramas, with the advertising world merely providing the scenery.

The fact remains that in 60-odd years, there has never been a top-dog, top-drawer movie all about the advertising business. Where's the witty, incisive, well-written, taking-the-lid-off-an-industry equivalent of The Sweet Smell Of Success, All About Eve, The Player, Network, The Verdict or Absence of Malice?

For pity's sake, even estate agents (Glengarry Glen Ross) and air traffic controllers (Pushing Tin) get good movies made about them. Their industries aren't shown in a particularly flattering light, but they do give good movie.

Advertising, alas, hasn't and doesn't. So just what has it given? The answers are enough to make you smile, but mostly weep ...

The Hucksters (US, 1947) - Directed by Jack Conway

Clark Gable is home after World War II and fancies his chances in advertising.

A world where the radio ad is king and the sell is as hard as nails. Gable is attracted to the ad business by the promise of big bucks and beautiful women. He has the task of getting a bunch of society women to endorse Sydney Greenstreet's soap. Greenstreet is a ranting, spoilt brat of a client (nothing's changed much) whom Gable has to suck up to, much to his distaste. A glossy dig at the business, not slow to point up the sharp practices of the ad world. But not too venomously. So soon after the war, Hollywood wasn't biting the hand that fed it.

Twelve Angry Men (US, 1957) - Directed by Sidney Lumet

The classic, beautifully acted film in which a jury gradually changes its mind. Juror number 12 is an adman. He doesn't add much to the intense story, other than to reinforce the slick-yet-shallow ad exec stereotype.

Number 12 (played by Robert Webber) doodles one of his packshots and boasts about his endline to his fellow jurors. He's frivolous and pathetic. And out of the 12, he's the only one to change his mind about the verdict twice. Admittedly, there are precious few characters on the jury that the audience can really warm to. But Number 12, in particular. Well, he's a bit of a Number 2.

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (US, 1957) - Written and directed by Frank Tashlin

TV advertising comes in for an early bit of stick. Tony Randall plays a timid dogsbody of an adman, facing the sack unless he can come up with something brilliant. And something brilliant is what he comes up with, in the perfect pulchritudinous form of Jayne Mansfield to endorse "Stay-Put" lipstick. To keep his client extra-happy, Randall has to act as Mansfield's escort and pretend to be her lover, which is something his fiancee isn't exactly over the moon about. Almost everything in the adland barrel gets shot at here: the gullible public, the excessive hype that the media can engender, sex being used to sell everything and anything. But at least it's funny.

North By Northwest (US, 1959) - Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

It's widely known that Cary Grant plays an ad exec, but only a tad of the film itself is actually about advertising. Grant's job is just a bit of convenient movie shorthand. He works in the ad business, married twice, needs his secretary to run his life, is restless, feckless. You get the idea. And then he gets mistaken for a spy. What follows is a delightful, deftly constructed comedy thriller, but Grant could just as easily be a pawnbroker, not an adman. That said, the ad industry could learn a useful something from North By Northwest. It boasts probably the most brilliantly succinct ending in the history of Hollywood. In the final 43 seconds, the bad henchman gets shot, the bad boss gets arrested, the microfilm is discovered, the leads save themselves from falling to certain doom, they get married and take a train trip back to New York. Now, if only Hitchcock could have got that down to 30.

Lover Come Back (US, 1961) - Directed by Delbert Mann

Doris Day is an honourable ad exec on Madison Avenue. She believes in the products she advertises and is charming with her clients. In stark contrast is rival adman Rock Hudson, a total wastrel who schmoozes his prospective clients unashamedly. He procures bunny girls for them. He lies through his teeth to secure their business. Hudson's so conniving, he even invents a product that doesn't exist, called "VIP". The movie then takes on the mantle of a Whitehall farce as Hudson recruits a chemist to actually make some "VIP" as demand for it has suddenly gone through the roof. Doris gets wind and decides to pitch for the business. Clear so far? A very light, bright and witty film with adland at its heart, having some very knowing fun poked at it. And could advertising actually have a decent side? A definite maybe.

The Thrill Of It All (US, 1963) - Directed by Norman Jewison

Doris again. But this time playing not the ad woman, but the Ideal Consumer. She and obstetrician hubby James Garner are living the American Dream - two kids, big house, big car, big fridge - when Doris lets a remark slip at a dinner party about her choice of soap. She's immediately signed up as the 'Happy Soap Girl'. Day's bumbling honesty works a treat. Soap flies off those shelves. The obsequious admen (changing their minds at the drop of a hat to please the boss) want her face everywhere. So Day becomes the successful breadwinner and Garner gets jealous. But when Doris helps him deliver a baby, she comes to her senses and opts for being a mum again instead of "Queen Of The Ten-Second Station Breaks". The moral: get thee behind me, advertising.

Catch Us If You Can (UK, 1965) - Directed by John Boorman

The Dave Clark Five are a bunch of extras/models/stunt men (nobody ever seems to have a clear job in ad movie land) who appear in commercials for the equivalent of the Meat Marketing Board. Their ad agency taskmasters are cold and sinister. Nowhere near enough fun for Dave and the gang.

So they all run away in search of an island paradise. The smarmy, slimy admen then spin a bit of PR that their model girl has been kidnapped.

The police get involved and a madcap chase ensues, with a surprisingly downbeat outcome. Obviously, the ad business of 1965 is the sort of occupation that attractive, fun-loving, young people should steer well clear of. Be warned.

I'll Never Forget Whatsisname (UK, 1967) - Directed by Michael Winner

The beginning of this movie is its best bit. Ad exec (another one) Oliver Reed strides through Berkeley Square with a gleaming axe over his shoulder.

After he's reduced his plush agency office to matchwood, Reed tells his boss (Orson Welles) that he's packing it all in to get a proper job on a small literary magazine. The movie charts Reed's attempts to ditch his many mistresses, deal with his impending divorce, and find fulfilment away from the deceit and superficiality that was his former profession. But then it all goes horribly wrong. Orson Welles lures Reed back to produce a five-minute(!) commercial.

Reed writes and directs it. Welles produces it. Unbelieveably (because it's a right load of old tosh) their Opus wins the "Festival Of Creative Advertising". Reed contemptuously chucks his award in the Thames. The end. Thank God.

Crossplot (UK, 1969) - Directed by Alvin Rakoff

This movie is to adland what Austin Powers is to MI6. Roger Moore plays the ubiquitous ad exec at a swinging 60s agency. International spies sneak a model girl's photograph into Rog's client presentation. The client loves her picture and says "yes". So then the befuddled Moore has no choice but to keep his client happy. He hires the model, only to find himself dodging assassins. The model has overheard an espionage plot, you see, and the spies needed Moore to help track her down. Very silly. Especially the part where the client said "yes".

The Arrangement (US, 1969) - Directed by Elia Kazan

Kirk Douglas is the suave American ad exec (yet another) who has everything: wife, kids, beautiful house, beautiful mistress, beautiful cars. He's so happy that, while listening to his latest ad over and over on his car radio, he decides to kill himself. But he doesn't die. He spends months convalescing, during which he reflects bitterly on his life and career.

His is a hard, smiling, insincere world of middle-aged men in suits. "What did you do today, darling?" Deborah Kerr, the doting wife, asks. "Got an angle on the Zephyr account," Douglas replies, as we cut to him in bed with his PA. You get the picture. After two hours, no-one is left in any doubt that working in advertising drives you round the twist. Utterly.

Putney Swope (US, 1969) - Directed by Robert Downey Snr

A planning guru arrives at a New York ad agency to address the board. His pearl of wisdom: "In reality, a glass of beer is pee-pee dicky!" Riiiiight.

This sets the tone for a cheap but outrageously funny spoof of the New York ad world. When token black ad exec Putney Swope is made chairman of his agency, he renames the shop "Truth & Soul", then replaces most of the staff with right-on black activists. Hilarious straight-talking commercials for "Ethereal Cereal", "Face-Off" pimple cream and "Lucky Airlines" are the result. They're a wild success and Putney becomes a celebrity. But the whole thing goes belly up. He tries to sneak off with all the cash (reverting to classic, corrupt, ad exec type) but is then scuppered when his second-in-command petrol-bombs the vault. Those advertising guys, they're so wacky. This has to be seen to be believed.

Kramer vs. Kramer (US, 1979) - Written and directed by Robert Benton

Art director (art director! Not an "ad exec"! Hallelujah!) Dustin Hoffman is under tremendous pressure at his agency. So much so that his wife (Meryl Streep) who hardly sees him, leaves him. Hoffman finds it hard at first, juggling his presentations with single parenting. He even loses his job, but he resurfaces at ad agency NCK. Hoffman loses custody in court but wins in the end, as Streep concedes that he's done his best to be a good dad. There's a bit of a step-change here as real-life brands and real-life agencies make an early appearance. And why not? A little more authenticity doesn't go amiss, and at least there's less room for silliness. And real clients are happy to be up there on the big screen, even if they do have the mickey taken a bit.

Absolute Beginners (UK, 1986) - Directed by Julien Temple

A young photographer tries to build a career in 50s London. Not a great deal of the advertising world is on show here but what there is seems interesting. This is the ad agency as a lavish Hollywood dance number.

You don't see that every day. But hold on. David Bowie's ad exec (that catch-all again) is a bit of a Dr Faustus, wickedly leading the photographer into temptation and the glamorous world of advertising. "You can do whatever you want, Colin. And get away with it," Bowie promises (obviously pre-BACC). Of course, Colin doesn't get away with it. He realises he's been cruelly exploited, then goes back to his mates and his girl. What can be gleaned from this? That the advertising business - even when it's set to music - is rotten to its core.

How To Get Ahead In Advertising (UK, 1989) - Written and directed by Bruce Robinson

To say this is a thinly disguised rant at the advertising industry would be very wrong. There's nothing thinly disguised about it. Richard E Grant's manic, wired, utterly stressed ad exec (now there's a surprise) is the most hateful, cynical and horrid person ever born out of wedlock. Grant gets so wound up trying to devise an ad campaign for pimple cream that he grows a boil on his neck. The boil, strangely, becomes Grant's new head - an even more loathsome incarnation of the adman from Hell. The film ends as Grant embraces his new-found horrible-ness with terrible zeal, riding a horse to the top of a hill to deliver yet another rant across the green fields of England. Phew. The advertising business has certainly upset someone.

Crazy People (US, 1990) - Directed by Tony Bill

Dudley Moore is a stressed-out ad exec (not again, surely?). He hates the fact that there's no honesty in his job. So he produces a raft of truly hilarious, straight-as-a-die ads such as: "Volvo. They're boxy but they're good." Of course, Moore's colleagues think he's crazy and cart him off to an institution. His ads mistakenly go to print. And boy, do they work. The bosses want Moore back, but he's fallen for fellow nut Darryl Hannah. So they let him work where he is, with all the other inmates chipping in. And they're not half bad at it. The inmates eventually set up their own agency and pitch for Sony. What makes this occasionally funny film very funny are those spoof ads. The admen may be the bad guys here, but the ads are the heroes. And in the end, they win. The inmates get the Sony account.

What Women Want (US, 2000) - Directed by Nancy Meyers

The head of Mel Gibson's agency is concerned that much of their work just isn't getting through to women. So he gives the creative director's job - the one he was going to give to Gibson - to hotshot Helen Hunt of BBDO. While working out how to sabotage Hunt, Gibson has a bizarre accident that gives him the power to read women's thoughts.

He finds that he has a great advantage over Hunt. He can say what she wants to hear. He can agree with her before she's said anything. He exploits this ability, but along the way Gibson gets some very telling insights. A pleasant, inoffensive film with a charming central idea. And interestingly enough, one that's central to the advertising business. Knowing what people really think has been an obsession of the industry since dinosaurs walked the earth. So what could be a more appropriate setting? Also, the business isn't the villain here. Gibson does better work and it makes him a better person. Hurrah. Finally.

Sweet November (US, 2001) - Directed by Pat O'Connor

"An arrogant ad executive - obsessively focused and a driven workaholic - is speed dialling through life." Oh really? This sounds as familiar as: "A maverick cop - hard-bitten, wisecracking and a recovering alcoholic - is only seven days from retirement." Keanu Reeves' adman behaviour is so large it's ludicrous. He strikes through headlines and tears up layouts as if he was barking "buy" and "sell" on Wall Street. Love interest Charlize Theron spirits Reeves away from all the (yawn) stress, insincerity and shallowness. A sad ending looms (Theron isn't too well) but nowhere near as sad as the ad business looks.

John Donnelly is a creative director at J. Walter Thompson and a founder member of The Sad Bastards Movie Club. A group of movie-mad folk drawn from the world of advertising, SBMC members meet up once a month to discuss, quiz and generally be totally sad about movies. They rarely go to see one.


"Gimme a well-stacked dame in a bathing suit and I'll sell aftershave lotion to beatniks." - Adman Rock Hudson in Lover Come Back

"As dad always said, 'A man who can't be bribed can't be trusted!'" - Ad boss Tony Randall in Lover Come Back

"In the world of advertising, there's no such thing as a lie. There's only the expedient exaggeration." "I'm an advertising man, not a red herring. I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders dependent on me." - Ad exec Cary Grant in North By Northwest

"Smell like a star!" - Slogan for Happy Soap from The Thrill Of It All

"I quite agree." "With what?" "With everything!" - Exchange between admen in The Thrill Of It All

"Advertising is total war. And we must play it with any weapons that come to hand!" "It was in bad taste. But then ours is a tasteless business." - David De Keyser's oily ad boss in Catch Us If You Can

"What's the price on integrity this week?" "I've always wanted to win that top award. You know. That awful gold lady with the triangular bosoms. You seem to be the only man that can get it for me." - Loathsome agency boss Orson Welles in I'll Never Forget Whatsisname

"I don't like the work. It's deceitful, superficial and self-indulgent." - Creative wunderkind Oliver Reed in I'll Never Forget Whatsisname

"Rockin' the boat's a drag. What you do is sink the boat." - Mad ad kingpin of the title in Putney Swope

"We use creative foreplay before we penetrate." - Agency chairman in Putney Swope

"Nathan, you're corrupt!" "Thank you!" - Exchange from Putney Swope

"When I see somethin' that ain't fresh, I get butterflies in my ulcer." - Putney Swope in Putney Swope

"My boyfriend's outta sight. And so're his pimples." - Jingle for 'Face Off' spot cream in Putney Swope

"I'm never going to work again in a job I despise." - Kirk Douglas' unhinged ad exec in The Arrangement

"Zephyr Cigarettes. The Clean One!" - Ad slogan that finally drives Douglas nuts in The Arrangement

"I'd like another martini, dry as a bone, twist, no olive." "Give me a bald head, I'll sell it shampoo." - Madly, deeply stressed-out adman Richard E Grant in How To Get Ahead In Advertising

"We can't level with America, you crazy bastard! We're in advertising!" - Ad exec Paul Reiser in Crazy People

"Forget France. The French can be annoying. Come to Greece. We're nicer." - Honest ad from Crazy People

"Jaguar. Sleek and smart. For men who'd like hand jobs from beautiful women they hardly know." - Honest ad from Crazy People

"United Airlines. Most of our passengers get there alive."

Honest ad from Crazy People

"Now, let's pull it together here and go and sell some sensitive feminine shit, OK?" - Creative guy in What Women Want

"I'm the man-eating bitch Darth Vader of the ad world!" - Creative director Helen Hunt in What Women Want

"More cleavage. More dollars." - Keanu Reeves in Sweet November

"This is cheap, tasteless crap!" "Well, that's funny! So's your product!" - Exchange between Keanu Reeves and his client in Sweet November

"So besides your job, what else makes you miserable?" - Charlize Theron referring to Keanu Reeves' career in Sweet November

Films about advertising that were never made but should have been

Carry On Advertising (1963)

Enter the double-entendred world of ad agency RCR (Rookham, Conham & Runne) starring Sid James as the creative director, Barbara Windsor as his PA, Hattie Jacques as the head of TV, Jim Dale as the eager young copywriter, Kenneth Connor as the nervous account man, Anita Harris as the planner, Bernard Bresslaw as the traffic man and Kenneth Williams as the fussy client.

It's A Wonderful Campaign (1946)

Kindly chief executive Jimmy Stewart finds himself starved of funds by his cruel masters at The Potter Group, then all his accounts come up for review on the same night: Christmas Eve. In despair, he contemplates suicide by jumping into the river. Luckily, an angel (David Abbott again - he's so versatile) comes down from Heaven to show him quite how rotten life would be without the well-loved, wonderful and warm campaigns that he's helped create over the years. Jimmy relents and goes back to the agency where every one of his clients has chosen to stay with the incumbent. And up their budgets.

Awards (1975)

Put-upon creative director Roy Scheider tries to persuade his client (Murray Hamilton) to run an integrated campaign to promote the Amity Island Tourist Board. Hamilton can't see the point. But as the summer goes on and the tourists stay away, Hamilton gives in. Scheider hires award-winning freelance talent Robert Shaw. Shaw - a Yukka plant throwing type - says he'll think about the ads for $5,000. But he'll write them, and shoot them, for ten. Shaw's first campaign dies horribly in research, leaving the hapless Scheider (who hasn't got in The Book in years) to save the day on his own.

By Noon (1952)

Taciturn creative director Gary Cooper gets married (for the fourth time) to his beautiful PA Grace Kelly. He's just about to go on his honeymoon, when the agency gets a call. Their biggest client is coming in on the noon train and wants to see six campaigns. "That's the creative challenge," the chief executive says. "But, hey. Your deputy creative director can handle it. You get on your way." Cooper wrestles with his conscience but he just can't leave. After all, his juniors don't know how to advertise to women. He stays to create the six campaigns for a creative shoot-out with the client at midday.

12 Angry Clients (1957)

Eleven of 12 clients sitting in a meeting all agree to buy a radical advertising campaign from their agency. They're very pleased with it. But the 12th client (Henry Fonda) disagrees. Throughout the rest of the meeting - which goes on for many hours - the lone dissenter painstakingly manages to persuade the rest of the clients, one by one, not to buy the campaign. A triumph.