"New York City. Madison Avenue. Big advertising agency," says Tim Robbins. Those words are shorthand for a creative career, urban glamour, ambition and greed. Here, it's a line in Robert Altman's satire of the movie industry, The Player (1992), when Robbins' movie mogul character describes a screenplay to his story editor.
Robbins continues: "Account executive makes a presentation to someone he wants as a client. Client promises to get back to him."
"Does it have to be advertising?" asks the editor.
Well, does it? Hollywood has always sought whatever gets audiences from point A to point B fast. "You only have so much time on screen," explains writer-director Steve Oederkerk (The Nutty Professor, Ace Ventura). "The goal is to give yourself five to 10 minutes to let the audience truly know the character. Any vehicle you can use, whether it's dialogue or a job, allows the audience to go, 'Oh, I know that guy.' " Advertising serves as that easy read. So, in a way, yes, for many producers and screenwriters who want to make movies in a business setting, it does have to be advertising.
Oederkerk wrote and directed 1997's Nothing to Lose, a comedy about an ad exec, played, coincidentally, by Tim Robbins, who finds his wife cheating on him, has a nervous breakdown, and then gets carjacked by a hoodlum (Martin Lawrence). "I didn't want him to be an advertising executive because it is so overused in movies," Oederkerk says. "But I kept coming back to it because it worked best for what I wanted out of the character. I wanted a guy who was in a structured corporate environment but had the type of job where you could spot at once that he was pretty loose and fun and creative at one point."
Hollywood's adman keeps getting shunted into a variation of one of four stereotypes: the spineless wimp in the gray flannel suit; the suave, ambitious go-getter; the conflicted and ineffectual family man; or the amoral careerist.
"What I don't like about those movies is when they portray advertising people as sleazebags," says Bozell's chief creative officer Jay Schulberg. He believes that there have been both true and untrue, good and bad, representations: "The Tom Hanks movie [Nothing in Common, 1986] was a very good reflection of advertising -- about the pressure you are under from clients to come up with the campaign." But for Schulberg's mother, that movie introduced her to the horror. "She saw it and was mortified," Schulberg says. "She thought it was a horrible way to make a living." The thought that our loved ones learn about who we are through Hollywood's lenses could be disconcerting, but Schulberg shrugs it off: "It doesn't bother me. I've seen so much of it. Advertising is an easy thing to pick on."
And the truth is that we often learn about ourselves. When Young & Rubicam executive producer Rich Rosenthal sees a strategy meeting satirized in a movie, "I laugh, because I've been in meetings where we have three-hour discussions about whether some guy should spit. You know: 'Is that the right image for the company?' There is something so inherently mockable about certain types of advertising. It's an easy industry to caricature. It is easy to get a quick character read." The adman role is always infused with some "degree of hideousness," says Rosenthal. "I think that to be at the top of any field, you have to be overachieving and charismatic. [In movies about business] you rarely see someone who is self-possessed and confident portrayed in a good light."
Which is probably why lead actresses are careful when they play businesswomen. "Julia Roberts has to shy away from her prettiness," Rosenthal says. "Back in the 1930s, they weren't worried about depicting career women as smart and pretty."
He's right. The films of the '30s and early '40s used the advertising trade to position women as urban heroines. This was when audiences wanted to see stars lead wealthy and glamorous lives on screen. In Ex-Lady (1933), Bette Davis plays an independent woman who loves her man, but doesn't believe in marriage. As advertising people, Davis, who plays an illustrator, and her husband, an agency owner, are shown to be clever, sophisticated, young moderns. They meet in regal offices with ornate chandeliers and go out at night with dapper friends to black-tie parties. When they get married and she joins his agency as an art director, their love and work tangle. But by the end, they're still in love and still in advertising.
In Otto Preminger's 1944 mystery, Laura, advertising functions as a backdrop to the luxurious lifestyle of its protagonist, Laura Hunt. She's an ambitious girl who rises to the top of her agency on the basis of her "youth, beauty, poise, warmth and vitality," according to the film's narrator. She's a "lady whom women envy," and that is also why, apparently, she is murdered. As the mystery of her murder unfolds, her career is used to bolster her allure.
It was in the late '40s and the '50s that audiences began to see advertising denigrated on the screen. Hollywood was responding to the times; Frederic Wakeman, John Kenneth Galbraith, Vance Packard, and other writers were walloping the mass society and its "organization man." Moviegoers could expect an inevitable moment in a film when a concerned family member, co-worker or friend would give an impassioned monologue condemning the evils of the trade. The indictment -- that advertising manipulates people into believing that their happiness is determined by the products they buy -- was not really intended to attack capitalism; instead, it was a narrative device. Misgivings about business propelled the plot by creating a central conflict between the character and his family, or else revealed an internal rift in the character. Both of which would lead to a road of discovery, ending in a climax in which the character either gives up advertising or finally accepts it, as a metaphor for his becoming a whole man, a good husband and/or a reliable father.
The first hard-hitting critique of advertising from Hollywood was 1947's The Hucksters. The assault came in the guise of Clark Gable's Vic Norman, a dashing adman dressed to the nines, who, after fighting in the war, sweeps into Kimberly Advertising, looking for a job. Women fawn over him. Men praise him. The ad guys at Kimberly are scared, sniveling yes-men who kowtow to their powerful client, Beautee Soap, whose chairman, played by Sydney Greenstreet, is the agent of evil of the film. "Irritate and they'll never forget" is his advertising motto. Vic wins himself the job, thinks up brilliant ideas and takes on the Beautee Soap account. But after he blackmails an old friend to win a sponsor for his client, his moral struggle comes to the fore. "Next thing I know I'll be beating women and kicking children," he sighs. It never comes to that. Instead, Vic quits Kimberly, drives off with his girl and claims, "A man can have a career which he is proud of, selling things that he can believe in."
Despite The Hucksters' juxtaposition of Gable against the other admen, advertising is still wrapped in cosmopolitan sophistication. This was at least true for one young viewer: Jay Schulberg, who was 8 years old at the time: "That's why I got into advertising in the first place," he says. "Seeing these suave, dapper guys -- like Clark Gable -- in $300 suits, who would have four-hour martini lunches. I thought that was a great business to be in." The critique of the profession, says Schulberg, "never hit home with me. The glamour did."
The late 1940s through the early 1960s proffered a mixed representation of advertising, which, in retrospect, seems to reflect the repressed social schizophrenia that would later explode in the '60s. The adman could be spineless, suave and a drone. In 1961, Lover Come Back gave us three types: Rock Hudson as a swinging playboy; Doris Day as a hard-working straight girl; and Tony Randall as the silly boss.
Despite the varied representations, the film managed to ultimately condone a career in advertising. In The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), which is not directly about advertising but about public relations, Gregory Peck has to decide if he wants to be a workaholic or a family man. According to cultural critic Thomas Frank, author of The Conquest of Cool, which theorizes that 1950s advertising informed the '60s counterculture, "It ends up with Grant affirming the middle-class lifestyle. It's very anodyne. While they do talk some criticism, it ends up reaffirming 1950s corporate normalcy."
Hollywood's clawless critique repeats itself throughout that era. In A Letter to Three Wives (1949), Kirk Douglas, who plays a school teacher married to a commercial radio writer, gives an impassioned speech to his wife's humorless, number-crunching bosses. Douglas mocks them: "If you don't use our product, you'll lose your husband, your job, and die," he mimics. But the couple's victory over her employers is merely that she refuses to work on weekends. Similarly, in Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House (1947), adman Cary Grant listens to his daughter repeat what she hears from her teacher; that his is a "parasitic profession." The story concludes happily when he constructs his new Connecticut home and he comes up with a slogan for a client.
"Hollywood's revulsion of advertising is very similar to the critique from within the [advertising] industry," Thomas Frank says. In fact, he asserts that Hollywood's tame critiques would later become advertising theology -- as part of the creative revolution of the 1960s. "Books from the era that were very critical of the industry, like Jerry Della Femina's From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor, were prefigured by movies like The Hucksters," Frank says. "Look at Vic Norman. He's brilliant but he's hamstrung by this blowhard client who thinks he knows better than the professionals. One of the great lessons of the creative revolution was that advertising people -- the creative people -- were professionals and that their verdict on a campaign should take precedence over that of the client."
If anything, notes Frank, advertising used Hollywood's brand of criticism to its advantage: "Advertising managed to embrace the backlash against itself."
From the mid-'60s through the '70s, fun romances, which were often set in ad agencies, were replaced by grittier fare. Advertising took a backseat to Hollywood's passion for messed-up kids, renegade cops, and car chases. Two major exceptions were Putney Swope (1969) and Kramer vs. Kramer (1979).
Director Robert Downey's Putney Swope spoofs an advertising agency by having one taken over by black militants led by a man named Putney Swope. Renaming the agency Truth & Soul, Swope and his crew twist advertising tenets into nonsense. He drops all war toy accounts, but sells window cleaner as soda in the ghettos. He marries a woman just to get an idea for an ad. And when he realizes that his staff only cares about money, he unceremoniously walks off the screen. Swope is so loopy, with its B-movie actors, high-contrast lighting and bizarre tangents, that it is more farce than social critique.
"I was just getting into advertising and I thought that Putney Swope was hysterical," says Ted Field, now worldwide creative director at Young & Rubicam. "I thought it was a great sendup. I wasn't offended by it. It was the times."
While Kramer vs Kramer is also a film very much associated with its era, it's part of a tradition: that of the adman torn between work and family. What distinguishes it is that it's a drama. The tension isn't used as a gimmick, for laughs, but to confront changing gender roles, and the subsequent strains on the family.
"I thought it was poignant," remembers Field, "and I sympathized with Hoffman's character." Dustin Hoffman's effective, unironic performance earned him a Best Actor Oscar, the only one for an actor playing an adman.
The 1980s were not quite as honorific for advertising. With conspicuous consumption king, the film industry churned out a rash of ad movies -- middling comedies like Beer (1985) and Nothing in Common (1986) -- spoofing the latest fall guy: the yuppie. There are exceptions, like Albert Brooks' Lost in America, a deft comedy about an adman who tries to find himself by living off the grid. Or the hilariously surreal How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989), in which an adman's pursuit of a pimple cream slogan drives him off the deep end. (Under stress, he develops a boil on his neck that becomes a second head, a nasty alter ego that won't shut up.)
As for our decade, the economic boom of the 1990s has brought with it a greater public appreciation for hard work and success. People enjoy counting David Geffen's Gulfstreams and tracking the worth of Bill Gates' fortune. The media-saturated culture has meant an upswing in adman representation. "It's a more interesting thing to look at today," Ted Field says of the explosion in ad industry exposure. "Witness the USA Today polls after the Super Bowl. My daughter is 13, and she and her friends are always thinking about
Recent movies offer a diversity of portrayals. The acceptance of glamour and careerism is reminiscent of the '30s and '40s. Boomerang (1992) indulges in the wealth and sophistication of its protagonist, a cosmetics marketer played by Eddie Murphy. In Nothing to Lose (1997), Tim Robbins' adman freaks out when his wife cheats on him, but he never questions his line of work, nor are there any cheap shots taken at his profession. And in Picture Perfect (1997), Jennifer Aniston plays a woman in advertising, alongside Kevin Bacon, whose desirable, suave, well-dressed ad guy is reminiscent of the Gable and Rock Hudson characters.
"Advertising is a sexy business," says Steve Dickstein, head of the commercials production division at Propaganda. "So is anybody who can make a TV spot for MTV or Nike. It's a hip thing. But I don't look at the movies for the ad side. It becomes white noise for me. The only outstanding media star in the advertising business, for me, was Larry Tate [on Bewitched]. He's the quintessential two-faced adman. That's the one I watched as a kid."
Television shows have produced representations similar to those on the big screen. The 1960s Bewitched spoofed amoral and neurotic admen. In the 1980s, Thirty-something could have been the continuation of Lost in America, with its protagonists wrestling with their baby boomer idealism and sense of ambition. Today, the most consistent representation of advertising is Melrose Place's D & D agency, where Heather Locklear shows once again that advertising is a good place for women to succeed in business.
And on the big screen, slams do keep coming. There's Crazy People (1990), in which Dudley Moore's adman has a nervous breakdown, but churns out successful campaigns from an asylum. Or check out the smarmy ad guys who try to hit on Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight (1998).
"There will still be representations of ad guys as hucksters," says Rich Rosenthal, "but with a '90s sensibility. It all depends on what the movie needs."
Hollywood's reliance on formula means advertising will remain a target. But the disparaging representations begin to look flat when you consider how important Madison Avenue has become to Tinseltown. According to Steve Oederkerk, "The TV campaigns for a movie account for almost the entire audience that attends that movie."
That means studio movies are being made with an acute awareness of how successfully they can be advertised. "Probably before I even started writing the script for The Nutty Professor," Oederkerk says, "there were certain visuals I wanted to use which I knew would end up in the marketing campaign -- like the giant Sherman walking down the street."
And while advertising enjoys an ongoing creative renaissance, Hollywood relies more and more on product tie-ins, appropriates quick-edit commercial techniques and A-lists commercial directors like Michael Bay (Armageddon) and Simon West (Con Air), who produce some of its most inane, artless fare.
It seems Hollywood has not heeded its own portrayal of the adman as amoral, superficial and greedy. It has slowly melded into what it has mocked so mercilessly. Sounds like a Twilight Zone episode . . . meets The Player.
Someone should write a screenplay about it.