Motion Pictures, TV and Literature, Representations of Advertising in

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The business of advertising—as opposed to the advertising itself—is by nature discreet and prefers to function out of public view. As a result, fiction writers and filmmakers have portrayed it less frequently than they have law, medicine, law enforcement and other more open, public professions. Partly for this reason, the popular stereotypes of the business are based on a relatively small quantity of work.


It was perhaps the secretive nature of the business that prompted James Joyce to chose advertising as the profession for Leopold Bloom, protagonist of his novel "Ulysses" (1922), one of the most influential works of 20th century English literature. Although Mr. Joyce’s hero was an advertising salesman, the time and location of the book—Dublin in 1904—place it well before the beginning of what is regarded as modern advertising. Moreover, little of Bloom’s professional life is portrayed by Mr. Joyce.

One prominent novelist of the 1930s, John P. Marquand, had worked at a major agency and used his agency experiences in his novels. Mr. Marquand spent a brief period as a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson Co., New York, in the 1920s, and his novel "H.M. Pulham, Esquire" took place against the background of a similar agency. Although the novel is a study in class relationships and an affirmation of tradition, the agency background is well sketched and without hostility. In fact, the fictional agency president, J.T. Bullard, is widely considered to have been based on JWT Chairman Stanley Resor. The novel was produced as a movie by MGM in 1941 and starred Robert Young and Hedy Lamarr.

After World War II, a fundamental shift occurred in writing about the business world. Fiction increasingly abandoned the mogul and examined critically the extent to which the individual white-collar worker compromised his integrity and personal life for the company in pursuit of middle- or top-management success.

Among the postwar novels that drew on the advertising world for background and characters were "Please Send Me, Absolutely Free" by Arkady Leokum (1946), "Aurora Dawn" by Herman Wouk (1947), "The Glorification of Al Toolum" by Robert Alan Arthur (1953), "The Last Angry Man" by Gerald Green (1956), "The Detroiters" by Harold Livingston (1956), "A Twist of Lemon" by Edward Stephens (1958), "The Adman" by Shepherd Mead (1958) and "The Insiders" by James Kelley (1958).


The ad agency rarely figured in prewar motion pictures. To the general public, they were shadowy institutions that kept a low profile. Perhaps the most indicting film was "Beauty for the Asking" (1939), starring Lucille Ball, in which the development of an ad campaign was played out in the larger context of the cosmetics business and efforts to market a harmful product. Advertising was portrayed as an unethical process concerned only with selling and never pausing to assess the products it pushes. The film was made a year after Congress passed the first legislation regulating the cosmetics industry.

The first motion picture centering entirely on the politics and protocols of the modern agency was "The Hucksters" (1947), based on the novel by Frederic Wakeman. Mr. Wakeman had worked on the Lucky Strike cigarette campaign at Lord & Thomas and its successor, Foote, Cone & Belding. The novel, published in 1946, featured the character of Evan Llewellyn Evans, chairman of Beautee Soap, who was widely viewed as a fictionalized version of George Washington Hill, chairman of American Tobacco Co., maker of Lucky Strike. MGM immediately optioned the book and released the movie the following year, starring Clark Gable and Sidney Greenstreet.

As a film, "The Hucksters" emerged not only as a strong protest against tasteless and infantile advertising but also against the degree to which ad agencies held a virtual stranglehold over broadcasting and its programming. The image of the tyrannical client and the browbeaten agency executive became the standard matrix through which the public viewed the advertising industry for years to come. Nevertheless, more than a half century after it was made, it remained the best primer on advertising in American film.

If "The Hucksters" seemed to take up the theme of individual freedom versus materialism almost by accident, another novelist, Sloan Wilson, did it very much by intent. In "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," which became a film in 1957, Mr. Wilson offered two heroes, both surprisingly decent. Although the story does not deal with advertising but with public relations, the title became synonymous with the Madison Avenue advertising man.

A few years later the same studio, 20th Century-Fox, produced "Madison Avenue" (1962), based on the Jeremy Kirk novel "The Build-Up Boys." Here the amoral Machiavellian intrigues of agency life are the dramatic business, painting one of the most cynical and seedy portraits of an ad agency on film.

Another cynical look at advertising, although one taken from the TV network perspective and laced with keen satire and elements of farce, was Paddy Chayefsky’s original screenplay "Network" (1976), directed by Sidney Lumet; both men had launched their careers creating dramas in the early days of TV under the scrutiny of ad agencies. Although the subject of the film is the extent to which a network (and thus advertisers and agencies) will corrupt its news department to gain ratings, the larger theme is the power of advertising money to corrupt everything.

Elia Kazan made two films dealing with the media power of advertising. The first was a collaboration with Budd Schulberg called "A Face in the Crowd" (1957), a social protest film starring Andy Griffith that pointed to the dangers of advertising if deployed in the advancement of a demagogue. Mr. Kazan also chose advertising as the venue in which to set his indictment of soul-destroying materialism, "The Arrangement," which became a best-selling novel in 1967 and a film two years later. Kirk Douglas played an ad executive who attempts suicide at the beginning of the film, a consequence of having sold out himself and his talents in a wasted advertising career that made him rich but left him empty.

The notion of advertising as a corrupting moral environment as well as a high-pressure, demanding profession probably influenced J.P. Miller to make his hero an ad executive in his drama about alcoholism, "Days of Wine and Roses" (1962), an Oscar-winning movie starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. Its popularity further strengthened the public’s association of advertising with cynical and unsavory behavior.

Other postwar films, mostly comedies, used advertising as a relatively nondescript field in which to plant a hero and occasionally permit screenwriters to make wry observations on the petty hypocrisies and superficialities of agency life. Advertising became a minor subplot in Eric Hodgins’s novel "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House," in which the hero (played by Cary Grant in the 1948 film) must come up with a slogan by the end of the picture to keep his job. In a denouement portraying the advertising creative process as a totally chance process, the family’s housekeeper innocently drops the winning line at dinner: "If you ain’t eatin’ Wham, you ain’t eatin’ ham." Mr. Grant returned to advertising 11 years later in the lead role in Alfred Hitchcock’s "North by Northwest," in which advertising was defined not as a lie but as "the expedient exaggeration."

Two films of the period specifically treated closely related ad topics: market research and outdoor advertising. "Magic Town" (1947) offered up a Frank Capra-esque fable about an opinion researcher (James Stewart) who stumbles on a small town that is a perfect microcosm of national public opinion on every issue. When word of the town’s unique power leaks out, everybody tries to cash in, the power vanishes and the town nearly disintegrates.

A more insightful comedy was "It Should Happen to You" (1954). When Gladys Glover (Judy Holliday) decides to become somebody by buying a billboard in New York’s Columbus Circle and posting her name on it, she begins a buzz. Soon one board leads to another, and all of New York is talking about her. She becomes a celebrity, a brand, but an empty one without meaning. Without bitterness, the movie comments on the power of advertising to create something out of nothing. It is the one classic film on outdoor advertising.

The something-out-of-nothing theme was taken to hysterical extremes in "Lover Come Back" (1962), the second in the cycle of three Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedies. It satirizes a range of behavior that audiences found easy to assume existed in the agency business. In the film, the hero fabricates a campaign for a nonexistent product to lure an attractive model. When the inept agency owner (Tony Randall) discovers the campaign and orders it launched, a sudden national demand materializes for a product that must then be invented, a testimony to the power of advertising.

The Broadway stage has given relatively little attention to advertising as subject matter, one exception being "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" that opened on Broadway in 1955. Adapted to film in 1957, the story concerned a hapless advertising man (Tony Randall) who nearly loses but then saves the agency’s key lipstick account by lining up a big Hollywood star (Jayne Mansfield) as an endorser.

In more recent years films have portrayed the conflicts between the heavy demands of advertising careers and raising children. In "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979), Dustin Hoffman played a recently divorced man expected to care for his son while attending to the long hours of his job as an art director and creative director at a large New York agency. This same premise served actress Diane Keaton in "Baby Boom" (1987) as a savvy, driven, dressed-for-success career woman, also in a New York agency. When an unexpected baby turns up in her life and career, her workaholic singleness of purpose comes into conflict with the team discipline of the agency.

Two all-out satires of advertising agencies include "Putney Swope" (1969), which was released during the height of the black power phase of the American civil rights movement, and "Crazy People" (1990). "Putney Swope" showed what might happen if a Black Panther-like radical took over a large white Manhattan agency and placed black identity politics in competition with the prospect of material success. "Crazy People" took a more inventive approach and imagined advertising taking a satirically honest approach. When an ad man suffering from burn-out (Dudley Moore) decides to create truthful ads for an airline client—"Most of our passengers get there alive"—he is shipped off to a mental institution that is considerably more lucid and humane than the agency he left. When the ads are mistakenly run, business booms and the executive is rehired. The film pits every adperson’s dream of honesty against the reality of advertising and a typically dictatorial but amusing agency president. The ultimate joke is when the hero has the inmates at the mental institution start writing the ads.

The 21st century was not long under way before advertising became the topic of a major commercial film. In Paramount’s 2000 romantic fable "What Women Want," starring Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt, the issue is the sexist values of the traditional "man’s man" versus those of the educated career woman played out in the context of a fictional Chicago ad agency called Sloane Curtis.

The small screen

Among the best-remembered ad agencies on a TV show is McMann & Tate, which provided the professional background for Darrin Stephens in the sitcom "Bewitched" (1964-72). The agency and its head, Larry Tate, seemed constantly at the mercy of Stephens' wife, Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery), a witch.

By far the most probing and realistic portrayals of advertising were seen between 1987 and 1991 on the ABC drama series "thirtysomething," whose larger goal was yet another reflection of the cultural preoccupation with yuppies. Nevertheless, advertising played a major role in the stories, all of whose characters nurtured creative ambitions. During the show’s first two seasons, two main characters headed their own agency; after it folded in 1989, one of those characters joined a fashionably hip agent in San Francisco. By the 1990s, the series was bringing the public the most nuanced and sophisticated fictional advertising agency it had ever seen.

What has been consistently lacking in popular portrayals of advertising in literature, films and television, however, has been a sense of the profession’s role and importance in a capitalist economy. By ignoring the larger context in which advertising functions, filmmakers and novelists have found advertising an easy and tempting target for ridicule.

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