When Ads Were Legend

Doug Pray‘s Art & Copy turned out to be a little thin. It’s basically a chapter-by-chapter history of the most legendary ad campaigns of the last 45 or 50 years, each chapter with a corresponding flattering profile of the advertising exec (or execs) who dreamt each one up.

But there’s no arching theme to it, no undercurrent, no inquiring line of thought. Pray doesn’t begin to think about the odious implications of modern advertising (as Adam Curtis did in The Century of the Self). Nor does he think to draw parallels between certain legendary ad copy lines and the contours and tendencies of the culture from which they sprung.

One example of this was pointed out by Tom Wolfe in his legendary 1976 essay “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening.” In 1961 a copywriter in the employ of Foote, Cone & Belding named Shirley Polykoff came up with the line: “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a blonde!” The basic attitude of having “only one life,” said Wolfe, contradicted a general belief among families and nations that had existed for centuries, which you could sum up as a belief in “serial immortality.”

Boiled down, serial immortality means that we’re all part of a familial stream — our lives being a completion or fulfillment of our parents’ lives and our children’s lives completing and fulflling our own, and everyone understanding that we’re part of the same genetic river of existence and spirit. Polykoff’s copy line, which was written for Clairol hair coloring, basically said “the hell with that — it’s just me, it’s just my life and my goals, and I’m going to satisfy myself!” By the time the early ’70s rolled around the culture had begun to believe in the “me first” philosophy en masse.

I just wish Pray had decided to dig into this and other correlations between advertising and cultural values.

  • DarthCorleone

    Meanwhile, outside the highbrow world of Sundance, America has crowned Paul Blart: Mall Cop the weekend box office champion with an astounding haul of $33.8 million.

    I suppose that’s a testament to the power of advertising if nothing else.

  • irvingberlinalexanderputz

    Jeff, if you want a good read about this sort of thing, check out Adrian Forty’s Objects of Desire.

  • otakuhouse

    Sounds godawful. Mad Men aside, a black black black comedy on a part with Dr Strangelove has to exist somewhere for the total insanity that passes for the ad industry today, toting about their ideas of “brand love beyond reason” and interviewing cult members to see how to inspire the same (google Douglas Rushkoff’s amazing “The Persuaders” for Frontline which did do what you were hoping Jeff).

  • Deathtongue_Groupie

    DarthC – just what is supposedly so outstanding about that number, which was about what was expected?

    Translated into actual butts in the seats it equals the very unwhopping number of 4.6 million. Out of 339 million currently estimated for North America.

    Anyone starting to understand why not even The Dark Knight wasn’t that big of a cultural phenomenon (83.3M, btw)?

  • Alex Stroup

    Last night as I walked out of Revolution Road a couple in front of me (also leaving same) saw a poster for Paul Blart and said “we should have seen that instead. I kind of agreed with them.

    As for this thing it sounds kind of like one of those “World’s Funniest Ads” TV specials every year.

  • actionman

    that doesn’t say much about you, Alex. Yeesh.

  • Ryansi51

    i can’t believe Paul Blart made $33.8 mil. that hurts.

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  • Ryansi51
  • Alex Stroup

    Don’t worry actionman, wanting to keep my arty credentials would make sure I always opt for well made boring movies over mass market stupid movies.

    But that doesn’t change that Revolutionary Road was a slog to sit through (though a well acted one).

  • DarthCorleone

    Deathtongue>> I don’t bother paying attention to traacking, because ultimately I think box office take is bollocks. And, yeah, I’m aware $33 million isn’t what it once was. Nevertheless, I noticed the headline and found it to be a demoralizing number.

    I suppose I’ll bang the drum ceaselessly and futilely against popular film preferences for the rest of my life, but at least I’m voicing it and trying to get people to realize there are other films out there that have more than football-to-the-groin humor. (I realize I’m preaching to the choir in a place like this.)

    I’d watch Revolutionary Road ten times before I’d watch Paul Blart once. Maybe that’s just me.

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