Under the Influence

Nothing In Common: <br />How Hollywood Portrays Ad People.

This week, we look at how Hollywood has portrayed advertising over the years. Most pilots, lawyers and doctors roll their eyes at the way Hollywood depicts them, and ad people are no exception. From the 1947 movie The Hucksters, to the Rock Hudson/Doris Day film Lover Come Back, to Darrin Stephens in Bewitched, to Dudley Moore in Crazy People,...


This week, we look at how Hollywood has portrayed advertising over the years.

Most pilots, lawyers and doctors roll their eyes at the way Hollywood depicts them, and ad people are no exception. From the 1947 movie  The Hucksters, to the Rock Hudson/Doris Day film  Lover Come Back, to Darrin Stephens in  Bewitched, to Dudley Moore in  Crazy People, to the Tom Hanks movie  Nothing In Common, all the way to  Mad Men - we'll rate them all. We'll see where they got it right, and where they got it very, very wrong.

In the tense movie titled, Flight, Denzel Washington stars as a commercial airline pilot with substance abuse problems.

During the course of the movie, his plane suddenly malfunctions, and he has to pull off some pretty fancy manoeuvers to save the crew and his passengers. 

It's tense from start to finish. 

But if you heard someone howling with laughter in the back of the theatre, chances are there was a pilot in the audience. 

It might have even been Patrick Smith. He's a pilot who wrote in the  Daily Beast recently. Even though he's given up on realistic portrayals of pilots in movies, he says Flight takes the cake. 

Let's first get right by the fact Denzel Washington's character is a pilot who is drinking onboard the flight. Pilots are not allowed to drink within 8 hours of a flight, and drug and alcohol testing is often and random. 

But it's the check-lists and procedural call-outs that are usually inaccurate, but mostly just plain silly. 

There is a scene where Washington decides to increase to maximum flying speed to race between storm cells - all without the permission of air-traffic control. 

Patrick Smith's reaction to that plot point:  Are you kidding??

In another critical moment, with the plane nose-diving straight toward the ground, Washington saves the day by flipping the plane upside down, then right-side up, which you see in the movie's trailer: 


Denzel Washington pulls off some fancy flying tricks in the film Flight.
Source: Paramount/YouTube

Smith says the acrobatic magic here escapes him. But what does he know? 

He's only a pilot. 

Then there's medical dramas. The Centre for Nursing Advocacy in the U.S. monitors the way nurses are portrayed on TV. The show,  House, for example, was given a rating of half-a-star out of a possible four, saying that nurses are just background noise on the program, walking in and out of scenes with clipboards. 

Of the medical shows  HouseGrey's Anatomy and  ER, only  ER came close to accurately portraying nurses. 

It got one-and-a-half stars. 

Lawyers don't give Hollywood passing marks either, often seeing themselves portrayed as sleazy or outright buffoons. Especially in film. As for accurate legal procedure, one attorney said online: Hollywood knows nothing about the law. 

Journalists are often shown as uncaring people who will stop at nothing to get their story - and as one reporter said, they're always terribly dressed. 

It got me thinking that it might be fun to analyze how the advertising industry has been portrayed over the years. 

Hollywood has certainly drawn from the advertising well quite a bit in its history, going all the way back to a movie called  Cohen's Advertising Scheme in 1904, and continuing through to today with the Emmy-winning,  Mad Men

While I've discussed  Mad Men in the past, there are lots of other movies and TV shows that have painted a picture of the "typical" advertising person. 

Some have been comedies. Some have been dramas. Some have been on TV, some were motion pictures. 

And sometimes Hollywood got it right, and most other times, well, if you heard laughing from the back of the room, it was probably me...

The advertising business is a business of staying invisible. Meaning - that the people behind the creation of advertising are generally nameless to the population at large. 

The job of an advertising agency is to promote their client's products to the public, not themselves. You may love Apple's advertising, but you have no idea who actually creates it. You may hate Ricola's advertising, but quick - name the people who produced it. 

Now, if you were in the advertising biz, you could answer those questions. We're all very aware of who creates what. 

And because the advertising industry is a behind-the-scenes business, your opinion or image of advertising people may be formed - in large part - by how they are portrayed on TV and in movies. 

Let me say this - it's rare to see the advertising profession accurately depicted. It's usually an outsider's take on what they think it's like. 

With that in mind, let's start with one of my favourite sitcoms of the 60s: 


The pilot episode of Bewitched from 1964.
Source: YouTube

Bewitched ran from 1964 until 1972. It was created by Sol Saks, and one of the main writers on the show was Bernard Slade, who hailed from St. Catharines, Ontario. 

The show was about a witch named Samantha, who was married to a mortal man named Darrin Stephens. They struggled to maintain a normal marriage, and hilarity ensued. 

I was exposed to the advertising industry, maybe for the first time ever, through her husband, Darrin. He worked for a fictional ad agency called  McMann & Tate

Larry Tate was his nervous, do-anything-to-save-the account, boss. Larry knew no shame. He would change his opinion on the turn of a dime if it meant saving an account. 

Ok, there are lots of Larry Tate's in advertising. You got me there. When an advertising account hangs in the balance, the fawning can be spectacular. 

But I want to talk about Darrin Stephens. 

Darrin was the Creative Director. Which means he was in charge of the agency's creative advertising output. A Creative Director may be a man or a woman, and that person is either a writer or an art director, by trade. 

But Darrin Stephens was both. 

Not only was he a writer, and an art director, but he also wrote jingles. Not only did he write, art direct and compose jingles, but he was also an account man - in charge of strategy. In my 30 years in the ad business, I have never, ever met a creative director who is a writer, an art director, a music composer and an account person. 

Those are four different skill sets in advertising. 

Darrin also had the benefit of a magical wife who could wiggle her nose and come up with fantastic advertising ideas when he was stuck. Does that happen in real life? 

ALL THE TIME. 

My wife has vetted, cheered, booed and made incredible suggestions on my ad work for years. 

By the way, a little side-note: There is a statue of Samantha Stephens, on her broom, in a specific American town. 

Can you guess where? 

Bewitched statue.jpg
TV's favourite witch has a statue in none other than Salem, Massachusetts.
Source: thoughtsandplaces.org

I'd give  Bewitched a 5.5 out of 10 on the advertising believability scale. Four points for getting boss Larry Tate right, and half a point for the jack-of-all-trades Darrin Stephens. 

Now, let's jump back 15 years. 

One of my favourite old movies about advertising was released in 1947.  The movie, The Hucksters, starred Clarke Gable as Victor Norman, an adman just back from WWII looking to re-start his career.

He lands a job with the Kimberly Advertising Agency. Their biggest account is Beautee Soap. The CEO of Beautee Soap is an abrasive and intimidating client named Mr. Evans, played by actor Sydney Greenstreet. It's a character based on the very demanding, and very real President of Lucky Strikes cigarettes at the time, George Washington Hill. 

Clarke Gable is brought to the Beautee Soap boardroom to meet the boorish CEO, who is surrounded by his yes-men. 

Here in maybe the movie's most famous scene, Evans treats Victor Norman to his philosophy of advertising by actually spitting on the boardroom table: 


Clarke Gable gets a wet lesson in advertising from Sidney Greenstreet in The Hucksters.
Source: YouTube

It's a fantastic scene, and Sydney Greenstreet is perfect as the tyrannical client. 

While I have never seen an advertiser spit on the boardroom table, I have been in the presence of many intimidating ones. They have rigid theories of how advertising works, and they don't really want to hear a dissenting opinion. 

It's a demoralizing relationship to be in for an ad agency, because the client has all the power. 

Clarke Gable's character, however, has the courage of his convictions. He has the backbone to stand up to Mr. Evans. 

One of the central themes of the movie is that Clarke Gable's character struggles to maintain his dignity. And in the advertising business, it's easy to lose site of that when you have certain clients who demand you go against your own philosophies and beliefs about selling. 

Near the end of the movie, Gable decides he has had enough of groveling to clients like Mr. Evans, and actually pours a jug of water over his head. 

Knowing he's just been fired for the act, he later tells his girlfriend, Deborah Kerr, that marriage will have to wait until he can find another job - preferably not in advertising - because the respectable advertising world he knew before the war seems to have disappeared. 

And here's why I like the movie. She tells him that he should stay in advertising and promote products he believes in, and advertise them with honesty and dignity. 

Like books, movies and music, only a small percentage of advertising is any good at the end of the day. But the best ad people still aim for the brass ring.

I give  The Hucksters an 8 out of 10. For its time, for its era, it is still - to this day - a pretty fair depiction of the travails of the advertising industry.

Doris Day and Rock Hudson play competing ad executives in the 1961 movie, Lover Come Back.


Doris Day and Rock Hudson play competing advertising executives with different ethics in Lover Come Back.
Source: YouTube

In the movie, the "Miller's Wax" account is up for grabs and both Doris Day and Rock Hudson want to win it. 

Doris Day prepares for the pitch by researching all the strengths and weakness of the brand - which is exactly how an advertising agency would prepare for a pitch. Rock Hudson, on the other hand, prepares by researching what kind of girls the client likes and what alcohol he prefers. 

While that kind of hijinks may have happened back in the day, no respectable agency would ever ply a perspective client with liquor and girls to win an account in this day and age. 

Later in the movie, Rock Hudson shoots a commercial for a non-existent product called "VIP," starring one of his many girlfriends, just to keep her happy. He has no intentions of airing it. Considering how much TV commercials cost, would that ever happen? 

Not on your life. 

The VIP commercial gets on the air by mistake, and people start sending in letters by the hundreds looking for the nonexistent product. 

Tony Randall plays the constantly stressed-out agency President, and he starts to panic, but Rock Hudson tells him that all they have to do now - is invent the product(!)

Would an agency ever create a national full-blown television campaign for a product that doesn't exist? 

Not a chance. 

Yes, it was all part of the hilarity ensuing on  Lover Come Back. It's a fun movie, but it's still a false and not very flattering portrayal of advertising people. It gets a 3 out of 10, and only because Doris Day's character is a smart adwoman. 

There is no doubt the pressure of advertising takes its toll on ad execs. One of my favourite movies on that topic is called  Lost in America, starring Albert Brooks. He plays an adman so stressed out about a promotion that he gives it all up and decides to set out across America in a Winnebago. It is hilarious. 

Mel Gibson starred in  What Women Want about a sexist adman who can suddenly hear what women are thinking - and the lessons make him change his ways. 

Tom Hanks starred in a 1986 movie called Nothing In Common.


Tim Hanks plays an advertising executive at a Chicago advertising agency.
Source: YouTube

He plays the Creative Director of an advertising agency, and Jackie Gleason plays his father. It would be Gleason's last movie role. 

In the scenes shot in the fictional ad agency, we see the creative department as a little out of control, one practical joke after another, with 10 people squeezing into a tiny cubicle built for one. 

That scene, like so many other Hollywood depictions of ad agencies, is supposed to imply that agencies are highly unusual workplaces. 

Which they are. 

It also implies they are highly undisciplined workplaces. 

Which they are not. 

If you walked into an ad agency, you would see people in suits, and you would see people in jeans. You would see creative office spaces, and you would see conservative office spaces. 

One of the most awarded agencies in Canada uses a ping pong table as a boardroom table. Another has a silver Airstream trailer as part of their office space. An agency I worked for in the 80s had a three-story pair of binoculars as its entrance. 

As crazy as that sounds, the ad agency business is very disciplined. It has to be - the deadlines are too tight and there's too much money at stake not to be. 

In  Nothing In Common, there is a scene where the creative team is presenting a musical idea to Tom Hanks. They stand around his desk and sing the jingle to him. 

And later they sing a jingle to a client in a presentation. I have never ever seen that happen in the big leagues of advertising. 

If music was required for a commercial, the creative team would hire a music company. At the most, they might write the lyrics. But what they won't do is compose and sing jingles. 

Pure Hollywood. 

There is an interesting scene later in the movie, where Hanks is presenting his ideas to a big airline account. 

When one of the clients asks him why the agency didn't use their sterling air-safety record as a selling feature, Hanks tells them that it's a bad idea - that customers would then instantly wonder when the airline's luck would run out. He stands his ground, and says if the airline insists on talking about their safety record in the advertising, he was willing to walk away from the account. He says it's bad idea and he won't stand behind it. 

It's an excellent scene, well written. 

In many presentations, ad people are faced with tough moments. Clients may hate the work, or clients want to change the work so much that it no longer resembles what the agency believes in, or there are major disagreements over the strategic directions. 

It echoes the scene in  The Hucksters, filmed almost 40 years earlier. In  Nothing In Common, Tom Hanks fields a penetrating question from a client, knowing full well that to give in would make the client extremely happy, but it would compromise the work. 

It's an element of advertising that never changes, come what may. As I always say, you don't win every battle. But you always have to fight the good fight. In the end, a good client will respect your opinion, and a bad one will fire you. 

I give  Nothing In Common a 6.5 out of 10. The singing creative teams are pure fiction. But the boardroom swordfights are true to form. 

In a program about how Hollywood depicts the advertising business, how could you not talk about the Dudley Moore movie, Crazy People
(WARNING: Explicit language)


Dudley Moore loses his mind but gains advertising success by leveraging the "truth."
Source: YouTube

Moore plays Emory Leeson, an adman who has a nervous breakdown and begins to write ads based on what he calls "sheer honesty." 

For a luxury car, he writes an ad that basically says: "Jaguar, for men who'd like sex from beautiful women they hardly know." And for Volvo, he writes: "Volvo. It's Boxy, But It's Good." 

So Moore's character is sent to a psychiatric hospital to recover. While there, his original ads are sent to the printer by mistake. At first, his ad agency is terrified of what just happened, and prepares to be fired by their clients. But Jag and Volvo sales start to soar. 

His ad agency does a 360, and suddenly asks Moore for more work in that vein. He can't keep up with the demand, so Moore recruits his fellow psychiatric patients to write more "honest" ads. 

First, an advertising agency would never, ever, have two competing automobile accounts under one roof. Second, you might think that a strategy like "It's Boxy But It's Good" could never work in the real world. That it's a crazy idea. 

But it has a real-world precedent: 

The original Volkswagen campaign of the 1960s. 

It was based on glaring honesty. What other car company would dare run a headline like this: 

VW It's Ugly.jpg
This VW ad ran the day after the moon landing in 1969.
Source: greatveads.com

Well, Volkswagen did. 

Or how about: 

vw stay ugly longer.jpg
VW used sheer honesty to become one of the most beloved cars in history.
Source: greatvwads.com

Or what about the most famous VW headline of all: 

VW lemon.jpg
The most famous VW ad of all bravely uses the most toxic word in the automotive world.
Source: cs2live.cs2advertising.com

So  Crazy People's central plot-point that it takes a "crazy" person to do ads like that gets a 2 out 10. Because VW built an empire doing just that 30 years earlier. 

But the movie gets a 9 out 10 for suggesting it's not done often enough. 

I'm sure doctors, lawyers and police officers often shudder when they see their professions depicted on the screen. 

As pilot Patrick Smith said in his article, he's not sure who gets the shortest end of the stick: Viewers who are being lied to, pilots whose profession is unrealistically portrayed, or nervous flyers whose fears will only compound. 

Hollywood has long taken great license with those depictions, and bends them at will to generate expedient humour or convenient drama. 

When a huge medical inaccuracy was pointed out in his script, one Hollywood director recently said: "Look, it's a movie, not a documentary." 

Hmmm. Okay. 

But a constant bombardment of repeated negative imagery takes its toll. Nurses feel the shortage in their profession is, to a large degree, the result of young people viewing minimized images of them. 

And many young people make career choices based on what they see on TV. 

Of course, there are  far more important issues than how Hollywood portrays ad folks. 

But while I've rolled my eyes at most of the depictions of the advertising business, I have to admit, I've also enjoyed a lot of them too. 

Even when they were absurd, many still contained a kernel of the truth. Whether it be the nervous client-fawning Larry Tate, who always made me laugh (and I've worked with a lot of Larry Tate's), or the constantly stressed-out Tony Randall character in Lover Come Back (I had hair when I started in this business), or the intimidating Beautee Soap type-client who comes close to spitting on the boardroom table (those tables cost a lot of money). 

Yet it was good old Darrin Stephens who gave me my first glimpse of the advertising world where I would spend my career. 

But as I discovered, the reality was a little different than what was advertised...

...when you're under the influence. 

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