Long before "Mad Men," the advertising profession occupied a special, not very desirable place in the American consciousness. "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" (1957) and the sublime "Lover Come Back" (1962) raked the industry over the coals. For a later, hipper audience, "Putney Swope" (1969) and "How to Get Ahead in Advertising" (1989) did the same – but with New... Improved... Rakes! and Hotter... 50 percent Brighter... Coals! Films like "12 Angry Men" (1957) and "Joe" (1970) used this professional designation as a shorthand for capitalism at its slickest and shallowest. Even Cary Grant's Roger O. Thornhill (the "O" stands for "nothing," he quips) in "North by Northwest" is besmirched with the label: He may be a charmer, but he's also (at the start) as slick and shallow as the rest.
So maybe it's time to look at the positive side of an industry that – Doug Pray tells us in his new documentary "Art & Copy" – is projected to be doing half a trillion dollars' worth of annual business by 2010.
Pray barely gives us any pre-1960s history, skipping from cave drawings in the first scene to the current day Wieden & Kennedy firm in the second. He's only concerned with the past 4-1/2 decades, during which, he proposes, a number of particularly talented figures from the creative side of the old agencies broke away and revolutionized the business.
The film contains all or part of some of the most indelible concepts of the period, from the luggage tossed into a gorilla's cage and "I can't believe I ate the whole thing!" to "I _ New York" and Nike's "Just do it." (The last, it is revealed, was inspired by Gary Gilmore's exhortation "Let's do it!" to his executioners.)
For those of a certain age, there is plenty of nostalgic pleasure: Apple's "1984" spot (directed by Ridley Scott) still impresses; the 1994 Aaron Burr "Got Milk?" ad remains funnier, second for second, than any comedy out of Hollywood in living memory, and more memorable on the whole than anything its director, Michael Bay ("Transformers," "Pearl Harbor"), has made since.
But in the oldest commercials, the nostalgia is mixed with a large dose of cultural horror: Will anyone younger than 40 believe that the underlying gender role assumptions were ever real? By today's standards, the attitudes in even the "hippest" stuff would seem reactionary to many "family value" conservatives.
As in his excellent 2001 hip-hop documentary, "Scratch," Pray is more interested in celebrating a particular culture than in any sort of balanced view. It's easy to see why he wouldn't want to alienate his interviewees: Most of them are witty raconteurs; you wish they were your friends.
But since they are given the last word – actually, the only words – the film undercuts its own credibility. There are no interviews with detractors or even disinterested critics or academics. It's all about how great these ad men (and occasionally women) are. Even within their ranks, competitors are all hearts and flowers about one another.
Only once does someone take a shot at a colleague, saying "Hal Riney is the devil," quickly adding, "and he's an angel." This one moment touches on exactly the sort of issue that Pray otherwise avoids. Riney, who has died since the film was shot and to whom it's dedicated, made the "Morning in America" ads that helped Ronald Reagan get reelected in 1984. The film speculates about the biographical roots of Riney's attachment to (what are usually called) Norman Rockwell images, but it also shows, without equal analysis, his fearmongering "Bear in the Woods" spot from the same campaign.
Even without the nostalgic aspects, "Art & Copy" is thoroughly entertaining. But the film ends up being an advertisement for advertising. It's hard not to wonder if we're being sold a bill of goods.
• Peter Rainer is on vacation this week.