Doug Pray‘s Art and Copy opened two days ago in Manhattan. At last January’s Sundance Film Festival I said it had “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 flattery 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 fulfilling 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.”