Stephen Arnell

Mad Men in the movies: ten films about advertising

Mad Men in the movies: ten films about advertising
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This week Mad Men celebrates the 15th anniversary of the show’s debut. Elmer Wheeler’s famous phrase about the science of advertising holds as true today as it did when he originated it almost a century ago: ‘Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle.'

Matthew Weiner’s series cast the advertising profession under a jaundiced eye, examining the mores and morays of Madison Avenue advertising executives from 1960 to late 1970. The show made Jon Hamm (as Don Draper aka Dick Whitman) a star, as well as boosting the careers of other regular cast members including Elisabeth Moss, John Slattery, Jared Harris, and Christina Hendricks.

It would be fair to say that motion pictures rarely paint a positive picture of the industry, often shown as home to a den of cynics, phoneys, con-men, sharpers, alcoholics and philanderers. And yet it commands enough mystique to have spawned a whole genre of films about advertising execs and the power they wield. Here are ten of the best:

What Women Want (2000) Amazon Rent/Buy

Much of the appeal of What Women Want depends on how charming you find pre-disgrace Mel Gibson in Nancy Meyers’ (The Holiday), story of chauvinist ad executive Nick Marshall, who is accidentally gifted by electrocution a unique insight into female thinking. After the initial shock, Marshall uses his new-found talents to undermine new co-worker Darcy (Helen Hunt) and re-establish himself as top dog at the firm.

As this is the movies (unlike real life), Gibson develops a conscience about his behaviour and becomes a better, more enlightened man before losing his gift. There are a few laughs in the picture, despite Meyers over-indulging the actor’s repeated attacks of the cutes. 2019’s What Men Want attempted to update the formula, with Taraji P. Henson as a sports agent who gains the ability to hear men’s most intimate thoughts. A decidedly mixed blessing, one would think.

How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989) Arrow Video, Amazon Rent/Buy

Lightning failed to strike twice for Bruce Robinson and his Withnail star Richard E Grant’s ad industry satire. Denis Dimbleby Bagley (Grant) has a breakdown when supervising a TV pimple cream advertisement and rails against the dubious ethics of advertising. The unfortunate Bagley then finds a pustule on his shoulder which rapidly grows, developing a malicious personality of its own (voiced by Robinson).

HWGAIA is too hectoring/polemical to be particularly entertaining, but it’s an interesting document of the Yuppie-era, more subtly portrayed in Richard Eyre’s earlier The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983).

99 Francs (2007)

Best Actor Academy Award Winner (The Artist) Jean Dujardin stars as Octave Parango an advertisement designer with a distinctly Epicurean approach to life, his high paid job funding his appetite for drugs, booze, and debauchery. But after the failure of his only sincere relationship (with colleague Sophie, played by Vahina Giocante) he undergoes a Damascene conversion, rebelling against both the advertising industry and his own lifestyle.

The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970) free to watch on YouTube

A flop on release, Peter Cook’s politics, spin and advertising satire has since become a cult classic. A gallery of UK talent (including John Cleese, Denholm Elliott, Arthur Lowe, and Ronnie Corbett) bulks out this tale of ambitious polling/ad executive Michael Rimmer’s (Cook) Machiavellian rise to the top of British politics.

The picture is fitfully amusing, but Peter Cook really is no actor and his character is woefully underwritten, despite Cook, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, and director Kevin Billington all taking a hand in scripting the movie. Watch out for the scene where Rimmer successfully campaigns to become MP for Budleigh Moor, an obvious reference to his comedy partner Dudley Moore, who did not appear in the picture - which Cook hoped was his launch pad to solo film stardom.

Thank You for Smoking (2005) Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

The ad industry obviously lends itself to satire, as attested to by Jason Reitman’s (Ghostbusters: Afterlife) critically well-regarded adaptation of Christopher Buckley’s (son of conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr.) 1994 novel. Big Tobacco spokesman Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is tasked with selling cigarettes to the declining youth market via product placement in movies, an assignment he approaches with alacrity.

When kidnapped by anti-smoking activists, we expect a released (poisoned by nicotine patch overdose) Naylor to undergo a ‘come to Jesus’ moment. But he doesn’t (heavy smoking making him immune to the patches), becoming worse if anything when he launches a new agency with clients that include cancer-causing (allegedly) cell phones, fast-food, oil, and biohazard industries.

For a more serious take on the subject, check out Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999) where Russell Crowe plays real life whistle-blower Jeffery Wigand, who describes how the tobacco industry engineer cigarettes to create a 'delivery device for nicotine'.

Lover Come Back (1961) Amazon Rent/Buy

The follow-up to Doris Day and Rock Hudson’s classic Pillow Talk (1959) continues and in some ways improves on the first picture. The chemistry between the pair is as strong as ever, with Hudson especially good as sneaky Madison Avenue ad executive Jerry Webster, whose unethical behaviour sees him in the crosshairs of straightlaced rival Carol Templeton (Day).

The couple spar, intrigue against each other, and of course fall unwillingly in love over the course of the picture, which has a surprisingly liberal view (for the time and country) on premarital sex and the prospect of children born out of wedlock. Peyton Reed (Ant-Man) attempted to replicate the formula in 2003’s Down with Love, starring Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor, who failed (in my view) to replicate the Day/Hudson charm despite the director roping in Tony Randall for an extended cameo.

The Joneses (2009) Amazon Rent/Buy

Shades of later comedies We’re the Millers (2013) and Keeping Up with the Joneses (2016) as David Duchovny and Demi Moore play the parents of a fake family who are in fact stealth marketers, trend-setting icons implanted into an upscale suburb to push products and lifestyle services.

Amber Heard plays ‘daughter’ Jenn, a nymphomaniac with a thing for the faux fathers she works with, interesting given Duchovny’s documented real-life struggle with sex addiction. Events don’t follow the expected path for the group, as relationships are forged with the local community and scruples over their parasitical lives stirred.

Spinning Boris (2003) - full movie available to watch on YouTube, Amazon Prime, Amazon Rent/Buy

Spinning Boris claims to have a basis in fact, purporting to tell the true story of three American political consultants brought in to successfully boost the ailing re-election campaign of Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1996.

How much is fact and how much is fiction? Difficult to separate the two, but if you recall the absurdities of Yeltin’s often outlandish behaviour, Spinning Boris may be closer to the truth than we may think. Jeff Goldblum, Anthony LaPaglia, and Liev Schreiber are the three experts tasked with selling Yeltsin to a nation disenchanted with the embarrassing, incoherent and frequently plastered President.

No (2012) Amazon Rent/Buy

A more serious side to political advertising is depicted in Spencer director Pablo Larraín’s exploration of the 1988 plebiscite in Chile, when voters decided whether dictator Augusto Pinochet should stay in power for another eight years. Gael García Bernal (Babel) plays successful adman René Saavedra, who consults for the democratic ‘No’ side, his playfully creative campaign leading to a 56 per cent vote in favour of dumping Pinochet - when his then final term ended over a year later in 1990. Even after departing the Presidency, the former dictator continued as Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Army until 10 March 1998, when he stepped down to become a senator-for-life.

Looker (1981) Amazon Rent/Buy

Michael (Jurassic Park) Crichton’s enjoyably cheesy slice of early 1980s crystal ball gazing boasts the first CGI to be used in a commercial picture. Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Larry Roberts (Albert Finney, coasting) investigates when his model clients begin to commit suicide, all linked to tech innovator John Reston’s (James Coburn) advertisement research programme. Doc Roberts discovers that Reston is developing a way to hypnotize consumers into buying the products he advertises – and has also produced the Light Ocular-Oriented Kinetic Emotive Responses (L.O.O.K.E.R.) gun, which effectively confers invisibility on the user for a limited time. A busy lad then. Looker has aged badly, but was the forerunner for a number of movies where TV advertising is used to control, autosuggest, or kill viewers, including Halloween 3 (1982), They Live (1988) and Spy Kids (2001).

Fans of Jon Hamm can look forward to him taking centre stage (as opposed to his recent work in supporting roles) in the fifth season of Fargo and upcoming reboot of Gregory Mcdonald’s Fletch, where the actor will reunite with Mad Men co-star John Slattery.