Column: Real fictitious admen of Madison Ave and Pinochet’s Chile

Honestly, we want to watch it for the ads Name the adman: 1. Cary Grant’s self-centred Roger Thornhill (North by Northwest). 2. Steve Martin’s grumpy Neal Page (Planes, Trains and Automobiles). 3. Dustin Hoffman’s workaholic Ted Kramer (Kramer vs. Kramer). 4. Matthew McConaughey’s Lothario Ben Barry (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days). We’ll […]

Honestly, we want to watch it for the ads

Name the adman:
1. Cary Grant’s self-centred Roger Thornhill (North by Northwest).
2. Steve Martin’s grumpy Neal Page (Planes, Trains and Automobiles).
3. Dustin Hoffman’s workaholic Ted Kramer (Kramer vs. Kramer).
4. Matthew McConaughey’s Lothario Ben Barry (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days).

We’ll accept: “Now that you mention it, weren’t they all in advertising?” (And/or: “Shouldn’t there be an alcoholic in there?”)

This vagueness of occupation is the kernel of just about every onscreen ad executive from Heather Locklear’s conniving Amanda Woodward to Rock Hudson, who played several incarnations of adman, none of whom created an extraordinary campaign, but sure did a lot of philandering. We don’t specifically remember them as ad people because we never see any advertising action. We’ll get a glimpse of the trash can filled with crumpled ideas, no sketches of the campaign.

We see the booze, but not the actual pitches that hook clients. Hitchcock, who once worked in advertising, found the trope of admen-you-wouldn’t-know-were-admen amusing enough to use Cary Grant’s case of adman-mistaken-for-spy-“I’m an advertising man, not a red herring,” he protests at one point – as the driver for a thriller.

Slapping together an “ad exec” is a tidy way to suggest that a character is imbued with a hole where the soul once resided. These characters cram neatly into an X meets Man in Grey Flannel Suit elevator pitch. Which means ad films are invariably about the struggle to find contentment in a hectic and material culture, which is much easier to depict than the creative nuts and bolts of a marketing campaign that might change the world. Thus the onscreen adman is like the great composer—we’re told their soul is tortured, but never see the expression of genius.

It’s no easy feat to create a memorable advertising campaign. Particularly a fictitious one. Given how many filmmakers have dabbled in marketing, it’s hard to figure out why there haven’t been more attempts. (How did we come to find courtroom procedurals more interesting than discussions about creativity?)

David Mamet carried the banner from Putney Swope to that first season of Mad Men. And while there was infidelity, misogyny, racism and all the grey flannel suit angst packaged in sexy characters who smoke and smoke and philander, the writers of Mad Men gave us actual advertising. That first season promised to spawn thoughtful advertising procedurals. Instead, we got a bunch of empty riffs on the high heel period aesthetic.

Although the Monday morning marketers have slowly fallen out of love as the mesmerizing nuts-and-bolts “what if” context of the great campaigns of the golden age gives way to the show’s glorified soap opera, that Kodak carousel pitch which became a real-life Facebook spot will remain the watermark of fictitious onscreen pitches.

The fact that they used real brands is what makes it so compelling. Fictional advertising for real brands. (Deep down, I’ll somehow always believe in the Madison Avenue origins of jai alai and that “How do you say fresh towels in Farsi?” was a real Hilton campaign.) They established Don Draper’s chips in the first episode, showing how he mitigates society’s looming fear of big tobacco with a black bus boy’s thoughts on how the brand tastes to create a background story for Lucky Strike’s “It’s Toasted” slogan. He seals his pitch with the words: “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear.” And like that, the golden age of the advertising tale seems over almost before it could really begin.

Enter “La alegría ya viene.”

“Happiness is coming.” The name of a campaign that ran for 15 minutes over 30 consecutive nights on Chile’s national broadcaster in 1988. The best foreign film Oscar nominee No, which is currently getting a wide release in North America, tells the story of the Santiago adman charged with persuading Chileans to vote “no” against Pinochet’s dictatorship in a United Nations-mandated plebiscite.

Through the movie you have a feeling they’ve recreated the actual ads with such verisimilitude that when you race home to try to find the originals on YouTube, you realize director Pablo Larraín used the real ads. Almost a third of the film is archival ads and television footage. The rest was shot on a rebuilt Sony U-Matic. The gap between what was real and what was created for the film is seamless. And though No downplays the larger voter drives and activism that led to this campaign, it introduces us to René Saavedra, a composite of two real-life Chilean creatives. Saavedra is the best onscreen adman ever created.

He replaces a bunch of somber spots about the “disappeared” under Pinochet’s regime with rainbows, beaming kids, picnics, buskers – Christopher Reeve and Richard Dreyfuss pop up at one point – all of it wrapped up in a jingle “Chile, happiness is coming!” that sounds suspiciously like “We Are the World.”

There might not be a more physically striking actor working today than Gael García Bernal, who sports a rattail in the film and stands 5’7˝ on a skateboard. He’s the anti-Draper. “What you’re going to see now is in line with the current social context,” he likes to say. He says it before he pitches a campaign about Chile’s first microwave. He says it before he introduces the “No” campaign. He says it before unveiling a spot for a new soap opera. In No, the soap operas are only hinted at.

Chris Koentges is a writer based in Vancouver. His work has appeared in The Walrus, Maisonneuve and Reader’s Digest.

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