The gray flannel fixation

What is it about the advertising business that’s so bewitching for movie and television writers?

Marketing Magazine, October 30, 2000   

What is it about the advertising/marketing business that makes people who work in it so irresistible to folks writing screenplays?


This month Ben Affleck plays an advertising guy who switches plane tickets with some poor schmuck only to see the plane he wasn’t on crash. More important to the plot of Bounce seems to be the fact that Affleck’s character is a recovering alcoholic. Other than that, the picture looks to be a less gigglesome reverse-gender take on Sliding Doors. (Gwyneth Paltrow is in both movies; probably less significant than it seems.)


The ways ad folk are deployed in movies and television shows would leave a person baffled. Look more closely, and it just seems weird. One of the toughest aspects of this question is figuring out what these people do — more specifically than “working in advertising.” Do moviegoers and TV-watchers who actually work in advertising ever wonder what these fictional counterparts do? Are they moved to critique their conduct, or is part of the fun guessing what they’re supposed to be responsible for in their fictional agencies? Are they account executives? Creative directors? Why is it always impossible to figure out exactly what advertising people in movies and TV shows actually do at the agencies where they supposedly work?


Still, advertising people on screens big and small do seem a lot more versatile as a group than TV doctors, cops or lawyers, even if their work is always incidental to the plot rather than central to it. Roger Thornhill, the “middle-aged advertising executive” mistaken for a spy in Ernest Lehman and Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, didn’t get pursued by Cold War evil-doers because they didn’t like a particular campaign he was responsible for. They thought he was somebody else. And that may be why advertising people are so tempting for screenwriters. They can be slid easily into just about any situation. Sticking with this theme, the perfect movie/TV ad person is a mix of Jerzy Kosinski’s Chance the Gardener in Being There and Leonard Zelig, the eponymous subject/protagonist of the Woody Allen fake documentary who fit so well into any group or situation that he was a human chameleon.


That kind of thing is fine for a movie. The events can be a departure from the central character’s regular life. But a television series demands recurring, regular things viewers can depend on. We have no idea what most of the Golden Age suburban TV dads did for a living. It could have been classified government work. But it could just as easily been advertising, for all that was ever revealed. Hell, they could’ve been dope-smoking ninja assassins for all the difference it made.


Bewitched tried to change that. What Darren did for a living was the pivot-point on which about every fourth episode hinged. There’d be a creative problem, some witchcraft, Larry Tate baffled, about to figure out what the deal was with Samantha, then shrugging, impressed with something that Darren was supposed to have thought up but which was actually Sam’s work. Given the number of times that happened, Samantha should’ve gotten at least a job offer from McMahon & Tate, or started her own boutique agency.


Or maybe she did, and it eventually got acquired by McMahon & Tate, two employees of which left to start their own outfit, thus providing a key plot sequence for thirtysomething and the Busfield/Olin agency. (I don’t remember what it was called because I didn’t watch the show.) And that doesn’t matter, really, since in the 1980s that same agency was acquired by Demanda Wormwood as played by Leather Hamhock on Melrose Place, and she renamed it D&D Advertising, which I always figured stood for “dumb and dumber,” but which could have meant something else.


The few movies that have actually depended on advertising qua advertising for their plots have been unkind to it, mostly. OK, there’s Disney’s The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit, but would you expect a scathing indictment of the evils of marketing from Frosty Walt? Of course not. There are light, joshing jabs at advertising — Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying come to mind — and there is satire, as in How To Get Ahead In Advertising and Putney Swope.


Everybody working in the movie business seems to have worked in advertising at some point. Maybe they want to appear ignorant about it to cover up their earlier dues-paying. Or are they scared somebody from an agency where they used to work will make them go back to work there? Or  — worse — lean on them for help breaking into the movies?


Series television is completely different. You can tell what most of the commercials are trying to get you to buy. But what, exactly, is the rest of the signal selling?