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  • Writer's pictureAmy Burvall

Meaning from Madmen: Takeaways from the PBS Documentary “Art and Copy”

Last night I serendipitously came across this great documentary on the great “advertising creatives” of the last 60 years. “Art and Copy”, directed by Doug Pray, weaves together interviews from the people whose work became, as Shakespeare once said, “familiar as household names” but whose own names remain obscure to the average citizen.



These are the people who developed iconic marketing campaigns such as “Think Different”, “Got Milk?”, “Where’s the Beef?”, and “Just Do It” …the ones who brought us earworm-y songs like “We’ve Only Just Begun” (Croker National Bank) and “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” (Coke)…the ones who tapped into zeitgest with rockstars pitching “I want my MTV” and silhouetted figures dancing with Apple iPad earbuds a-dangling.


They are an interesting bunch of folks…overwhelming bold and confident (though that might be a product of editing), and great storytellers all. I suppose one wouldn’t even go into marketing unless one was prone to storytelling – after all that’s what the field boils down to. Personally, I’ve always been drawn to a marketing mindset, but I don’t think I could have possibly made it out alive in the advertising business – not sure if I could take the constant shooting down of ideas (need to stop holding things as precious) and/or pitching. Indeed, trying to sell people (clients who didn’t “get it”, usually), on an idea seemed to be one of the most common complaints from these creative moguls. But the film is not about the ad industry, per se. In his director’s statement, Pray suggests:

“…But mostly, they too have a personal message—one that transcends the commercial messages they create—that seemingly has to get out. Like my other films, this ad film is about the innate human urge to express oneself creatively”


He goes on to say he simply wanted to know “who are these unknown people who’ve so profoundly shaped our culture, and what can we learn from them?”  What he discovers, of course, is that each creator’s respective personal experience – their emotional baggage, as it were – clearly shaped the ways in which they crafted their messages – whether it be to sell an airline or a political candidate. Thus, the purpose (to sell a product or service) became elevated to a kind of art – where the expression of the artist is heartfelt, and the emotive connection to the audience is paramount.


To quote George Lois, one of the most controversial of the lot:

“Advertising is poison gas. It should bring tears to your eyes, unhinge your nervous system and knock you out”


That’s what art does…perhaps especially, music. And as proposed by How Art made the World, visual art mixed with music  (or auditory experience) results in supreme storytelling. Add language (in the form of voiceover or text) and you have a triple threat. Art and Copy director Doug Pray in fact was inspired to make the film after spotting some ancient petroglyphs in French Guiana:

“They had something to say, and they used communication tools to say it. Art and copy. Same thing… different format”


Whenever I read or watch something I like to challenge myself to extract the big takeaways – 3 is ideal, or perhaps 5-7, but really no more than that. I went into Art and Copy thinking I’d get some obvious insights into how creativity works, but it occurred to me that those in the fields of learning (educators and those in L&D) could possible find some applicable juicy nuggets from this documentary as well. Here’s what I was able to distill:

Embrace the Essence


These guys (and gals!) repeatedly talk about getting down the “vibe”of something…what does it stand for? If you put it all in a pot and boiled it down what would be left? Sure it’s hair colour, but “It Let’s Me Be Me“…it’s a wine cooler – but it’s really about the California beach lifestyle…it’s a bank – but it’s really about young couples starting out in life and all their hopes and dreams…it’s an election, but it’s really about the American values and way of life (Reagan), or, in LBJ’s case – impending nuclear holocaust and all of humanity at stake.

What if we looked at our curriculum this way? I decided long ago that teaching History thematically rather than in a sheer chronological fashion made it more relevant and sticky. What if all things were taught in rather universal themes, such as “Power”? Think about “power” as it relates to

History (rulers and social contracts),

Science (energy, for example),

the Arts (art as a protest, form of enlightenment, or even as propaganda),

Maths (exponents!).

And of course, because everything has a historical tradition with various power shifts, that could also be addressed.

Details are nice, but what adheres is the core.


Think of a classic statue like the Venus de Milo – the extremities fall off first because they are weak (not surprisingly a similar result with hypothermia). What matters is the body – the heart of something (this analogy also conjures up thoughts of my favourite novel, Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun). These advertising geniuses understood that no one really wants to be sold a product or service, but buying into a mood, lifetstyle, or shared human experience makes sense.


Truth = Relevance

The now famous (and very much parodied) Got Milk? campaign came up, and one of film’s subjects explained why it was so much better than the previous “Milk: It Does a Body Good” approach. Milk may very well “do a body good”, but is not thought of as a drink to guzzle after a grueling workout (as was shown in many of the ads). No, you go for water or something with electrolytes. What is more likely to happen is that you are in the midst of having something like cereal that requires milk, and you realize you are out of milk or it’s gone sour. The series of “Got Milk?” ads were humorous (like this original Aaron Burr commercial) or sexy-simple, bringing special attention to the “milk moustache” even the most glamorous people get.


Thus, truth made it relevant.

What does this mean for those in learning fields? Similar to the “essence” category, I think identifying common truthsthings all humans experience – is essential. Moreover, exploring perspectives and what happens when one person’s “truth” doesn’t coincide with another’s should be addressed.

With students, much curriculum seems arbitrary unless they understand the WHY of the course.

How will this discipline make me a better human or a more successful worker and thinker?

To what extent will the learning I do carry over into other aspects of my life…still be accessible in my future?

Is the learning to achieve some degree of cultural literacy or is it more about cultivating competencies and skills?

So ask yourself, as an educator – what are the truths that will leave the “milk moustache” on my students?


Understand the Now

Perhaps my favourite individual highlighted in the film was Mary Wells Lawrence (you can view a clip here).  I felt drawn to her Weltanschauung because she looked at things as a holistic, theatrical experience and wanted to infuse fun and beauty in her advertisements. Most importantly, she could read her times. That is, she recognized what the world had been through (a Depression and two World Wars), and that attitudes were a-changing. One thing that was not changing with them were airplanes – they tended to be militaristic with their metal exteriors and sterile interiors (well, to be fair most planes did come from a military heritage), and the flight attendants dressed in uniforms reminiscent of the military (sadly, most have gone back to that). She knew the power of sex – playing with concepts such as “air strip” and showing a slowly disrobing lovely stewardess, as they used to be called.


Mary Wells was hired by Braniff Airlines (and later ended up marrying the CEO) and completely revolutionized what an airline could be. She convinced them to paint the planes a variety of bright colours and hired whimsical designer Alexander Girard to design the interiors. Art was brought in from the vibrant places on Braniff’s routes (such as South America) and none other than super hot 60’s designer Emilio Pucci to design the ultra-mod uniforms.


(See more HERE)

This  1967 campaign sort of flipped everything on its head…the ad idea came first…caused extensive change in the product…then carried through with the marketing. This was a case of creative director actually influencing the nature of the product so that it could respond to the so-obvious-it-hurts concept: “The End of the Plain Plane”.


What can this mean for educators? I think first and foremost that delivery should be a complete, immersive experience…and one in fact that is aesthetically appealing. When we design lessons or projects, we should think in terms of multi-media – elements that appeal to all senses and are playful and fun, or beautiful and poignant.

I remember teaching about medieval monks and their contributions to society- particularly in keeping classic knowledge alive with illuminated manuscripts. I could have stopped at a lecture or even a video, but one day we swapped the electric lights with candles, drank some grape cider (faux vino) and ate some Scandinavian hard bread, listened to some Gregorian chants, and proceeded to produce our own illuminated manuscripts with quills, ink, parchment and gold leaf. Instant scriptorium!


Just like Mary Wells, we should try to get a grasp on the now…what apps are students using in their private lives, and could they be leveraged for certain projects, for example? What things concern students most, or what is happening in current events, and how could ties be made to the curriculum? Those that practice design thinking will know that empathy with the user is paramount… and as your students are “users” of the curriculum you must strive to understand where they are coming from and their needs and desires.  This is why I think all educators should study media to some extent.

Media shapes us and alters our expectations.

And while most would not want to pander to the paradigm shift, I always hold value in the “if you can’t beat ’em join ’em” attitude and what’s more, perhaps “join ’em and beat ’em”. By that I mean getting one step ahead. Understanding the user (students in this case), embracing what’s important to them. But you can go even beyond and

be the tinkerer. the bold experimenter…you can walk the walk.

When YouTube was first starting out a few students turned me on to it and encouraged me to post my history parody music videos on the platform. By taking hold of this new technology by the reigns I learned a lot…especially about negotiating social media spaces. I was able to share this strange new knowledge with them and guide them in their own pursuits. Now I look to people like Caitlin Doughty – a girl who lived next door to me since she was four and graduated from the school at which I taught – who have leveraged YouTube for success (as in wildly popular vlog series and NYTimes bestselling book!).

O tempora o mores says Cicero – Oh, the times and the customs… Recognize them and pay heed.


Dip into Other Buckets / Play With Others

I think the most surprising piece of knowledge from the film was that there was a time art directors and copy writers were kept on separate floors. There was relatively little interaction – not even a water cooler effect. Creativity rests on dot-connecting (as I’ve said numerous times), and the more you are exposed to other ideas, views, insights…the better your ideas will be. That is the “meta” of this post…I watched something on advertising and took away lessons about teaching. Mary Wells actually has a quote about this, because she apparently came from a pretty isolated background:


It’s so easy to be trapped in the not venture out into other fields or disciplines. But at some point the creative directors started mingling with the copy editors and both challenged to “work it out” over a blank piece of paper. We should do more of that – combinatorial play, as Einstein called it..have “blind dates” with other teachers or even those outside of education.

Why not challenge yourself to dip into another bucket and see what masterpiece you can paint?


Strive for Simplicity

Apparently the aforementioned “End of the Plain Plane” was a throwaway idea Mary Wells rescued from the trash bin. Everyone though it was too simple – too obvious. But the beauty is in the simplicity. From Volkswagen’s “Think Small” to Apple’s “Think Different”, marketing gurus know that simplicity is divine (Picasso knew this too, when it came to visual art).

How do we create a rich but simple lesson? Less is more, I think, when it comes to teaching. The more work you are doing the less the students are doing. The more detailed project specs, for example, the less creative students are allowed to be.


The more defining, the more confining.

So why not leave an open column on a rubric, for students to add on an unknown?

Why not allow more choice in project types and topics?

Why not let students craft questions for an exam, or for that matter, help develop the guiding questions for the curriculum itself?

The beauty of a simple ad like Nike’s “Just Do It” is that there is enough open for personal interpretation – it’s a  totally open-ended way to approach an idea. If we think of our class as a micro version of the mass market, how might we reach this varied audience? The answer is providing opportunities for different paths…different routes to the same (or at best, similar), destination.


Feel Trumps Fact

One of the most successful ad men interviewed was the late Hal Riney – who admits to having developed his best ideas drinking bourbon in the local pub and asking new hires what they drank so they could be accommodated in the firms open bar. Art and Copy alludes to the fact that emotion-packed “Rineyesque” spots were a direct result of the lack of emotion and family connection Riney felt growing up. He ended up doing many of the voiceovers for the commercials he created (for Gallo wine and Ronald Reagan, for example), with his gravely calm, well-paced cadence.

It’s pretty obvious that with Riney’s almost saccharine spots as well as all the other iconic ads featured in this film that

it’s more about feeling than telling.


So what if we thought of learning in that way? Whatever we learn should pierce at our emotions – whether it amuses us, surprises us, provokes us, or endears us. What, in the content you teach, can do that? How do you find the backstory to give the knowledge some heart? When I taught history that wasn’t difficult- after all, it’s fundamentally about people and the consequences of their choices. I think this approach can be used with every discipline. Explore the paths that bring us to where we are today – the people, their struggles and victories, their creative processes… what lessons can we learn?

Discuss the emotional impact of elements – if you are in business studying branding, for example, what is the psychological impact of certain colours, and how might connotations differ in other cultures?

Leverage various media for their emotional impact.

What does this music score do to this moving image?

What does this photography do to this text?

How does this caption contextualize this picture?

In all things, bring the arts in as much as you can. Why not pen a poem from the perspective of a chemical element…write a musical ode to a literary characterpaint a philosophy? Infusing emotion can be as simples as asking learners to reflect on their work and learning process with text or video – or even an emoji!

Art and Copy, in true transmedia fashion, has a website where you can watch snippets and play with a “DIY slogan generator”.

Screen Shot 2016-05-08 at 8.23.14 AM

(perfect for Mother’s Day, no?)

If you are interested in watching the film in its entirety, this link seems reliable, (though subbed in Spanish).

George Lois, who is fairly brash, asserts that advertising is indeed an art and is often threatened:

“Advertising, an art, is constantly besieged and compromised by logicians and technocrats, the scientists of our profession who wildly miss the main point about everything we do…”

We in education need to remember that teaching is an art as well, and that sometimes we are, as the Madmen were, “besieged by logicians”. We need to try to grasp tightly to the nuances of teaching – the role of intuition and creativity, the importance of relationship with the “audience” (our students), and the efficacy of simplicity, beauty, and truth.


#artandcopy #creativity #madmen #teaching #pedagogy #storytelling #amyburvall #learning #advertising

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