1. Steve Martin, Planes, Trains And Automobiles
Because writer-director John Hughes started his career as a copywriter, “ad-man” has been the default career for many of his characters; and as a probable expression of how Hughes felt about his years in the industry, his ad-men are typically miserable souls, quietly yearning for meaning. Consider Teri Garr in Mr. Mom, or Kevin Bacon in She’s Having A Baby; or Steve Martin as Planes, Trains And Automobiles’ Neal Page, a man so uptight that it takes a disastrous cross-country trip with a salt-of-the-earth shower-curtain-ring salesman to teach him the values of friendship and family that hold this goddamn country together. Maybe next time he’ll think twice before he leaves his lovely wife and wonderful kids to take a business trip to (tsk-tsk) New York City.
2. Matthew McConaughey, How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days
The scene gets repeated in advertising offices hundreds of times a day: A womanizing ad exec tells his colleagues he can make any woman fall in love with him within 10 days. They make a bet: If he can pull it off, he’ll win the big diamond-company account. (Which he’s otherwise denied, because he’s a guy, and can only advertise things guys enjoy, like beer.) But wait! The lady he happens to choose (Kate Hudson) is also deep undercover! She’s a writer working on a piece that involves having a man break up with her within two weeks. Two hidden agendas. Two extremely good-looking people with tough, glamorous jobs and unusual, sexy assignments. Will love redeem this cad and save him from his career-mandated cynicism? Probably not.
3. Jon Hamm, Mad Men
On Mad Men, Jon Hamm plays the ad-man to end all ad-men. He’s handsome, self-confident, and dressed to perfection, with an empathic understanding of how to sell products, from foreign beers to airlines to slide-projector attachments. The gag is that Hamm himself, at least on the surface, is as much a product as anything he advertises; his pitched-to-perfection presentations hide a morally compromised con-man whose greatest success has been convincing the rest of the world that he’s solid all the way through. Unlike most movies and shows that deal with advertising, Mad Men never conflates Hamm’s gift for marketing with his spiritual corruption. Instead, it uses the campaigns he designs to express a soul that’s empty, confused, and desperately longing for a home that never really existed in the first place. When Hamm says, “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness,” he isn’t just spouting aphorisms. To him, the job is as much about creating the ideal life as wooing customers, and any hope for him to stop being a bastard means acknowledging the distance between that creation and the responsibilities of the real world.
4. Dudley Moore, Crazy People
Few movies have been as blunt about the ad industry as the 1990 comedy Crazy People, which places its withering contempt for dissembling copywriters and artists right in the title. Dudley Moore plays Emory Leeson, a longtime ad-man who, in the film’s opening scenes, finally cracks under the strain and begins producing campaigns that tell consumers the unvarnished truth about the products being pitched. “Forget France,” advises one of Leeson’s travel brochures. “The French can be annoying. Come to Greece. We’re nicer.” An ad for Jaguar, meanwhile, handily spells out its visual subtext: “For men who’d like handjobs from beautiful women they hardly know.” Aghast, the company’s bigwigs (including Paul Reiser) ship Leeson off to a mental institution—which, needless to say, winds up being depicted as considerably more sane and rational than Madison Avenue. Indeed, our hero’s fellow nutjobs help him concoct a comeback campaign, predicated on the distance between the short-statured Japanese and the integrated circuits they build: “Sony. Because Caucasians are just too damn tall.”
5. Richard E. Grant, How To Get Ahead In Advertising
In Bruce Robinson’s uncomfortably funny satire How To Get Ahead In Advertising, Denis Bagley (Richard E. Grant) reacts to the prospect of selling pimple cream to the British hordes by having a nervous breakdown when he confronts the unethical nature of his job. If that were all, it’d be a repeat of every other tale of an ad-man realizing his business isn’t exactly scrupulous, but Denis reacts to the stress of his realization by developing a boil. Which subsequently begins to talk to him. And then grows into a second head. And then takes over his life, though it’s never addressed why no one notices he’s sprouted a mustache. That leaves the original Denis to wither and die on his own shoulder. The boil is ruthless enough to be the great ad-man the original Denis never could be, though it does lose his wife.
6. Kevin Spacey, American Beauty
To be honest, it’s hard to tell exactly what Kevin Spacey’s job is in American Beauty; it only figures into a handful of scenes before he quits for a life of pot-smoking and almost-but-not-quite having sex with teenage girls. But those few moments paint a familiar portrait of cubicle hell. While Annette Bening obsesses over a real estate job that symbolizes her need to control her environment, and Thora Birch checks out breast augmentation websites to symbolize her low self-esteem, Spacey writes magazine ads because he’s a lifeless corporate drone who needs something to shake him out of his humdrum existence. Or so Beauty would have you believe; in truth, the move is better viewed as a black comedy with some striking visuals than as a deep philosophical commentary on suburban life. The emptiness of Spacey’s work is supposed to show how hollow his life has become, but it actually exposes the movie’s biggest weakness—for all its admonitions to “Look closer,” its depths are nearly as shallow as the stereotypes it satirizes. Beauty works best when it skips along the surface. As any good copywriter knows, the best way to sell something is to pretend it means more than it actually does.
7. Rob Lowe, Wayne’s World
Rob Lowe’s slimy, smirking Benjamin Kane in Wayne’s World has so much going for him that he pretty much doesn’t need redemption. Sure, he has “purchase feeble cable access show and exploit it” on his to-do list, but he’s good-looking, drives a hot car, has mastered smooth talk, owns a cool apartment, and can speak Cantonese. However, the movie neatly gives him a lesson to learn in one of the many alternate endings, as he walks into frame and announces, “I’ve learned something, too. I’ve learned that a flawless profile, a perfect body, the right clothes, and a great car can get you far in America, almost to the top, but it can’t get you everything.” And all it took was a full-cavity search.
8. Tony Randall, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
Quintessential ’50s/’60s slickster Tony Randall plays an ambitious TV ad-man in Frank Tashlin’s extremely loose adaptation of George Axelrod’s Broadway hit Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Randall’s Rockwell P. Hunter does a favor for supermodel Rita Marlowe (played by the pneumatic Jayne Mansfield), pretending to be her boyfriend in order to drive her real boyfriend crazy. But when the tabloids get wind of the mock-affair, both Hunter’s career and Marlowe’s public profile reach new plateaus, such that neither can come clean. Rock Hunter follows the basic structure of a morality play, couched in satire—but Tashlin’s heart is more in the satire, which mocks the callowness of would-be ad execs and the silly pitches they put in play.
9. Patricia Neal, A Face In The Crowd
Though Patricia Neal’s character in director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg’s classic cautionary tale isn’t, strictly speaking, in the advertising business, the story itself is about how people in the media fool the public—and why they have to stop. Neal’s Marcia Jeffries hitches her wagon to a shooting star named Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (played by Andy Griffith), an electrifying populist entertainer who becomes a national sensation when he insults one of his sponsors. Hailed as the one man in America who tells the truth, Lonesome leverages his trustworthiness into a booming TV career, supported by a pep pill called Vitajex. But when Lonesome starts making plans to move from selling snake oil to dabbling in politics, Jeffries intervenes and exposes him as a fraud. As a meditation on what “truth in advertising” really means, A Face In The Crowd is heavy-handed, but still relevant.
[pagebreak]10. Fred MacMurray and Dorothy McGuire, Callaway Went Thataway
Fred MacMurray and Dorothy McGuire play skilled pitchers Mike Frye and Deborah Patterson, a pair well versed in what the suckers in Middle America want, and who make a mint repackaging old cowboy movies for TV. Frye and Patterson even hire a lookalike for hard-to-find actor Smoky Callaway (played by Howard Keel), and have him pose for photos at grocery-store openings and the like. But when the real Callaway shows up looking for a piece of the action, Frye and Patterson realize that they like their Callaway—so noble, generous, and kind—more than the drunken lout who steps out of the shadows to claim his rightful place. The project ceases to be about money; it becomes about selling a product people can actually use.
11. David White, Bewitched
It may have been Darrin Stephens’ lot in life to try and advance his career in advertising while dealing with witchcraft-gone-wrong at home, but he might not have been so stressed out were it not for the looming presence of his boss (and, oddly enough, best friend) Larry Tate, played by the aptly named David White. Luckily for Darrin, Larry is so obsessed with pleasing clients and winning accounts that he twists easily in the prevailing winds, and can be manipulated by a well-placed interjection from Darrin’s spell-casting wife Samantha. Still, if there’s any soulless corporate lackey in need to redemption in Bewitched, it’s poor White, whose business success is built solely on the hard work and supernatural whimsy of his best employee.
12. Topher Grace, In Good Company
When Paul Weitz’s genially agreeable corporate sorta-satire (and instant period piece) begins, Carter Duryea (Topher Grace) has already lost his soul. He’s introduced in a meeting where he presents a new line of cell phones shaped like dinosaurs and aimed at 5-year-olds, then takes us through his perfectly sterile life and introduces us to his frigid wife. But when he’s naïve enough to say that selling cell phones and selling ad space in the sports magazine he’s now working at after a corporate takeover are pretty much the same thing, Life Lessons can only be around the corner. Carter dethrones Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid), the most virtuous ad-man in the history of moviedom, then also asks him to be his assistant. Naturally, he learns a lot about What Really Counts from Dan and ends the film having quit his job to run on the beach to the accompaniment of an Iron & Wine song. On the way to regaining his soul, though, he has to have sex with Dan’s daughter, played by Scarlett Johansson. The prices we pay for self-awareness!
13. Tony Curtis, Sweet Smell Of Success
Technically, the handsome and ruthless Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) isn’t an advertising man—he’s a “press agent,” or, in contemporary terms, a public relations flack. But his job is essentially the same; he’s paid to create demand for a product, only instead of selling cereal to housewives, he’s selling comedians to club owners and gossip wags. And while the job title is different, the corrupting effect remains the same: No ad-man in history has been as gratefully ready to part with his soul for a taste of the good life than Falco. Trapped in a symbiotic relationship with influential columnist J.J. Hunsecker (played by Burt Lancaster, all steely control to Curtis’ oily maneuvering), he’s willing to do anything to get what he wants for his clients and himself. That includes pimping his casual girlfriends, blackmailing newspapermen, slandering anyone and everyone, and even framing innocent people on drug charges with the help of a crooked cop. Despite his good looks and sleazy charm, Falco is so compromised by his profession he’s physically detestable; every time he opens his mouth, a lie comes out. No one in movie history needs saving more than Falco, but in the end, he may be beyond redemption; all that remains for him is to follow Hunsecker’s famous advice: “You’re dead, son. Go get yourself buried.”
14. Tom Hanks, Nothing In Common
When 1986’s Nothing In Common opens, we see Tom Hanks as a recently promoted creative director at a Chicago advertising firm, where he leads fun office hi-jinks, makes a great living, and beds a lot of ladies. So clearly he’s mired in unfulfilling arrested development and needs redemption, at least by Hollywood-plot-trope standards (undoubtedly reinforced by director and notorious schlockmeister Garry Marshall). Enter Hanks’ parents, Eva Marie Saint and Jackie Gleason (in his final film role), who split after nearly 40 years of marriage, ending an uneasy, unhappy truce the three shared. As their dependence on him grows, so does Hanks’ resentment, until—cue another Hollywood trope—serious illness changes everything. When Gleason needs surgery, Hanks bails on an important client, losing the account but gaining a new relationship with the man he always hated. As Hanks wheels him out of the hospital in the moving final scene, Gleason says, “You’re the last person I thought would ever come through for me.” Sometimes those tropes are pretty effective.
15. Albert Brooks, Lost In America
At the beginning of Lost In America, Albert Brooks knows he’s a sellout, and he’s long since become comfortable with it. Like a lot of former ’60s counterculture types, he and his wife (Julie Hagerty) had once harbored dreams of living free in the open road like the men in Easy Rider, but had settled instead for the creature comforts of yuppiedom. As the film opens, Brooks is preparing for the career-capping promotion that will justify a choice he’d made many years earlier; in the moments before meeting with his boss, he’s on the phone with a salesman, happily discussing the upholstery on new luxury car. (“What’s ‘Mercedes leather’?” “Thick vinyl.”) When his boss gives him the news that he’s been passed over for someone with less seniority, the phony promise of capitalism comes crashing at his feet. He sold out to no payoff, leaving him and his wife to take the radical step of liquidating all their assets and living out the Easy Rider dream, heading off to uncharted destinations where they can “touch Indians.” But by that point, they’re so compromised by their RV and “nest egg” and upper-middle-class trappings that they can never go back to square one.
16. Mel Gibson, What Women Want
Mel Gibson’s character was bred to be the tits-and-ass man of advertising in a big Chicago firm; his upbringing at the hands of Las Vegas’ showgirls gave him a corporeal love for women without an understanding of, well, what women want. These shortcomings (adorable sexism without the machismo) serve him well at the firm until his boss realizes that the advertising world needs to cater more to women’s needs. Helen Hunt arrives as creative director while Gibson falls into a bathtub with a hairdryer, enabling him to hear the thoughts of a city full of women. It seems a curse at first, but therapist Bette Midler sets him straight—he can finally solve the mystery even Sigmund Freud couldn’t: the puzzle of modern-day women. (Who better to solve this mystery than a man?) Gibson’s need for redemption drives him into a sea of is-he-gay-now jokes, eventually leading into the hearts, minds, and vaginas of Chicago’s women with his newfound power.
17. Dustin Hoffman, Kramer Vs. Kramer
By the opening scenes of Kramer Vs. Kramer, the advertising business has robbed a little boy of a father. Dustin Hoffman plays an ad-man anxious to rise in the firm, finally landing in the movie’s opening scenes the coveted Mid-Atlantic account. But the success has come at a cost: He’s not sure what grade his only son is in, can’t make French toast to save his life, and is abandoned by wife Meryl Streep. (He chalks this up at first to her involvement in women’s lib, making clucking noises to illustrate the way she and her girlfriends chatter.) Hoffman soon learns first-hand how unfriendly his business is to women and children when left alone to care for Billy. His PTA meetings and sudden absences to care for his sick child interfere with his boss’ demand that he be on call 24 hours a day, and Kramer’s reformation ultimately gets him canned. If Kramer Vs. Kramer is to be believed, it’s not only Kramer that needs redeeming, but the advertising business as a whole. And maybe career men, too.
18. Peter Fonda, The Trip
Peter Fonda plays a semi-groovy L.A. guy with a totally un-groovy job directing commercials. Friendly with some people in the drug scene and already familiar with pot, he nervously decides to try LSD. Dropping by a mansion redecorated as the ultimate psychedelic crash pad, Fonda starts his trip with pal Bruce Dern as a caring guide. But the experience takes some dark turns from the beginning, moving from horror-movie imagery clearly featuring sets and costumes left over from director Roger Corman’s recent Edgar Allan Poe films to an interrogation scene in which Dennis Hopper plays an interlocutor suspicious of Fonda’s profession. “What’s the first word that comes to mind about TV commercials?,” he asks shortly before a female voice answers, “Lies!” Fonda’s discomfort selling soap to the masses is just one of several problems he grapples with over the course of the film, scripted by Jack Nicholson. But it’s a key one. Later, let loose on Sunset Strip after he thinks Dern has been killed, he’s bombarded by images of billboards, terrifying neon signs, and monstrous-looking ad mascots. It’s like they’re trying to buy and sell life, man, and he’s part of the problem!
19. Rock Hudson, Lover Come Back
Calling Rock Hudson’s ad world arch-cad in Lover Come Back a glorified pimp would be an insult to the world’s oldest profession. Hudson’s womanizing hotshot shamelessly uses alcohol, sexy women and increasingly elaborate ruses to win clients the old fashion way: by cheating. Hudson’s big, slick mouth, questionable ethics and overactive libido get him into trouble when he tries to appease a sexy aspiring actress by having her appear in ads for a mystery product called VIP. The problem? VIP doesn’t exist. So Hudson and flopsweat-drenched boss Tony Randall set about inventing it with the help of a woman-hating mad scientist who seizes upon the assignment as an opportunity to create “the perfect ten cent drunk”—a mint with the alcoholic kick of a triple martini.
Meanwhile, Hudson pretends to be a scientist with girl problems to keep professional rival Doris Day from discovering the inconvenient truth. Hudson can’t look to his boss for moral guidance: Randall’s solution to everything involves having an underling commit suicide for him. So it’s up to Day to save Hudson’s soul and redeem a fabulous life of drinking, carousing and runaway professional success by entering into a marriage of convenience with him moments before delivering their unplanned baby. Ain’t love grand? How can sex with a different beautiful woman each night possibly compete?
20+. The employees of Guy Grand’s advertising agency, The Magic Christian
Usually, ad-men need saving from themselves; sometimes, though, it’s their boss who is leading them down the path to damnation. Throughout Terry Southern’s brilliantly subversive novel The Magic Christian, billionaire Guy Grand’s one goal in life is to show that everyone has a price. And, like any shrewd businessman, the canny Mr. Grand knows that the way to sell an idea—even the idea that principles mean nothing in the face of cold hard cash—is through advertising. To this end, he recruits his nameless firm of ad-men to push forward some of his most notorious ideas: a car so huge and unwieldy that it causes traffic jams whenever it attempts to turn a corner; a shampoo that makes users’ hair fall out; and a deodorant and perfume that, when mixed, create a horrible stench. He even has them buy airtime on a soap opera in which he has bribed the actors to make outrageously foul-mouthed comments on the air (a plan that backfires when the show becomes a runaway hit). And, as if all that weren’t enough, he installs an African pygmy tribesman as the head of the agency, who screeches unintelligibly, scuttles under chairs and desks, and attacks the copywriters and secretaries with a spear. Madison Avenue isn’t all perks, you know.