Art & Copy (documentary)

People who live in free-market societies have a love/hate relationship with advertising. We dislike TV commercials in general, yet we’ll watch the Super Bowl specifically to see them. We hate the blight of billboards cluttering the landscape, but we take pictures of funny ones. Radio commercials are annoying … except for when they aren’t.

As the shiny new documentary “Art & Copy” points out, it’s not that we hate advertising — it’s that we hate BAD advertising. If an ad is entertaining, original, or emotionally powerful, we have no problem with it. People don’t mind being advertised to, as long as it’s done in a way that captures their interest.

“Art & Copy” gives a basic overview of the history of American advertising since the 1960s, which is when a major shift brought the copywriters and artists together for the first time. Before that, magazine ads tended to have blocks of text accompanied by an image or two; the writers and designers barely even talked to each other. Now, of course, the words and pictures tend to be inextricably linked, and the film introduces us to the ad pioneers who made it that way.

At its most fascinating, “Art & Copy” tells us the stories behind some of America’s most famous ad campaigns, including “I Want My MTV,” “Just Do It,” “Where’s the Beef?,” “Got Milk,” and the “It’s morning in America” commercial that helped Reagan get re-elected. It’s astonishing to think of how far-reaching some of these have been, far beyond simply boosting sales of a particular product. “I Want My MTV” aired when the cable channel was new and many systems didn’t carry it; those companies were immediately bombarded with phone calls from young people demanding their MTV, which led to MTV defining an entire generation. “Just Do It” became an inspiring credo for many people who never bought Nikes but needed a mantra to motivate them. “Got Milk” and its countless imitators and parodies are ubiquitous.

Somewhat less interesting are the profiles of the ad wizards who dreamed up these campaigns. The film, artfully directed by Doug Pray (“Scratch,” “Hype!,” “Surfwise”), treats some of these creators like rock stars — which they may well be within the industry. To outsiders, they are not particularly interesting, and we are not in awe of them the way people with advertising degrees might be. The one exception is George Lois, an old-school Bronx ad man whose loud, brash demeanor makes him a lively interview. AMC’s “Mad Men” could use a character like him.

The film misses a few opportunities, too. A recurring theme is that most of the hugely successful ad campaigns were nearly vetoed by the clients for being too risky; wouldn’t it have been interesting to look at some risky campaigns that DID fail? Moreover, the ad men and women express disdain for the obnoxious, uncreative commercials one often sees today — but they don’t give any examples. Failures can be just as instructive as successes, and that’s something “Art & Copy” could have delved into. But it’s entertaining as far as it goes, a highly watchable portrait of one of America’s most distinctive communication tools.

B- (1 hr., 26 min.; Not Rated, probably R for a smattering of F-bombs.)