The first official TV commercial aired in 1941 when a paid announcer uttered the magic words: “America runs on Bulova time.” Since then, television and advertising have been inseparable. From classic sitcoms like “Bewitched,” to dramas like “Thirtysomething” and “Melrose Place,” stories set in ad firms have fascinated viewers for decades. Yet none of those shows captured the essence of advertising better than AMC’s brilliant “Mad Men.” With its nuanced dialogue, stylish art direction and superb performances, the series riveted our attention like no other. Alas, all good things must come to an end.
To help ease the sense of loss as its final season approaches, here’s a list of 12 movies that could teach Don Draper a few things about the business.
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)
A delightfully silly spoof of Madison Avenue and celebrity culture, this spirited comedy stars Tony Randall as a mild-mannered TV commercial writer whose advertising firm is about to lose their biggest client. Blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield plays a famous actress who might be able to save the account, if only Randall can sign her as a spokeswoman. In a clever bit of satire, the film begins with a montage of fake television commercials for products like Très Chic, an expensive shampoo that causes your hair to fall out at the roots.
Lover Come Back (1961)
Two years after the success of “Pillow Talk,” Rock Hudson, Doris Day and Tony Randall teamed up once again for this comedy about a cocky advertising exec who inadvertently pitches a campaign for a product that doesn’t exist. Scrambling to invent something to sell, the ad man hires a wacky chemist to concoct whatever it’s supposed to be, all while romancing a female executive from a rival agency. Filled with mistaken identity, outlandish coincidences, and a dash of risqué humor, “Lover Come Back” is like an episode of “Mad Men,” minus the ennui and alcoholism.
Putney Swope (1969)
Robert Downey Sr. wrote and directed this counterculture satire about a lone black man on the executive board of an advertising firm who’s accidentally put in charge by the white members during a secret election. Renaming the agency “Truth and Soul, Inc.” the new chairman fires his fellow board members and institutes a policy forbidding them to accept business from companies that manufacture alcohol, tobacco and war toys. Eventually, the U.S. Government takes notice and declares the firm a threat to national security. Shot in black and white, the outrageous TV commercials seen throughout the movie appear in color.
A heroic copywriter (not a phrase you hear too often) discovers that the ad agency he’s working for is using subliminal techniques to brainwash the public into supporting a sinister Presidential candidate. Released on video under the alternate title “Mind Games,” this wonderfully awful Canadian thriller wants to do for advertisers what “The Firm” did for lawyers, but plays more like a bizarre soap opera instead. Starring Lee Majors, who clearly had some time to kill between the cancellation of “The Six Million Dollar Man” and the premier of “The Fall Guy,” “Agency” earns a few extra points for its surprisingly downbeat ending.
The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981)
This satirical update of Richard Matheson’s classic science-fiction novel stars Lily Tomlin as an average American woman whose long-term exposure to household chemicals causes her to literally shrink from view. Charles Grodin plays her advertising executive husband, a man so busy pitching products to consumers that he barely notices his wife is the size of a Barbie doll. In a clever bit of stunt casting, the film features a cameo by actor Dick Wilson, best known as the finicky Mr. Whipple in over 500 Charmin toilet paper commercials.
Written and directed by Michael Crichton, this high-tech thriller shares many of the same themes as “Agency.” Albert Finney plays a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon who suspects that a mysterious advertising firm is digitally copying beautiful fashion models and then killing them. Falsely accused of murder, Finney uncovers a twisted plot to hypnotize consumers into purchasing products using subliminal images hidden in TV commercials. Crichton got the idea for the film when he learned that a computer company in Texas was able to scan and duplicate objects on screen with flawless results.
Only Stephen King could write a tale this shocking. An innocent advertising executive finds himself under attack when his breakfast cereal client runs into trouble. It seems a batch of red food coloring is making children vomit what appears to be blood, but is actually just a harmless dye. To make matters worse, the cereal’s folksy slogan has become the target of late night TV comedians. Can our hero fix the problem and regain the public’s trust, or is the brand a lost cause? Oh, and there’s a subplot involving a dog in there somewhere.
How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)
One of the strangest movies of the ‘80s, “How to Get Ahead in Advertising” stars the incomparable Richard E. Grant as an emotionally disturbed ad executive who develops a crisis of conscience about the ethics of his profession. Stuck working on a slogan for a new pimple cream, Grant’s deteriorating mental state gives way to a split-personality that sprouts from his neck like a wisecracking tumor. Written and directed by British filmmaker Bruce Robinson, this brilliant black comedy is as perceptive about advertising as “Network” was about the TV news.
Crazy People (1990)
When he suffers a nervous breakdown on the job, an overworked advertising executive begins crafting campaigns that use brutal honesty to pitch the products they’re selling. Slogans such as “Fly United. Most of our passengers get there alive” and “Buy Volvos. They’re boxy, but they’re good” eventually cause him to be institutionalized. But then an odd thing happens… the public responds favorably to the ads and the commercials become a surprise success. Starring Dudley Moore as the troubled truth-teller, “Crazy People” isn’t as subversive as it could be, but contains enough big laughs to make it worth your while.
What Women Want (2000)
Set in a Chicago advertising firm, this romantic fantasy stars Mel Gibson as a chauvinistic executive who gains the miraculous ability to read female minds after electrocuting himself with a hairdryer in the bathtub. Putting his newfound power to use in the boardroom, Gibson designs a series of ad campaigns that capitalize on women’s hopes and fears. Directed by Nancy Meyers, who helmed the charming sales comedy “Baby Boom,” “What Women Want” doesn’t answer Freud’s eternal question, but it’s not a bad way to spend 2 hours either.
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011)
Seven years after supersizing his Big Mac, documentarian Morgan Spurlock focused his cameras on the Kafkaesque world of advertising. To make things more interesting, the film itself was purposefully funded by corporate sponsorship. Technically, the title of the movie is “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” since the eponymous beverage company paid a substantial amount to give their brand above-the-title billing. Other sponsors include Old Navy, Trident gum, JetBlue and Ban deodorant. Despite the financial arrangement and a non-disparagement clause, Spurlock retained final cut on the eye-opening film.
Brian De Palma’s welcome return to the erotic thriller genre is actually two movies in one. The first is a stylish black comedy about advertising executives stabbing each other in the back to get ahead. The second is a surreal horror film about a masked psycho slashing necks to get revenge. Swedish sphinx Noomi Rapace plays a mousy copywriter whose conniving boss steals credit for her viral ad campaign, setting in motion a gruesome string of murders. As the body count rises, “Passion” proves that advertising can be a cut-throat business.
Good Neighbor Sam (1964) The Woman in Red (1984) Lost in America (1985) A Shock to the System (1990) Boomerang (1992) Picture Perfect (1997) In Good Company (2004)
Originally published Apr 3, 2015 9:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017