What 10 films about advertising professionals say about the industry
Hollywood has often featured ad executive characters as Lotharios who are high-strung, over-worked, and predominantly male. Has the industry changed, asks Jack Benjamin.
As Hollywood remains shutdown amid strikes by the Writers’ Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA, we at The Media Leader thought it would be fun to reminisce about movies featuring characters in the advertising industry.
Ad professionals have been depicted in many of the best and worst films Hollywood has had to offer. While perhaps the most famous portrayal of the industry is AMC’s television series Mad Men, led by a career-defining performance from Jon Hamm as who-every-guy-thinks-he-wants-to-be-but-shouldn’t-actually, Don Draper, a number of films over the years have also featured ad execs.
As with Mad Men, they aren’t typically portrayed in a favourable light. They’re predominantly male, overconfident, high-strung and work-obsessed, often to the detriment of core ethical or emotional values.
As purveyors of all things, ad professionals are easy targets for artists and filmmakers with critiques of businesses, white collar work culture, and, more broadly, capitalism. They are also commonly protagonists in need of better emotional understanding, making them good fodder for the cocky men (and sometimes women) in breezy romantic comedies.
Of course, the overwhelming maleness of the advertising industry cannot be overlooked. What was once a male-dominated industry has changed over the years (albeit too slowly), but depictions of C-suiters in advertising remain mostly male, and often chauvinistic, as depicted in the majority of films below.
Here are 10 of The Media Leader‘s favourite examples of films starring ad professionals (both the good, and the bad).
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Dustin Hoffman won the Academy Award for Best Actor for playing a workaholic New York City advertising executive going through a divorce. While work is his only focus at the beginning of the film, by spending more time with his son, he learns to seek a better work-life balance, prioritising his relationship with his fracturing family over his job.
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003)
Before the McConaissance, Matthew McConaughey was doing a lot of middling, mid-2000s romcoms. In How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, he plays Benjamin Barry, a cocky ad exec. Barry, who typically handles campaigns for beer and sporting companies, seeks to expand his remit with a brief for a prestigious diamond company, but his boss doesn’t think he’s romantic enough to handle the work. In response, Barry says he could make any woman fall in love with him, and his boss agrees that if he can do so within 10 days, he can lead the campaign.
In the meantime, woman’s magazine writer Andie Anderson (Kate Hudson) is writing an article about how to lose a guy in 10 days, and looks to date and then push away Barry as fodder for her piece. Classic romcom hijinks ensue.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
Steve Martin plays agitated ad executive Neal Page on a business trip in New York who, thanks in part to a hesitant client, nearly misses his flight home to Chicago. Due to a number of further mishaps with the endlessly talkative Del (John Candy) as well as inclement weather, Page is nearly unable to make it back in time to spend Thanksgiving with his family. The bittersweet film is somewhat unique among John Hughes’ library for focusing on the struggles and conflicts of adults rather than children and teenagers.
Picture Perfect (1997)
In this ’90s romcom, Jennifer Aniston plays struggling ad professional Kate, who is initially passed up for a promotion because she is “not stable enough”. The single Kate, with help from a co-worker, invents a story that she is actually engaged to a videographer from Boston, Nick. She then gets promoted, and gets interest from womaniser colleague Sam (Kevin Bacon), but ultimately starts to develop feelings for her fake-fiancé.
North by Northwest (1959)
In this classic spy thriller, Cary Grant plays advertising exec Roger Thornhill, who is mistaken for a spy and swept up into a story of action, cold war paranoia, and double crossings. Thornhill’s background in advertising is hardly consequential to the plot; the character was originally written as a traveling salesman suited to actor Jimmy Stewart, but was changed to a Madison Avenue executive by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, because he previously worked as a copywriter.
Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace star as duelling ad executives fighting over accounts and lovers, with deadly consequences, in this erotic thriller. While advertising is mostly a backdrop to the interpersonal drama, scenes such as McAdams instructing Rapace to seduce a “big fish” businessman to win an account allude to the problematic challenges and pressures historically faced by women in the industry.
What Women Want (2000)
Chicago ad executive Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson) is a sleazy chauvinist and womaniser skilled at selling products to men. Overlooked for a promotion because he’s not as good at appealing to women, Nick is tasked with developing ideas for feminine products. After being on the receiving end of an accidental electric shock, Nick realises he can now read women’s minds, and his newfound ability helps teach him to better understand women and embrace his feminine side, ultimately leading to more positive personal and collegial relationships.
How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)
Richard E Grant plays an unstable ad executive in this British black comedy, which lampoons the advertising industry and capitalism more broadly. Grant’s character, Denise Dimbleby Bagley, begins to question the ethics of his work in advertising, leading to him suffering from a nervous breakdown. A boil then appears on his shoulder with a life and a voice, akin to a devil on the shoulder, who takes a more unscrupulous view of the profession, and eventually overtakes the ethical concerns of Grant himself.
Collateral Beauty (2016)
Will Smith leads an ensemble cast featuring Keira Knightley, Ed Norton, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, Michael Peña, Naomie Harris, and Jacob Latimore about an advertising executive who becomes depressed following the death of his young daughter. In this critically panned exploration of grief, Smith’s character, Howard Inlet, writes letters to the abstract concepts of Love, Time and Death, as his spiralling mental health causes his advertising company to falter. To manipulatively convince Inlet to sell the company, his friends and business partners hire actors to portray Love, Time and Death and confront Inlet.
Stephen King’s horror story Cujo, which features a rabid dog that traps a mother and son inside a car, also includes the character of Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly), the husband of the victims and a failing advertising professional whose spot for a cereal company is failing. Out of town on business, Vic’s absence is used for dramatic effect throughout the story as he seeks to find his family once he realises something has gone wrong.
Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list. Other films featuring ad professionals include The Woman in Red (1984), The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), Crazy People (1990), Hancock (2008), 12 Angry Men (1957), and doubtless many others. But they do exemplify that, on the whole, advertising is not viewed by filmmakers as a morally righteous profession, even as films themselves are often reliant on marketing for their success.
Do you have a favourite? Least favourite? Comment below or send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.