The Art of the Sell — Nichols and May for GE Refrigerators

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

It was hardly the dawn of broadcast television in 1958, but the medium was still finding its legs in so many ways. In particular, the commercials that provided necessary financial support to entertainment programming (TV was free and delivered over the airwaves, kids) could be delightfully offbeat in a far more understated way that now, when it’s practically a requirement to jar the viewer out of their fast-forwarding. Fiercely creative advertisements still exist, of course, but there’s something distinctly charming about the early, freewheeling days, when an ad agency might simply turn over a major campaign to bright, burgeoning comic voices and simply ask them to do their thing.

Young & Rubicam forged a quick partnership with Mike Nichols and Elaine May. In 1958, the duo of Nichols and May hadn’t yet embarked on their famed Broadway run. Their first comedy album, Improvisations to Music, arrived at the end of the year. Legends later, they were just kids, murmuring out skillfully acted, character-driven comedy sketches. Giving them a couple minutes of television time to peddle General Electric refrigerators, especially in a precisely performed spoof that’s part classic Hollywood melodrama and part Noel Coward comedy of manners may not be the height of audaciousness but it’s daring enough to look exceedingly special all these years later.

The ad is grand and surprising, And it does its basic job admirably. I now sorta want a major appliance with shelves that swing out for easy access.

The Art of the Sell — Dark Tower commercial

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

The U.S. movie industry has a long history of cruelly casting off figures who were once titans, but there is likely no more cruelly humiliating outcome than that delivered to Orson Welles. By the early nineteen-eighties, Welles’s debut feature, Citizen Kane, was already cemented in conventional wisdom as the greatest movie ever made. Even dissenters had to concede it was one of the most important and influential, creating a pliability and dynamism in narrative that sent shimmers across everything that followed. And despite impediments thrown up by skeptical entertainment executives, Welles signed his name to at least another dozen boldly impressive stage, film, and broadcast projects.

Although Welles clearly still wanted to work, he wasn’t able to complete a feature-length project in his lifetime after 1973’s tricky documentary F is for Fake. Instead, he was relegated to odd cameos, voiceovers, and other mildly demeaning cash grabs. One of his last credits on the big screen entailed voicing Unicron in the 1986 Transformers movie. And Welles did a lot of commercials. It was one thing when he shilled for wine, which at least had an air of sophistication about it. (And it seems the sponsor let him sample the wares during shoots.) It was quite another when he had to feign enthusiasm for a board game that tried to combine the bare trappings of Dungeons and Dragons with rudimentary electronic technology.

Dark Tower was simultaneously a state of the art product and a blatant stab at the nascent market of eager geeks with disposable income (or parents willing to make relatively significant investments in the name of placation). Despite his commercial closing declaration, delivered with pleasant surprise, of “I was victorious,” it’s inconceivable that the master filmmaker ever engaged in the game’s desperate quest for keys or virtual battles with brigands. But pretending he did helped keep his humidor stocked, no doubt.

And, I must admit, his endorsement worked on me. I didn’t know anything about Welles’s storied cinematic legacy at the time. My frame of reference for the man was almost entirely limited to other commercials and his forays to various daytime talk shows, kibbitzing with Merv Griffin and his ilk about Hollywood in the old days. But Welles carried gravitas on him, even in the waning, aching era of his career. I may have found my way to the game through other means, but the commercial provided assurance that this contraption of sword and sorcery was worthy of my time and, more importantly, the familial capital I would expend agitating for it over other potential playthings. In a time when there was a new fleet of Star Wars figures angling for attention every Christmas, this was no small feat.


The Art of the Sell — Bob Uecker for Miller Lite

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Forget about Clydesdales on snowy paths or croaking frogs, the best ad campaigns ever connected to a beer were those cooked up by the McCann-Erickson agency for Miller Lite in the nineteen-seventies and -eighties. As a Wisconsinite, I was especially fond of any spot that included Bob Uecker, the radio broadcaster for our home state MLB squad. And none was better than the entry that opened with Mr. Baseball making his way to a seat at the old ballpark. It’s a perfect comic gem in thirty seconds, and Uecker’s take on “I must be in the front row” is nothing less than one of very best line deliveries across the entire history of television commercials.

The Art of the Sell — “Real Life” trailer

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Let’s be very plain and direct about this. It’s entirely possible that this, created to promote (sort of) Real Life, the directorial debut of Albert Brooks, is the greatest movie trailer of all time. There was a time when Brooks took every last opportunity available to deliver absolutely ingenious comedy, and the world was better for it.

The Art of the Sell — “I Want My MTV”

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

“Just moments ago, all of the VJs and the crew here at MTV collectively hit our executive producer, Sue Steinberg, over the head with a bottle of champagne and behold: a new concept is born,” Mark Goodman said to a camera shortly after midnight on Saturday, August 1, 1981. He promised the new cable network would deliver to viewers “the best of TV combined with the best of radio.” I suppose it’s up for debate whether it truly delivered the optimal qualities of the name mediums, but across the next decade there’s no question it propelled a revolution in the music business.

Before MTV could change all the rules of why and how songs became hits, it had to actually get in front of viewers. As opposed to the endless landscape of minutely targeted networks that make us the average channel lineup now (not to mention the streaming options that deliver programming on demand), space on the dial — not really proverbial at the time  — was at a high premium. MTV was ready to rock, but it was reaching precious few sets.

Network executives knew the only way MTV would expand its reach was through viewer demand. Cable operators didn’t care about the cajoling by the people running the network, but if the households footing the monthly bill for pay television called up and demanded the addition of MTV to their channel lineups, then things could change. MTV hired the ad agency run by the famed George Lois, and he essentially recycled a concept from one of his cereal commercials made a couple decades earlier. Instead of a child angrily demanding Maypo, there would be a procession of rock stars yelling, “I want my MTV!”

The campaign was deployed strategically to different major media markets. According to Tom Freston, the president of MTV’s parent company Viacom at the cable channel’s launch, the response was immediate.

“Within three weeks, every cable operator in the market would call up and say, ‘Okay, I give up. I’ll take it,'” Freston remembered.

Before long, MTV was just about everywhere, and — for a time, anyway — it was practically impossible to turn a song into a hit without an accompanying eye-catching video. I doubt even the more optimistic early adopters of the channel saw that coming. Outcomes can be surprising when you give the people what they want.


The Art of the Sell, XTC, “Making Plans for Nigel”

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

xtc nigel

I think of the various college rock bands from my youth as being hobbled by a lack of inspired promotion by their record labels. Then again, XTC got a whole board game to help push their 1979 single “Making Plans for Nigel.” What I wouldn’t give for a Dirty Computer game (as opposed to a dirty computer game, which I really don’t need, thanks).

The Art of the Sell — “The Courage to Change”

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

This has been a tough day for me and for anyone who has a political outlook roughly in line with mine. The Supreme Court of the United States delivered one more clotheslining of reasonable social progress and protection for average, working citizens, the latest, most pointed victory of the Republican long game to preserve the existing power structure in unyielding amber. And then it got worse.

So I hold on the the shards of sunshiny hope breaking through the ominous clouds, such as last night’s joyful victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a New York House seat Democratic primary that was supposed to be completely settled for the venerable incumbent. The sitting Congressman she defeated was by most measures a fine public servant (and was admirably magnanimous in defeat), but the triumph of a working class twentysomething of Latin descent feels wonderfully like a better future arriving ahead of schedule.

The major new media wants to position Ocasio-Cortez’s win as murmur of party insurrection, all the better to fit their preferred narrative of constant conflict. The Democratic nominee, bless her, isn’t having it. A campaign video, entitled “The Courage to Change,” tells the real story of her unlikely ascendency. Like other candidates who’ve scored historic wins over the course of the past year or so, Ocasio-Cortez secured her achievement by talking with, to, and for people who need their government to stand up for them. Instead of mealy, fearful caution and obsequious preservation of the status quo, Ocasio-Cortez spoke movingly about who she was and how she would use her own history as moral touchstone to do better for the average citizenry.

Politically, by my reckoning, today was a rotten day. I still believe there are blessedly different times ahead. If the message of people like Ocasio-Cortez prevails, the dire circumstances of now just might stir a brighter, bolder, more naturally empathetic generation to a level of engagement that will finally, permanently transform our society for the better.