Sell & Spin: The History of Advertising, Narrated by Dick Cavett (1999)

“Accord­ing to a study pub­lished Mon­day by researchers at Duke University’s Cen­ter for Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­science, humans expe­ri­ence the most intense feel­ings of hap­pi­ness when press­ing the ‘skip ad’ but­ton before watch­ing a video on the inter­net.” That comes from The Onion, whose satir­i­cal report­ing hits the mark as usu­al. If we know one thing about adver­tis­ing for sure, we know that we don’t like it — or at least we don’t like many of its cur­rent man­i­fes­ta­tions, so much so that we will­ing­ly engage in the arms race of down­load­ing spe­cial pro­grams to block them, which adver­tis­ers soon find a way to defeat, requir­ing us to find new eva­sive tac­tics, which forces adver­tis­es to cut anoth­er path to us, and so on.

How has it come to this? You can learn exact­ly how from Sell & Spin, the 1999 tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­tary above. “From ancient phras­es etched in stone to today’s cut­ting-edge mul­ti­me­dia com­mer­cials, sell­ing has always meant grab­bing atten­tion,” says its nar­ra­tor, the respect­ed talk-show host Dick Cavett. “The point? Mov­ing the prod­uct. The means? Tap­ping into desire — cre­at­ing need.” From the first known adver­tise­ment, a wine shop’s sign from ancient Baby­lon, to the eve of the high-tech 21st cen­tu­ry, Cavett and a host of adver­tis­ing experts tell the sto­ry of not just how adver­tis­ing became an indus­try in the first place, but how it became the huge, shape-shift­ing indus­try we regard today as both wild­ly cre­ative yet some­how sin­is­ter.

Even the most ad-loathing view­er will rec­og­nize many of the icon­ic exam­ples of this ultra-com­mer­cial art form of the thou­sands this doc­u­men­tary includes: Bur­ma-Shave road­signs, the smoke-blow­ing Camel cig­a­rettes bill­board in Times Square, the Volk­swa­gen Bee­tle tout­ing itself as a “lemon” on a whole mag­a­zine page, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing”; mas­cots from Tony the Tiger to the Marl­boro Man (a sym­bol of free­dom, we hear, for post­war office work­ers shack­led to their desks) to the Taco Bell chi­huahua; and of course Coca-Cola’s “I’d like to teach the world to sing,” whose con­cep­tion the final episode of Mad Men fic­tion­al­ized by putting into the mind of its pro­tag­o­nist, 1960s Madi­son Avenue “cre­ative” Don Drap­er.

That acclaimed recent tele­vi­sion dra­ma both glam­or­ized and crit­i­cized the cul­ture of the 20th-cen­tu­ry adver­tis­ing indus­try, which may have oper­at­ed as cyn­i­cal­ly and oppor­tunis­ti­cal­ly as the busi­ness­es it worked for, but which nev­er­the­less craft­ed some of the most endur­ing words and images in our mod­ern cul­ture. But what of the “mad men” of today, charged with the thank­less (if often remu­ner­a­tive) task of com­ing up with those videos we get such a kick out of click­ing past? Sell & Spin shows us the very begin­ning of their work, tak­ing place on a now-quaint-look­ing cyber­space that had only just moved beyond Bur­ma Shave-sim­ple ban­ner ads.

“Nobody quite knows how to use it effec­tive­ly,” says Jay Chi­at of the inter­net toward the doc­u­men­tary’s end. As the co-founder of Los Ange­les’ for­mi­da­ble Chiat/Day adver­tis­ing indus­try, he knew the mechan­ics of the craft well indeed, more than thor­ough­ly enough to rec­og­nize both the medi­um’s poten­tial and the extent to which nobody had yet tapped it. How we all use the inter­net has changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly since Chi­at died in 2002, but his words still ring true. It’s still ear­ly days for inter­net adver­tis­ing, and its mad­dest men (and women) — the ones who ful­ly reject the old indus­try com­mand­ment to “irri­tate your way into peo­ples’ con­scious­ness — have yet to arrive on the scene.

Sell & Spin will be added to our list of Free Doc­u­men­taries, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch the First Com­mer­cial Ever Shown on Amer­i­can TV, 1941

Eisen­how­er Answers Amer­i­ca: The First Polit­i­cal Adver­tise­ments on Amer­i­can TV (1952)

Before Mad Men: Famil­iar and For­got­ten Ads from 1950s to 1980s Now Online

The Mad Men Read­ing List: 25 Reveal­ing Books Read by the Char­ac­ters on the Show

Dig­i­tal Archive of Vin­tage Tele­vi­sion Com­mer­cials

David Ogilvy’s 1982 Memo “How to Write” Offers 10 Pieces of Time­less Advice

A Gallery of Mad Magazine’s Rol­lick­ing Fake Adver­tise­ments from the 1960s

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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