Night Moves

Among the many things I’ve carried with me from country to country, and from cities almost embarrassingly numerous, are two large boxes of old agency half inch and three quarter inch reels of television commercials.  These are relics of technology no longer used ( where do you even find a U-Matic on which to play the three quarter inch cassettes? ) and of times, once so critical and filled with importance, as gone and likely forgotten as the writers and art directors who created the work.  So much of the brilliance of this material is grounded in a moment of time– brief, fleeting and always superseded by the next new “great” thing.  Nothing lasts very long in the world of advertising.

I have a show reel from the late ’80’s from the director and cameraman Joe Pytka.  Together with Ridley Scott, Joe was one of the hot, most sought after commercial directors in the business.  He was expensive and notorious for shooting the commercial he wanted to shoot, regardless whether it was what the agency or client wanted produced.  His shoots were always over budget.  And in the majority of cases his work was better than the original story-board.  He could take a commercial idea and turn it into magic.

I’m watching his two minute spot for Michelob called “Night Moves.”  (Only people inside the industry know the names of TV commercials.)  “Night Moves” is a miniature movie dramatizing Phil Collins’s song In the Air Tonight.  Collins is in the commercial performing the song in a supporting role to the unfolding drama.  There’s nothing in this commercial that’s overtly about Michelob.  It’s an atmospheric, sexy story of a girl arriving on an airplane and coming to her boyfriend waiting in a posh club.   It’s New York in 1987, the city Patrick Bateman lives in.  It couldn’t be any other city or any other time.  It’s that moment when New York was the most glamorous place on the planet. Another Pytka spot in the same campaign is called In the Heat of the Night.  Same glamor, same city, same moment in time.

With the presumption of advertising, a tagline appears at the end of the spot that says “The Night Belongs to Michelob.”  We’re asked to transfer all that glamor, the beautiful people, the drama and anticipation, on to a glass of beer.  Preference by association.  But I’m not thinking about the logic of the sell.  I’m thinking about how the commercial is one with its times, and how that time of high living and false confidence is over.

Every campaign is a product of its time.  Some spots are grounded in specific events, such as a particular Olympics.  Some are situated in a moment of a product’s life cycle, especially at its launch.  Some feature a celebrity defined by her age.  I remember as a young account executive being on a shoot in the early ‘80‘s for the drugstore perfume Cie.  The spot starred Candice Bergen, when she was still in her youthful beauty.  She was also impossible.  Arriving on the set, she looked at the pre-approved script and flatly stated she couldn’t say the lines.  The American Cyanamid clients were furious, but could do nothing but accede to her demand to change the script. In the midst of the negotiation she remarked, “Just because I grew up with a dummy doesn’t mean I’m one.”  Priceless.

Among the boxes of reels I also have a Ridley Scott show reel of the same 1980’s time period.  The first commercial on the reel is one of the sexiest, most luscious, spots ever produced. It’s for Chanel No. 5 and is set to the Ink Spots song “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.  I Just Want to Start a Flame in Your Heart.” Opening with a series of dissolves from a formal garden to piano keys then to an approaching freight train, it focuses on a man and a beautiful woman who say one word to each other, “Charles.” “Katherine.”  The man then says “May I ask you a personal question?”  Then we see the shadow of a jet moving from the bottom to the top of the Transamerica Building in San Francisco.  Back to Katherine who closes her eyes and tilts her head back with a look of ecstasy.  “Live the Fantasy. Chanel No. 5.”  No imagination needed.

Does this calibre of direction exist anymore?  The budgets are gone.  I watch TV today and am distressed by the abominations that pass for advertising.  Their only rationale is that they are one with the abominations that pass for programming.  With over 60% of all TV advertising being skipped, it hardly makes a difference anyway.  Creativity has moved on to other media. Maybe this state of television advertising will be indicative of 2011, and no other time.

I think I’ll continue to watch my old agency and show reels.

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