So, the talk of the Internet this week is an ad by Pepsi featuring Kendall Jenner, one of the extended Kardashian family members, de-escalating a protest by handing out Pepsi to the officers on duty. It was an incredibly brain-dead commercial, handicapped even further by how incredibly smug and self-satisfied the production of it came off.
The commercial is brimming with various young, protest-oriented artists all plying their craft and carrying poorly written signs about “joining the conversation,” all completely stopped in their tracks by the power of Pepsi and Kendall. It’s been maligned from all sides and suddenly makes that Coca-Cola ad of America the Beautiful sung in various languages seem like an Oscar short.
However, the intrusion of terrible advertising got me thinking about one of my favorite films of all time- How to Get Ahead in Advertising. Advertising and PR have always been a weird and vexing subject for cinema and television. I think it’s that these endeavors, though more artistic, are inherently aware of the fact they exist as symbiotes stuck to the side of marketing and media manipulation, all at once repulsed by the concept but also thoroughly aware their own existence depends on it.
Sometimes that produces thoughtful and character driven meditations like Mad Men or the enjoyable irreverent Thank You for Smoking. Other times it produces high-concept weirdness like The Stuff or They Live. How to Get Ahead in Advertising is like some weird, curdled mixture of both sides of the spectrum mixed together with The Thing with Two Heads- let’s dive in.
The film revolves around Richard E. Grant as one Denis Dimbleby Bagley, a hotshot ad man who’s the best in the business. As I mentioned above the ad man has always been a bit of a weird concept to bring to life given that they’re job and defining identity is “malicious liar.” Usually, media tries to get around this by making the character a creative type, someone whose ads are emotional and meaningful and engaging, or alternatively someone slick and cool to be around- Bagley is neither of those. Right from the start How to Get Ahead in Advertising makes its hatred of advertising abundantly clear and Bagley is at the center of it.
His ads aren’t moving or slick they’re banal and pedestrian, in particular pushing the mountains of heavily processed food and consumer goods that nobody actually needs. It’s all decidedly ‘80s in the attitude of how ads work, but the deliberate lack of sheen or polish or pathos to the work of his life is a good call. Advertising is a disgusting business, the film posits, and it means to keep us thereby stranding us in the same isle as foot deodorizers, sliced white bread, cigarettes, and pimple cream.
Pimple cream is actually at the heart of the film’s plot as Bagley’s current assignment is to come up with an ad for a new brand of the stuff, a problem he just cannot solve for the life of him. In fact, the challenge of the pimple cream becomes so all-consuming Bagley has a complete mental breakdown, though really it’s just the straw that broke the camel’s back. This is where we find the real plot of the film, as Bagley becomes a manic mess, no longer able to rationalize or deny the vast and banal evils he’s helped author through his work with advertising.
He becomes so disgusted by his role in the slow destruction of the world in the name of greed that he tries to purge his life of all things tainted by advertising. It’s an obsession that manifests physically when he gets a pimple, only in his case the boil grows and grows till it becomes a second head, one that loves advertising and everything about it.
Yes, as it turns out, How to Get Ahead in Advertising was a sneaky pun of a title, and the real plot of the film is about a bizarre humanization of one man’s internal struggle between truth and greed. What really works about the premise is how reserved it feels, never really slipping into out and out goofiness as it might’ve. Despite featuring plenty of scenes of Richard E. Grant running around half-naked and screaming these moments never feel unreasonable or truly divorced from logic. There’s an early scene where he’s destroying everything in his home that’s tainted by advertising that outwardly looks like a whacky comedy moment ala Mr. Mom or Mr. Nanny, but it’s grounded entirely in Bagley’s anti-advertising ideology.
It all feels distinctly British, something akin to the work of Terry Gilliam like Brazil or Zero Theorem. It’s an aesthetic that goes well with the films’ outward goal of stripping the gloss and sheen away from advertising as it’s also trying to keep the light and empty implications of zany comedy out of the film. A lot of the actual laughs come from people trying to ignore Bagley’s situation, like at one point he takes to wearing a cardboard box on his head to keep the boil from hearing him speak and everyone does their best to just keep calm and smile on.
The whole film is very much a showcase for Richard E. Grant, who is giving it 110% effort. The few of other characters and the way only Grant can see and hear his second head ends up isolating him, giving the proceedings the feel of a one-man show. They really put him through the paces too, giving these massive extended monologs and solo scenes when he isn’t drowning appliances in the bathtub or slathering his shoulder in mustard.
Unfortunately, the FX budget isn’t really enough to pull off a side-by-side shot of the two heads but they do a lot of good work with giving the boil a face that can speak. It’s reminiscent of the puppet-heavy schlock horror of Basket Case or Brain Damage. Really, despite being listed as a fantasy-comedy the film is a lot more reminiscent of a horror-spoof, with the double head aspect fitting it nicely into the realms of socially conscious schlock like Maniac Cop, It’s Alive, or the aforementioned The Stuff.
How to Get Ahead in Advertising definitely isn’t a film for everyone, as evidenced by the writer-director Bruce Robinson hasn’t really done anything else since. Partly that’s to do with the oddness of the tone, there are some folks who just won’t be able to role with talking boils and a two-headed Richard Grant, which is fair. More than that, I think that on some level the film’s politics were ahead of its own time while also being thoroughly of our time. The ongoing struggle between Bagley and the Boil revolves around the debate between societal concessions to the necessity over commodity and the value of freedom to consume within a manipulative system.
Bagley’s entire outlook is based around the idea that advertising has been used to distort the truth to propagate a system of mindless consumption for its own sake while the Boil argues that the freedom to consume is the most fundamental freedom there is. It’s obvious who we’re meant to agree with but I think in the late ‘80s this kind of awareness didn’t really fly as well and even now there are some folks who’d probably see this as sort of “corporate branded anarchy,” much like the Pepsi ad that kicked off this review. Still, if you can tune your brain to the weird schlock wavelength of the film and actually find the ideology stimulating this is a great little gem of a flick that not nearly enough people have seen- check it out.
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