The Pitch debuts tonight on AMC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Mad Men offers TV critics, bloggers, and assorted armchair sociologists so much material to work with regarding changing social standards involving race, sex, and indoor smoking. Yet the show might not get the credit it deserves for dealing with a truly striking moment in cultural history. It was in the 1960s that pop self-awareness became a force in advertising, just as it was becoming a force in everything else. Directors like Richard Lester who’d learned their trade making TV commercials successfully broke into movies, using tricks they’d learned from pushing products, then continued to make commercials between film projects, and not just for the money but so they could learn more new tricks. Campaigns like the legendary one designed by Howard Zieff (later the director of such hit movies as Private Benjamin, as well as non-hit but better movies like Slither and Hearts Of The West) for Levy’s rye bread did their part to move Jewish humor to the center of American culture. It was still advertising, which raises the question: Were the talented people bringing inventiveness and cleverness to such a low and and tawdry profession also selling their souls? One answer was offered by Stan Freberg, who started working in advertising around this time, and who maintained that nothing he did as a satirist was going to make advertising go away—but he might make it a little easier to get through the day if he saw to it that a few of the ads people were subjected to in the course of the day weren’t blatantly insulting.
Mad Men mostly deals with the business of advertising as a competitive playground, where people like Peggy are trying to sell some version of their best ideas to the lardheaded saps in charge of the accounts they covet—and sell them now, before the pressure and frustration fry their last few still-twinkling brain cells. But it does acknowledge the misplaced creative ambition in someone like Don Draper, patiently explaining that his kitchen-cleaner commercial is meant to have the look and feel of “a movie,” in tones no less pompous than those Matthew Weiner strikes when he explains that, even though he’s making a TV show, it can still be “cinematic.” No doubt it was hard work at the time, but watching the pilot of Mad Men’s new AMC stablemate The Pitch, it’s hard not to think that it must have been easier to distinguish yourself as a forward-looking visionary (or even an entertaining smart-ass) in the world of advertising then than it is today.
The Pitch is a fly-on-the-wall documentary series crossed with a competitive reality show. Every week, two houses are given seven days to come up with proposed campaigns that will win one of them the hand of a desirable client. In the first episode, nobody expresses any ambitions larger than cooking up a brilliant campaign and landing the big fish, but everybody clearly wants to be seen as “not just another ad agency.” When they retreat to their respective lairs to brainstorm their strategies, they make pretty much the same jokes you or I or any other half-bright young post-literate who’s drowning in media overload might make about the subject, especially during the first (and, in this case, only week) of working on it. They’re sifting through the same pile of overused pop-culture references that every filmmaker and writer and musician out there has to sift through, in the vain hope of finding something new to say through them.
The difference, if there is one, is that the ad agency “creatives” are doing it all in the hope of convincing 18-to-24-year-olds that they should get out of bed at a reasonable hour and leave the house in search of healthful morning food, because Subway has decided to target that demographic as it expands it breakfast menu. In the words of Tracy Wong, co-founder of the Los Angeles-based company WDCW, this assignment is “a bitch.” I haven’t been 18-to-24 myself in quite some time, but I seem to recall that beginning every day with a hangover and cold pizza in the refrigerator was part of the job description. Still, the customer is always right, even if, as in this case, he’s visibly deranged.
Wong and his crew set to work on the conundrum, as do the folks at the competing firm, McKinney, whose offices in North Carolina have so many Post-It notes and random pieces of paper affixed to the walls it looks as if they’re prepared for Inch High, Private Eye to drop by for some rock climbing. McKinney is a little different from other agencies, because there, a sense of “Southern gentility” goes hand in hand with the necessary “fierce competitiveness.” This self-description comes from McKinney creative poobah Liz Paradise, whose presence on the show will distract the low-minded among us who won’t be able to stop wondering, if her ad-agency name is “Liz Paradise,” what the hell would her porn star name be? Perhaps sensing that someone else on the show is doing more to distract the audience than he is, Wong says that, as a competitive pitchman, “you’ve got to slug it out in the gladiator arena with all these other naked, glistening, sword-wielding agencies.” Let’s just establish right now that there no people on this show who are glistening, and only two or three who you might conceivably want to see glistening in some other context.
Much of what’s interesting in The Pitch comes from the contrast between the two companies and their way of working. On the West Coast, things seem much looser and, perhaps surprisingly, a bit less high-pressure as well. That may be because someone quickly comes up with a concept that gives Wong a giggle and then he takes utterly to heart. It’s about how people who wake up and automatically stumble out to a shit shack like McDonald’s, rather than going that extra mile and exploring their options at a place of fine dining like Subway, are zombies—or, rather, zAMbies, with the “am” capitalized as in A.M., get it? The full pitch includes a diatribe that goes, “Attention, breakfast zambie! Have breakfast worth wake up for! No go place with big M!” Why this concept incorporates the idea that zombies, or zambies, talk like Bizarro, I have no idea. And it always seems like a danger sign when someone thinks his joke will be that much funnier if he screams every syllable of it. I suspect that the cool heads at Advertising Age, or some similar critical journal, would nail WDCW as the kind of slicksters who come up with flashy but nonfunctional campaigns that do more to draw attention to the ad company than to the product. This impression may be borne out when the Subway CMO congratulates Team WDCW on their “passion,” after nodding in tandem with his employee who complains that the “zambie” campaign is lacking in “appetite appeal.”
While Wong and his dream team are enjoying the soothing sounds of the ocean breeze blowing through their ears, you can hear the gears un-turning at McKinney, where an Orwellian arrangement of the words “LISTEN PROVOKE LOVE STIMULATE BELIEVE” glowers down at the broken creatives like the Eye of Sauron. In order to get the most out of her talent pool, and perhaps also on the chance that love will bloom and a wacky, romantic workplace rom-com can be spun off from this show, Liz Paradise cobbles together two teams—Steve and Meg, and Jenny and Will—who are “sort of the right age” and have “the right mindset.” Sublimating her romantic imagination into her work just as the memo from human resources suggested, Jenny pitches a campaign about how young, lonely people can find love by eating breakfast at Subway (”You can learn a lot about someone from what kind of breakfast sandwich they like.”), yoked to the image of two people nibbling on opposite ends of the same breakfast yummy, and finds herself on the receiving end of those two words everyone most longs to hear from their boss during a pitch meeting, “That’s disgusting.”
Happily, McKinney has its ace in the hole, a rapper named Mac Lethal who the company has discovered through his YouTube video. They quickly reach out and soon have him performing a freestyle tribute to the pleasures of Subway’s breakfast platter that puts a smile on the face of the Subway CMO. Whether it’s the smile of someone recognizing something vaguely similar to something he seems to remember his kids liked, or that of someone flashing back to the days when he dreamed of picking up honeys while wearing a pair of unlaced tennis shoes and a ginormous clock around his neck, who can say? (It’s depressingly easy to lose track of the fact that people who now look as if they were put on Earth for the express purpose of running a fast-food chain were college-age when Dick Clark was welcoming Run-D.M.C. to American Bandstand.) Some of the more intriguing (in an Adbusters kind of way) moments in the show come when the McKinney’s people are discussing how to handle what they themselves refer to as their co-option of Mac Lethal; building a national campaign around a YouTube celebrity is apparently a trick and a half to pull off, because of the artistry (or, at least, calculation) involved in blowing him up so that he doesn’t seem small-time without costing him all that hard-won “authenticity.” It makes you wonder if there might a show in that kind of operation. Of course, by the time I finish typing this sentence, there probably will be.