Documentary filmmaker shows how ad men were 'Selling the Sixties'

Much like a 1960s ad man, visiting documentarian Adam Harrison Levy pitched his message to the audience gathered on Oct. 9 at Linsly-Chittenden Hall for the screening of his film “Selling the Sixties: How Madison Avenue Dreamed the Decade.”

In remarks both before and after the film, Harrison Levy discussed both the topic and the creative process behind the film.

Harrison Levy created “Selling the Sixties” as a BBC special meant to give British viewers an understanding of the 1960s New York City advertising history and culture. Unlike today, Harrison Levy said, “[A]dvertising now is not relevant in the way it used to be, when there were three channels and Life magazine. I don’t think advertising has that muscle any more. I don’t know who the cultural arbiters are now, perhaps the designers of the iPhone. It’s no longer advertising, that’s for sure.”

Although produced before the hit U.S. television series “Mad Men” first aired, the documentary has been played on the BBC since the show became successful. Despite several airings in the United Kingdom, the Yale screening was only the second time the film had been shown to an American audience.

Since he created the film for a British audience who lacked background knowledge of that American era, Harrison Levy anchored the story in the chronology of John F. Kennedy’s presidency. The film actually begins with the selling of Kennedy’s image in the 1960 election and ends with his 1963 assassination.

“John F. Kennedy’s presidency was such a distinct moment in time. I think that was a moment of true optimism and I don’t think we’ve seen that again,” explained Harrison Levy. This narrative arch, as well as most of the creative freedom he had for the documentary in general, was due to the fact that the he made the film in a very short period of time, he explained.

“We only had 10 to 12 weeks to make the film, so editorially we had a great deal of freedom. We were able to do what we wanted to do,” he told the audience.

Several members of the audience, which included viewers of a wide range of ages, praised Harrison Levy’s film, comparing it to their own memories of the era. Commenting on the unparalleled optimism of the era, one viewer noted that even though the ad men mindset seems naïve in retrospect, as the film explains, everyone bought into it — and in turn, bought the products being sold — during that time period.

The talk was sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism at Yale.

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