How to Get Ahead in Advertising

“Whatever it is, sell it!”

This is the governing credo of frantic ad man Dennis Bagley, who works for one of London’s most high powered advertising agencies. Bagley is known as a genius at selling, but his newest account has him stymied. How can he make pimple cream sexy?

“I cannot get a handle on boils,” he laments, as he drinks, chain-smokes, and generally frazzles himself toward an impossible deadline. Suddenly, in mid-emotional breakdown, he comes to see the hypocrisy and horror of selling people things they don’t need. He decides to quit his job and devote himself to telling the truth about the corrupt advertising world, which is to say, the world at large.

Just then, a boil sprouts up on his neck. And, although his wife and friends can’t see it, the boil begins to take on human features and to talk in impertinent phrases, like an unwelcome voice in a TV commercial. Clearly the boil means to sabotage his plans to subvert the advertising industry.

This wild story is the premise of How to Get Ahead in Advertising, an original film from writer-director Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I). Robinson uses black comedy and science fiction to skewer the ad world, and he does so with a glee that is intoxicating.

The dizzy Bagley resembles a Frankenstein who has created his own monster, the advertising lie, which then manifests itself on his neck (“The boil! It’s alive! It speaks!” he cries). It’s a wonderful role and a manic tour-de-force for Richard E. Grant, the actor who played Withnail in Robinson’s first film.

Grant is skeletal and bug-eyed, and he masterfully spits out the spiky dialogue (“The boil can speak,” he snarls to a psychiatrist, “but that doesn’t qualify it to have an opinion”). Lovely Rachel Ward, who plays his wife, can’t quite hold her own.

Robinson’s main idea is a provocative one: that Big Brother isn’t watching us, we’re watching Big Brother, and quite happy to do so. How to Get Ahead in Advertising is far from perfect. It tends to move along clunkily, but Robinson is much more interesting than lots of polished directors. Here’s hoping he keeps doing things his own peculiar way.

First published in The Herald, June 3, 1989

Robinson’s career has gone in different directions; he’s written a few books (including one about Jack the Ripper), directed the suspense movie Jennifer 8 and the Hunter S. Thompson adaptation The Rum Diary, with Johnny Depp.

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