Must-Watch Movies & Series About Marketing & Advertising

Given the sophistication surrounding marketing and advertising, you may think that both evolved recently, but in fact, “the first-ever written ad was found in the ruins of Thebes in Egypt,” notes researcher Sagar Joshi, describing “a Papyrus created in 3000 BC by a slaveholder trying to find a runaway slave while also promoting their weaving shop.”

Fast forward thousands of years, and this rudimentary style of promotion, nobly assisted by the invention of the printing press, grew roots in Europe and eventually in the Colonies. The earliest surviving English print ad was published in 1477, and by the 17th century, newspapers, broadsides, and signage were popular ways to sell goods and services.

The meteoric rise of advertising and marketing included expansion to broadcast – radio, television and cable TV –until the Internet came along. These days, advertising and marketing rely on search engine optimization, social media, and algorithms to reach segments of the buying public. That stated, new ideas for ways to advertise and market products and services are forever on the horizon and these 10 films offer you an overview of these ever-changing professions.

1. The Hucksters (1947)

When Variety was the publication everybody in the entertainment industry relied on for show business news, the journalist assigned to review The Hucksters complained that Clark Gable and Deborah Kerr were miscast as leads, yet this film remains an early study into how advertising agencies functioned during the 1940s. It’s the end of World War II and newly-discharged Gable plans to return to his former profession as an ad man, but quickly realizes that his time in the military changed him. Unfortunately, movie producers were so focused on the romance between Gable and Kerr that the underlying message – that time changes both the advertising business and the person — gets a bit lost in the fray. That stated, anyone interested in the early days of advertising can learn plenty about an era in which manipulating public behaviors and their buying habits was in its infancy.

Duration: 1h 55 min
Rating: NR (The movie industry didn’t start rating films until 1968)

2. Wag the Dog (1997)

Award-winning director Barry Levinson — and a stellar cast lead by Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro — stand in stark contrast to The Hucksters. Wag the Dog was one of the first movies to remove the veil of secrecy behind the degree and extent to which spin doctors and marketers were willing to go to elect candidates. Classified as a dramedy due to elements of wry humor in the script, this film makes no apologies about how campaigners are ready to go all out to win votes – even if it meant inventing a war to cover up a sex scandal that would have compromised the re-election chances of a sitting president. You’ll wonder what else these schemers could possibly come up with next by the end of this fascinating film.

Duration: 1h 37 min
Rating: R

3. Killing Us Softly 3 (1997)

This documentary is based on Jean Kilbourne’s pioneering research into the way the advertising and marketing industries use gender to drive sales. According to California Newsreel, Killing Us Softly 3 “shows how much advertising for women has become blatantly sexualized, simultaneous magnifying and trivializing the role of sex in women’s lives.” Kilbourne found that the basic message, that women are willing to do and buy anything to enhance their appearance, hasn’t changed over time. “Advertisers still relentlessly intimidate, shame, and even flatter women into spending billions of dollars trying to change the way they look.” Featuring more than 160 print ads and TV commercials, this documentary is the third in a series of four by Kilbourne. Avid fans hope she keeps going

Duration: 34 minutes
Rating: NR

4. Our Brand is Crisis (2005)

For folks who can’t get enough political dish, this enlightening documentary includes some of Washington D.C.’s most influential political minds, so viewers wishing to learn the extent to which domestic marketing and advertising tactics can impact a campaign in a nation like Bolivia, will find this documentary riveting. At a time Bolivia is in chaos and the government is poised to be toppled, a band of U.S. political strategists are sent to South America by the Clinton administration to help re-elect Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, an unpopular president. Behind-the-scenes maneuvering undertaken by operatives shows viewers that no one nation has a market on manipulation when undertaken by savvy professionals

Duration: 1h 25 min
Rating: NR (531 words)

5. Mad Men (2007-2015)

Business Insider is one of a long list of media resources proclaiming Mad Men “the best TV show ever” and viewers riveted to their screens agree. As the AMC network’s first original production, the first season of Mad Men left viewers scratching their heads, but those who stuck around became addicted and those who abandoned the show returned in droves. Every character is unique and memorable. The writing? Remarkable. Producers were religious about replicating the era’s lifestyle, fashion, and behaviors, tackling the boozing and promiscuity that pervaded the advertising industry throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Mention the name Don Draper to fans. They’ll know who you’re talking about because John Hamm’s portrayal of the lead Mad Man was so compelling, fans still talk about him

Duration: 8 seasons; 47-minute episodes
Rating: TV 14

6. Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood (2008)

This documentary describes the degree to which ad and marketing creatives blatantly manipulate young minds and make no apologies. This film digs deep into the powerful “marketing machine” that pushes all manner of kids’ goods and services on both youngsters and parents. Who’s behind these mind-bending appeals? According to the Media Education Foundation, the “latest advances in psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience [are used] to transform American children into one of the most powerful and profitable consumer demographics in the world.” With no government oversight or public outcry, this multi-billion-dollar machine raises “urgent questions about the ethics of children’s marketing,” say critics writing for the Films for Action website. Watch this film and you may never look at a box of Fruit Loops on supermarket shelves in the same way again.

Duration: 1h 6 minutes
Rating: NR

7. Lemonade (2009)

If there’s one thread running through the films on this list, it’s that people choosing careers in marketing and advertising are some of the most creative thinkers on the planet. This documentary tells the story about how the 2008 financial crash impacted the lives of a reported 70,000 ad professionals (some say the number is closer to 130,000) who lost their jobs when budgets were cut. This documentary pays tribute to folks for whom the truism, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” is spot on. Told from the perspective of laid off copywriter Erik Proulx, who went in search of other unemployed ad and marketing professionals, this film profiles 15 folks who “kicked this economy in the balls,” as writers, designers and directors re-invented themselves to find greater success and satisfaction. The objective of this film? “Be inspirational without being cheesy.” Goal met.

Duration: 36 min
Rating: NR

8. The Joneses (2009)

You may not be able to help yourself. The Jones family – Steve, Kate, Jenn, and Mick – are very likeable people whose ordinary existence in an upscale community seemed nothing out of the ordinary. Fact is, these perfect consumers were just that: Age cohorts relying upon trends, fads, and public pressure to determine everything about the way they live and comport themselves. According to reviewers writing for the Publicist website, “You haven’t seen influencer marketing until you’ve watched this movie,” and that’s exactly why it’s included on this list. Before his death, Roger Ebert said it best when reviewing this film’s content: “They aren’t a family; they’re a marketing unit”

Duration: 1h 30 min
Rating: R

9. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011)

While the jury’s still out on whether producer Morgan Spurlock compromised his integrity by making a film about exploitation loaded with humor, there’s enough truth beneath the laughs to deliver a potent lesson on the topic of integrated advertising. The premise is simple: Every time you watch a movie or TV show, products used as props are not in scenes because the prop master hit a grocery store; they’re there because a financial deal was struck. Viewers of this easy-to-watch documentary learn that by arranging for media to feature products, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold was funded by brand product managers. Spurlock doesn’t hide the fact that had he not blatantly showcased the products used in this documentary, it might never have been underwritten. Lots of food for thought here, both literally and figuratively.

Duration: 1h 30 min
Rating: PG

10. Our Brand is Crisis (2015)

You’re not imagining things; this Sandra Bullock/Billy Bob Thornton feature film is based on the documentary profiled on our list that was produced back in 2005, and for those who refuse to watch documentaries, this Hollywood-style production could be more palatable. Viewed from the perspective of an American political operative (Bullock) who goes to Bolivia under a Clinton administration directive, she proceeds to enlist the best and brightest minds to re-elect Bolivia’s wildly unpopular head of state. It is unusual for a topic to be produced as both a documentary and a first-run film, but folks fascinated with political machinations, branding and manipulation will enjoy both versions — even if it’s just to see which did a better job of telling this story

Duration: 1h 47 min
Rating: R


12 Must-watch Movies about Marketing and Advertising

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold