St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)

'How to Get Ahead in Advertising' title card.

It’s been a slow month on the ol’ movie blog because everything Parker and I have been watching has been either too good or too uninteresting to write about. That was until I went looking for some camp 80s goodness and found us How to Get Ahead in Advertising, which has a scene-stealing Richard E. Grant as its star, a truly bonkers plot, and a script that feels like it nicked all my jokes thirty years before I wrote them.

Grant camps it up while coming up with an ad for pimple cream.
“Hi, my name’s Barbara Simmons, and I’m a biochemist. But at night… I’m a *woman*.”

Grant plays Bagley, a chain-smoking evil-to-the-core advertising executive whose job it is to distort the truth and emotionally manipulate people into buying shit they don’t want, feeling bad about it, and then buying more of it. So basically everyone who works in advertising. I’m one of the few people who thinks all advertising should be illegal and I’m serious when I say that billboards should be torn down and the guy who invented Internet pop-ups should be thrown in jail. So of course I’m lapping up all of Grant’s gloriously camp, evil dialogue, and he gets a lot of it.

Getting off anywhere won’t help you. I’ve had an octopus squatting on my brain for a fortnight! And I suddenly see that I am the only one that can help you. It would be pointless to go into the reasons why, but I’ve been worried sick about boils for a fortnight — large boils, small boils, fast erupters… They’re incurable, all of them! I know that and so does everybody else, until they get one, then the rules suddenly change. With a boil on the nose there’s a sudden overnight surge in fate. They want to believe something will work.

Bagley, naked but for an apron, holding up a thawed chicken.
“Why have you put chickens down the lavatory?”

Bagley gets stuck with an ad for pimple cream that he can’t seem to wrap his head around. The stress causes him to snap and go on a mad anti-advertising rampage, drowning vacuum cleaners in the bathtub in front of ads for themselves as a punishment for their transgressions. His wife is alarmed by the sight of him naked but for an apron sitting in a bathtub full of thawed-out chickens.

Bagley develops a boil with a face.

But Bagley has started to develop a boil on his neck, one that grows bigger and more infected until it seems to sprout a face. Aw yeah, now we’re getting into some Basket Case territory! Bring it.

Bagley with a cardboard box on his head.
“Don’t pretend you haven’t noticed my cardboard box, because I know you have.”

Bagley goes more and more insane until his wife is forced to sedate him and drag him to a psychiatrist.

Bagley's boil with a moustache.
“Oh god in heaven, it’s grown a moustache!”

The psychiatrist determines that Bagley has a perfectly normal boil to which he has attributed all the negative qualities in his character. Bagley has rejected his old advertising lifestyle, but his boil appears to him as an embodiment of his old self’s greed and aggression and mendacity.

The Skinny

Bagley wolfing down fish fingers and ketchup.

“I am an expert on tits — tits and peanut butter!”

It would be criminal to try and describe too much of what goes on in this movie. It is an experience — a gloriously weird, unpredictable, ghoulish, camp, disgusting, laugh-out-loud surreal experience. Grant steals the show with a performance every bit as mad as his in Withnail and I only a few years earlier. I could watch this a hundred times and never get bored. Does it harp on about advertising a bit too much? Yes, but someone has to. No-one else is talking about it like it’s toxic, no-one else treats it as an invasive parasite. Does it use the word “boil” about a million times? Yes, because this movie wouldn’t work unless it grossed out its audience. It has to be transgressive to work. And it is. It’s a goddamn treasure.