The plump young woman in the television commercial bustles into the copy machine room. It is the end of another long, exasperating day at the office. She thrusts her folder of papers aside, reaches underneath her black dress, pulls down her underwear and hefts herself up onto a copier. Once enthroned, she hits the print button.
The machine beeps at her. Then it beeps again.
Why won't it copy? She spies her answer on the machine's read-out: "Insert larger paper tray."
In a fury, the woman begins battering the machine.
A slogan appears on-screen, "We don't care how it gets broken," it says, "we'll be there to fix it."
Funny commercial? Without question.
Vulgar? Maybe a little, yeah.
Art? Well, that's what they're telling us.
The 30-second spot has won a home in the permanent collection of the venerable Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. Before it takes up residence there, though, the ad will tour art museums around the world as part of a traveling exhibit of television commercials.
No one is more surprised - or more pleased - to have achieved this measure of artistic immortality than Eric Hartsock. He is the founder, president and creative director of Eisner Underground, the small agency in Baltimore's Little Italy that made "Paper Tray," the spot with the woman assaulting the copy machine.
"It's bizarre," Hartsock himself says of the honor. "Bizarre and humbling."
Underground, as his company is called, was purchased two years ago by Eisner Communications as a "creative, boutique agency" that prides itself in producing engaging, "edgy" commercials. In its seven years, it has won plenty of advertising awards, although no one had yet pronounced its output as works of art. Of course, many people would never include "television commercial" and "art" in the same sentence, at least not without an additional word: "Not."
"I think how you define artistic expression is very wide open," says Hartsock, 38. "I think what we do is artistic expression but with the intent to sell something. It's definitely part of pop culture. Whether or not it's art depends on whether you think pop culture is art."
Whatever anyone else might believe, MOMA has always recognized advertising as a legitimate form of artistic expression. Almost from its founding in 1929, the museum has included film in its permanent collection, and within that collection, it has always had pieces of advertising, including an 1890's-era short for Dewar's Scotch.
Asked why advertising should be considered art, Lawrence Kardish, senior curator of MOMA's department of film and media, at first seemed irritated by the question. "It gets to be considered art because curators at various museums, including this one, include it in a collection of art work."
OK, but why?
Less defensively, Kardish replied that commercials, which he includes under the rubric "films of persuasion," sometimes share characteristics of other more traditionally recognized pieces of art, such as paintings or sculptures: "One definition of art is work that engages, enriches and educates an audience, and some of these [commercials] do that."
Kardish says many television ads do what feature films do but in a far shorter length of time. "Many of the commercials are gem-like narratives. Short, to the point, they use all the strategies of extended storytelling but in a very brief moment."
For the past 12 years, the Association of Independent Commercial Producers has held an annual competition of television commercials, and the winners, like Underground's "Paper Tray" this year, make it into MOMA's permanent collection. There were 68 winners this year among 22 categories. "Paper Tray" was one of three winners in the "low budget" category, commercials made for under $75,000. ("Paper Tray" cost a good deal less than that, about $30,000.)
Kardish had no trouble remembering the Underground entry. "Yes, yes, yes, woman rubs her a-- on the machine." The commercial won, he said, because of "its humor, its gall. I didn't realize it was from Baltimore, but knowing that John Waters is from there, it makes sense."
The commercial was made for a copier repair company in Kansas City, AccuServ, and ran for about three months last winter. Scott Craig, who was the company's marketing director then, said that despite early jitters that the commercial would be too racy for a Midwest audience, it proved an immediate hit.
If establishing name recognition is the primary function of television advertising, then "Paper Tray" performed impressively, Craig said. Usually, he said, it takes several viewings before a viewer retains a company's name. Not true with "Paper Tray." After seeing the commercial once or twice, customers remembered AccuServ.
"When the customers would come in, it would be like `Hey, you're the guys with that commercial with the woman sitting on the machine.' "
So, "Paper Tray" was an effective commercial. But did Craig know when he first saw it that he was looking at a piece of art? "No," he said, "the first thing I thought was, `This is really humorous, but I'm not sure it won't scare the hell out of the Midwest."
Someone else who didn't immediately recognize the commercial's artistic grandeur was Cassie Jordan. She's the 30-year-old Los Angeles actress whose relationship with the copy machine is memorialized in the ad.
At first, Jordan didn't even think "Paper Tray" was suitable as a piece of advertising. "I thought it was kind of crass and inappropriate for a commercial."
Now that she has been deemed art for the ages, though, she sees that it was all part of her destiny.
"It just took awhile," she said, "for everyone to recognize how fabulous I am."