A top advertising agency is suffering difficulties with their clients and are clutching at straws to get themselves back on track, so they call in a marketing guru at great expense to help them sell their most underperforming brand of beer. Unfortunately he talks for about twenty seconds, telling them that men who drink beer doubt their masculinity, and leaves. The board are not impressed, and when the chairman enters with a new plan they are eager to hear it - alas, the elderly fellow collapses over the table just as he begins his speech, dying right there in the boardroom. Now they must elect a new chairman - but have they made the wrong choice?
Inspired by an example of racial injustice the writer-director Robert Downey Sr experienced at the firm he worked for making experimental films for advertisers, Putney Swope quickly became notorious for its savage satire on American society in general. The opening sequence raises your hopes for the quality of the following film, sending up the rich agency executives who, when asked to vote on the new head of the business, all vote for themselves until told otherwise. So who do they finally elect? None other than Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson, voiced by the growling director), the token black member of the board who makes the most of his new post.
The reason Swope was elected was that everyone thought nobody else would vote for him, thus increasing their chances of grabbing the top job. And when Swope has his new position of power, he really shakes things up by replacing the all-white board with a group of black militants, and deciding to stick to his principles by refusing all contracts for the alcohol, cigarettes and war toys that he sees as detrimental to society. And the commercials he and his allies do come up with are unconventional to say the least, being the film's strongest suit.
A breakfast cereal ad features a voiceover telling the cereal-munching father about the nutrients in his meal, to which he replies, "No shit!". A beauty queen tells the viewers she hopes everyone gets a piece of the action, then corrects herself: "I hope everyone gets a piece of the pie!", whereupon the advertised pie is pushed in her face. The ads, in colour as opposed to the black and white of the rest of the film, may be glib, but they are funny, which is more than can be said of the other jokes. After such a promising start, Putney Swope descends into a run of random, unfocussed gags and political lampoons.
Rather than being a pillar of the community with his high ideals, Swope reveals himself to be self-serving and willing to go the crassest route to sell products - not much different from real advertisers, then! Ah, ha, ha, ha! Ahem. Anyway, even Swope's closest advisers grow tired of his ways, and by the end he is under much criticism from the people who used to be on his side while the white clients admire him for the piles of money he has made them, although viewers are reported to prefer to stay in and watch the ads instead of buying the merchandise. Downey's film takes aim at so many targets that the plot wanders close to incoherence, and we never get much contrast between the humour of Swope's methods or his bizarre rivals. It's interesting, ambitious, very funny in places, but not entirely successful. Music by Charles Cuva.