Ad Director Creates a Pitch--and a Portrait

Kenneth Nalls has just been asked a very important question.

The 8-year-old boy knows it is important, because the director of the TV commercial has almost fallen over asking it. The director, who is perspiring, has been asking the boy questions on and off for nearly two hours as the camera rolled.

“If you could have anything you wanted, what would it be?” poses Leslie Dektor, the much acclaimed Los Angeles ad director. Dektor likes to pry deep into the lives of his subjects to find a flicker of emotion or a bit of their lives that may match an advertiser’s message.

The boy is nervous. Kenneth--a third-grader who lives in Hollywood--has never been in a commercial before. He has never had a motion picture camera aimed at his face. And, at times, Kenneth seems as if he would rather be watching a commercial than appearing in one.


Suddenly comes one of those moments Dektor has been working toward. Kenneth’s next answer is so good--and so surprising--that it startles everyone on the set.

“If I could have anything, I’d have a whole bunch of dreams,” he says. “A whole bunch of dreams.” Kenneth exhales, then folds his head between his two fists. “I think I’ve run out of answers.”

This fall, when TV viewers see the commercial for IDS Financial Services--a division of American Express--they will see only Kenneth and hear about his dreams.

There will be no sign of Dektor or the dozens of other people that put this 8-year-old boy on network television. You won’t see the camera operators, the make-up artists and certainly not the one guy whose sole job was to make sure there weren’t any odd shadows in the room. But what they accomplish has everything to do with what you see.

And those who excel at their craft often have more in mind than just the next 30-second commercial. “I do advertising as a way to make portraits of society,” said Dektor, co-owner of the Petermann Dektor production company, during a break in the filming. “Advertising is a way for me to get sponsored to do these portraits.”