Is Advertising Art?

Michael Kors Spring 2017 ad featuring Romee Strijd and Taylor Hill

Ads use sophisticated design and clever campaigns to sway human behaviour. But does this cleverness and influence make them art? Legendary copywriter Bill Bernbach, the Bach of advertising, famously said: “Advertising is persuasion, and persuasion is not a science, but an art. Advertising is the art of persuasion.” If we call advertising art, does the designation lower our standards, and demean other forms of expression? Is the debate the same for every generation that grows up with ads or has our relationship with ads changed over time?

Consider the Michael Kors ad above. Buy this purse to go globe-trotting with your celebrity pals, while flunkies hold off the press. It’s an image of travel and adventure, friendship and freedom. The out of focus gate, left foreground, suggests these people live in another world, just out of reach of the paparazzi. It’s a fairy tale and yet it’s real–a news shot, a document of our times. But wait, it isn’t news, it’s a fabrication, all staged. These aren’t rich, famous celebrities, they’re models impersonating celebrities. However, as models, they’ve become rich and famous. Fiction imitates life imitates fiction. It’s all very meta … and isn’t that’s the point?

Matt Miller, president of the body that oversees the production of ads in the USA, defines art as “a reflection and expression of what is happening in society.” Society is too complex to understand at any given moment, but perhaps we can understand an ad.

The image below is from artist, Coco Capitán. Born in Seville, Spain, the London Royal College of Art graduate works in a variety of media, moving effortlessly between Fine Art and commercial assignments. Fashion giants Vogue and Gucci are regular clients. The 25-year-old artist likens the fashion house Gucci to the Medici family, famous patrons of Leonardo and Michelangelo in the Italian Renaissance. Her framed prayer is a tongue-in-cheek mission statement for the post-millennials (gen z).

Coco Capitán. Framed prayer, 2017

Commercialism is part of Western culture. Ads reflect this. This is what art does, only ads do it in a language that the average person can understand. This argument is countered by Mary Warlick, art historian and executive director of The One Club, a New York trade organization. “Art is visual imagery that is meant to elevate thinking in an aesthetic context. [In contrast] what advertising does is give a visual record of our cultural ambiance and history, our tastes, our trends, our wants, our needs, our buying. It is never meant to elevate us to that higher plane.” Ads may reflect popular currents, but that isn’t the purpose of art, Warlick argues. Art helps us become more self-aware. Art urges us to think more critically and to empathize more with other people. Advertising corrupts thinking and makes us selfish and short-sighted. It makes material things more important than relationships and always suggests there is a shortcut to happiness through the purchase of a product.

Calvin Klein ad featuring artwork by Andy Warhol, 2017. The campaign was called “American classics,” photo by Willy van der Perre

There is common ground in these two arguments. Artists like Andy Warhol, whose artwork appears in the ad above, are not so pure; advertisers are not so impure. To the question, “is advertising art,” author Jonathan Glancey answers: “is art advertising? The simple answer to these questions is that art feeds advertising and vice versa.” (The Independent, July 1995) Artists work on ads, ads feature artwork. Beyond this, there is an enormous gray area where ads and content overlap, such as a beautifully crafted music video that advertises a song. Film trailers are obviously ads, but they need to be clever, fun, exciting, provocative—they need to be artistic—or no one would watch them and share them.

Moncler ad, fall winter 2017, featuring the Chinese conceptual artist Liu Bolin, photo by Annie Leibovitz

The above ad for Moncler’s sporty outdoor wear features Chinese artist Liu Bolan. Bolan is famous for painting his body to match the scene in which he poses, producing an “invisible man” effect. He acts as ghost and silent witness to threatened landscapes and over-looked places–a strange frontman for a fashionable clothing line. What is Bolan’s appeal? He is international, mysterious, a performance artist whose “performance” is a mimicry of his surroundings. Wherever he goes, he fits in. He is a living and breathing work of art. He takes art out of the museum and onto the streets.

Western culture is moving in the direction where everyone is an artist, as Joseph Beuys predicted in the 1960s. Technology is key to these new citizen-artists. The trend began one hundred years ago when people purchased low-cost Brownie cameras to record their own lives. Cell phones and social media have taken this home recording to another level of speed and accessibility. Global news is increasingly captured by roving amateurs who capture the latest earthquake, protest, rock concert, tsunami or teenage stunt. We continually revise, update and share family pictures, and use images to carefully craft our own public personas, selectively posting selfies and snapshots that promote our most popular and adventurous selves. These are advertisements for ourselves.

This ad for Soth African newspaper, Cape Times, reimagines historic figures taking selfies. Lowe advertising agency, 2013.

The above ad campaign for the South African newspaper, Cape Times, alters famous historic images as if they were selfies rather than documentary photos. Here the reimagined image is of a sailor kissing a nurse during the victory celebration in Times square that marked the end of WW II, published on the cover of Life magazine in August 1945.

This state of citizen-artists continually talking and sharing with one another through media makes us all very art-smart, media-savvy. Ads reflect this desire to be as in-the-know, as mobile, as self-crafting of public image as possible. Everyone is an artist and all images are art because there is no alternative. There is no media innocence in the age of total connectivity.

Clown Philosopher

René Magritte. Son of Man, 1964, with lego spin off.

I have a friend who fancies himself a bit of a class clown, only he’s middle-aged and there’s no class. Truth be told, he’s a self-made millionaire, retired, loves sports, travels the world and has as much fun as humanly possible. But he also likes to stir up trouble. When he’s alone with me, he poses tricky philosophical questions: what is happiness? What do we do with people who spread hateful ideas? My friend reasons like this: if you hate hateful people, aren’t you yourself being hateful? Sometimes I take my clown philosopher seriously and engage in a discussion with him, examining the pros and cons of different positions. Just when I think the discussion is coming to a close, my friend returns to the beginning and tries to restart the entire argument again. What began as an amusing exercise quickly becomes tedious because there is no way out.

At this point, I realize my friend is not a philosopher. Philosophers attempt to free our minds from falling into circular traps, repeating the same arguments over and over.

We are all a bit like the clown philosopher. Every analyst on TV is a clown philosopher, offering critiques and advice that no one is ever likely to adopt. These experts and analysts are armchair critics who are neither methodical, nor do they invest their own time and money in solutions. As my high school principle, Colin Purdy, used to say, “In the absence of rigor, young people will be motivated to do absolutely nothing.” I would add “in the absence of method and a personal stake, there can be no solution for any problem.” A tool kit is required to lend direction out of the maze.

Keyhole. Painting by Doug Pope, 2010

For example, a tool kit might involve some familiarity with similar arguments from the past. Asking yourself: has anyone else ever asked this question? Has anyone else tried to solve this problem or a parallel problem? Are there any useful models of intervention that can be adopted? Problems have symptoms and root causes. Solutions that treat symptoms tend to be superficial and inadequate. Treating root causes requires big picture thinking. Everyone will have different ideas about this. So consensus-building exercises are required. One may need some guided thinking. Budgeting is required. A method of accountability is required.

Taking action is preferable to armchair solutions so a flawed initiative is preferable to a rarefied proposal. The solutions that appeal to me are ones that start small and offer the potential to scale up. In this way, real-life tests can be carried out that don’t exhaust all of one’s resources.

The Clown Philosopher opens another question: Why should anyone take you seriously? No one will take you seriously if you’re not willing to make an investment. The investment comes in many ways, starting with background research, educating yourself about an issue. On the other extreme, you might want to financially contribute to a cause or become a spokesperson for a cause. These are proofs of commitment. There is a danger in committing to one side or another too soon, before you have worked through a problem, articulating different approaches, different stakeholders and different contexts in which the problem can be understood.

These kind of commitments get you to the table. Also you have friends and connections, so you bring partners with you. The whole thing is about relationship building. As I see it, everyone sits at one table or another, while dreaming of getting to a bigger table. We all have some small influence over our families or friends. We fantasize about having more influence in our jobs and communities. Everyone is in this position–janitors, presidents and CEOs. The premier of the province sits at a big table on a local level, but has no seat on a worldwide table. He needs partners and investors. He needs a problem and a method. And maybe a clown.