When art is advertising and advertising is art.

Tim Clark, Senior Lecturer, Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Issue 49 | December 2018

If you define advertising as a persuasive message in a paid-for medium and admit that marble, canvas and fresco are media, just as print, radio and TV are media, then art and advertising can be viewed as close relations.

Based on cave paintings and archaeological remains, we know that art began around 30,000 years ago. The first material evidence of advertising comes from the Roman period of the first century AD. One example from Ephesus (in modern-day Turkey) survived because it was carved in marble. Another, a mural painting from Pompeii, survived because it was preserved in volcanic ash. Both examples, as if to confirm one's worst opinion of advertising, were used to attract customers to brothels.

The actual business of producing advertising is quite modern. Even the word 'advertising' is fairly new, entering the English language in the mid 17th century.

In many ways, it emerged from the Industrial revolution when, with mass production, manufacturers needed a mass medium to communicate with their mass market. It helped that the proliferation of education meant that a previously largely illiterate population could now read. This led to the publication of newspapers. A population explosion during a prolonged period of peace magnified the effect and a new age, an advertising age, was born.

Coincidentally perhaps, the period of the Industrial Revolution saw the emergence of the Romantic Art movement, a rebellion against convention in art that became increasingly radical throughout the 19th century. It saw artists shake off the shackles of patronage and declare their independence to express themselves freely. It also began to call into question the very meaning and purpose of art.

It was the Romantics who began referring to "art for art's sake." Oscar Wilde declared, "All art is quite useless". He was merely trying to discourage the search for meaning, suggesting that a thing of perfect beauty must needs be perfectly useless. As he said,: "The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely". This view heralded 20th century modern art, freed from the burden of realism and naturalism by photography, leading through Expressionism and to the increasingly irreverent and controversial exhibits that challenge art galleries to accommodate them today.

What is art?

It is quite a challenge to arrive at a definition of art that can embrace all its classical and modern forms. But here is a list of criteria that seems to fit the bill. The words in capital letters show features that relate to the effectiveness of advertising to illustrate how, with slight adjustment, art and advertising are related.

  1. Skilful (the result of training and/or expertise) STRATEGIC
  2. Original (inspired but not copied) DIFFERENT
  3. Imaginative (fresh) SURPRISING
  4. Beautiful (aesthetically pleasing) APPEALING
  5. Impactful (memorable and moving) ATTENTION-GETTING
  6. Engaging (emotionally charged) PATHOS
  7. Thought-provoking (rational) LOGOS
  8. Recognised by acknowledged experts (credible) CREDOS
  9. Desirable (limited if not unique, rare) DISTILLING DESIRE, PROMISING
  10. Personal (branded, signed) EMPATHETIC, RELEVANT

There is no contention over whether Velasquez's painting 'Las Meninas', for example, is a work of art. It ticks all the boxes in the list above. Whereas the urinal entitled 'Fountain' by Marcel Duchamp at an exhibition in New York in 1917 only subscribes to one or two of those features.

What really defined 'The Fountain' as a work of art was the context of an art gallery in which it could be viewed. Similarly, Carl Andre's display of bricks in 1978 at The Tate Gallery could only be regarded as art because it was allowed a platform by art curators. On a building site it would have been dismissed as a pile of bricks whereas a Rodin statue in the same situation would have been regarded as a misplaced sculpture.

So what do the masterpiece by Velasquez, the urinal by Duchamp and Carl Andre's bricks have in common? They all found a way to gain our attention. And that stand-out quality is something they have in common with all effective advertising. In the words of Leo Burnett: "you've got to get noticed. If you don't get noticed you don't have anything". The ultimate tragedy for both advertising and art is to be ignored.

Indeed, if we go through all the features that apply to the consensus of what constitutes art, we find that, with a little adjustment from the words in caps, they apply equally well to works of advertising. Feature 9, Desirability, refers to the desire to acquire and possess a work of art whereas in advertising desirability refers to the likely desire of the consumer to respond to an advertisement's promise. Feature 10, Personal, refers to the genuine stamp of approval left by the artist in the form of his signature whereas in advertising it refers to the compact with the consumer that the logo (signature) represents as distinct from its competitors.

It is no coincidence, surely, that signature and logo generally appear in the same location on a canvas or a print advertisement. Both represent a promise that is only as good as the name of its maker.

The Communication function of art

Since the beginning of time, art has served various communication functions. It is open to conjecture to surmise why our cave-dwelling ancestors covered their walls with images. But one thing seems certain. They didn't do it for decoration. Nor did the ancient Egyptians produce murals inside tombs for human eyes to admire either. Visual art was born out of a desire to communicate with the spiritual world.

The Romans, by contrast, had learned from the Greeks about the power of sculpture to communicate in the human world.

Julius Caesar was depicted wearing a laurel wreath to remind his people of his victories and conquests abroad. But after he was assassinated, his young successor Octavius Augustus needed a less dictatorial image to help him assert his right to rule. A meticulously contrived statue served to deliver a comprehensive public relations statement. Augustus was represented standing barefoot, to show his humility as a man of the people. A cupid-like figure tugging at his toga represented charity and care for his subjects. His armoured breast-plate, etched with images of battles won, established his role as general and commander-in-chief. Embodied in marble, these messages would have been as clear to Roman citizens of the time as any press release today.

Contrast this statue of a modest young man wanting to make his mark in uncertain times with the imperious, equestrian statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius returning to Rome at the head of a victorious army some 200 years later. The first was designed to launch a brand while the second is an example of brand boosting and reinforcement.

The idea of promoting the prestige of a ruler by depicting him mounted on a fine horse became a stock image for artists for centuries to come. Charles l of England was painted thus by Van Dyke and a century later in China, the Emperor Qianlong received a similar treatment from the Jesuit artists who were imported to his court from Italy. Velasquez went a step further by portraying the Duke of Olivares on a rearing horse whose size was diminished to enhance the stature of the duke. And Jean Jacques David copied this idea 200 years later, painting Napoleon on his rearing white charger crossing the Alps to conquer Italy in 1800. In reality, he crossed the Alps on a sure-footed mule but the reality would not have been good PR.

Flattering important patrons and enhancing their public image has always been the ticket to wealth and fame for painters. Sometimes there was a conflict of interest though, like Holbein's commission to paint Anne of Cleves, whom Henry VIII was considering for marriage. The portrait was apparently too flattering and Henry felt deceived. But he could not complain to the Advertising Standards Authority so the marriage ended in speedy divorce.

In the Renaissance, when the centre of Christianity shifted to Rome, the Pope became a major client with huge budgets to commission art and construction. Pope Julius called the shots when he insisted that Michelangelo abandon the sculpture he was working on and concentrate on painting the ceiling and walls of the Sistine Chapel. This was the biggest advertising campaign in town for the Catholic Church. The client brief was to bring to life stories and characters from the Bible, to a target audience that needed to be struck with awe for the message of God to take root.

The Catholic Church carefully controlled the message it broadcast to its followers. Art was the propaganda tool that helped keep the story fresh and maintain an attractive image for the church. When Protestantism challenged the Catholic monopoly, its propaganda machine had to be revitalised. The reaction to the austere image of Protestantism was a lavish re-launch of the Catholic brand in what became known as the Baroque period of church architecture and art.

The advent of image advertising

Perhaps the most famous example of early image advertising was for Pears Soap. In 1886 Pears purchased the rights to a painting by Sir John Millais called 'Bubbles'. This painting was a typical example of sentimental Victorian art, designed to decorate the drawing rooms of the rising middle class. Yet when the Pears logo and a bar of soap were added to the picture, it became a most successful vehicle for promoting the brand.

Using the very latest 24-block printing method, the reproduction quality made the prints comparable with the original, so suddenly a work of art that would normally have been confined to a private gallery or drawing-room, became a spectacle for the masses to enjoy.

Other paintings were chosen by Pears to spread the quality image of their brand and their success was duly noted by a new competitor, the Lever Brothers company, which began producing Sunlight Soap in 1884. William Lever copied the idea of appropriating art to raise the image of his brand. He was also a visionary who wanted his workers to be able to enjoy art and culture so he exhibited his art collection in a gallery close to his factory. Sunlight Soap soon became the market leader and in 1910 Lever Brothers took over the Pears brand.

Artists themselves were divided between those who were content to serve commercial needs fulfilling communication functions, and those who remained pure in the hope that their expressions would find a market.

One such purist was Alphonse Mucha, a Czech immigrant who moved to Paris in 1887 to pursue his passion and further his art studies. His big break came in 1895 with a commission to produce a lithographed poster to publicise a play starring Sarah Bernhardt. She was so delighted with his art nouveau style that she gave him a six-year contract. Soon a flood of commercial clients followed, hiring him to advertise everything from beer to bicycles. Ironically, his fame as a commercial artist was an embarrassment to Mucha because he was an idealist who had declared that art only existed to communicate a spiritual message.

Mucha became commercially popular because the style of his illustrations represented the latest modern fashion in art. And any brand that associated with it was seen as being in vogue.

Thus have developments in art and design often had both a direct and indirect influence on advertising. Take minimalism, for example and Picasso's famous definition of art as "the elimination of the unnecessary". As advertising found it increasingly challenging to compete for attention in the crowded and cluttered print arena, the virtue of simplicity and focussed attention became clear. Reducing the number of elements in a print advertisement not only made it more accessible and digestible for the glancing eye, it also meant that the brand was presented in a more pristine and, therefore, more prestigious manner.

Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons that advertising has learned from art is its capacity to serve society by drawing attention to important issues. Long before charities turned to advertising to broadcast messages about public health and social welfare, artists did the job of raising social issues. William Hogarth used engravings to campaign against moral decline and for public health issues such as the dangers of alcohol and STDs. William Blake also used engravings to support the movement for the abolition of slavery.

Art can produce public outrage when it draws attention to atrocities like Picasso's giant canvas commemorating the bombing of Guernica. Another example is provided by Gericault's painting, The Raft of the Medusa, which became an icon of the Romantic era. This uncommissioned work drew attention to a human tragedy brought about by the incompetence of a ship's captain and caused an international scandal beyond the power of the press at the time.

Advertising too has learned the value of shock tactics. The abolition of dog licenses led to an advertisement by the RSPCA showing a picture of a pile of dog corpses. Government funded campaigns regularly use shocking images to discourage unhealthy practices and anti-social or dangerous behaviour such as drinking and driving.

Neither art nor advertising is obliged to present pretty pictures when it serves a higher purpose and when its objective is to discourage rather than attract.

The good of advertising and the art of doing good

The advertising industry has always been cursed with a conscience, which is one of the reasons why agencies often lend their creative talents to the service of publicising good causes. Of course, there is also the selfish reason that such work can raise the profile of the agency and win awards. But brands too have come to realise the value of being seen to be doing good. Now a whole new genre of advertising has emerged whereby a brand aligns itself with a good cause or a noble sentiment and enjoys a better public image as a result.

Thus we see VW promote road safety and Coca-Cola seeks to spread happiness, friendship and racial harmony. A brand of rum in Australia mounted a campaign to raise money for local flood victims. Levis, tapping into their working man's heritage, helped rebuild the economy of a ghost town in America.

Interestingly, the art world has the same desire to make the world a better, fairer, safer, cleaner place. A new art movement identified as Social Practice Artists has sprung up in New York. According to a New York Times report, "its practitioners blur the lines between object making, performance, political activism, community organising, environmentalism and investigative journalism, creating a deeply participatory art that flourishes outside the gallery and museum system". In Britain, it was a group of artists who produced posters to protest about the threat of development to destroy the Docklands community. And it was an artist who forced society to be reminded of the legacy of Thalidomide by creating a sculpture dedicated to its victims, on view in Trafalgar Square.

Being human, artists and admen can be prone to vanity and egotism. However, advertising for awards' sake, like art for art's sake, is a self-indulgent temptation. To produce art with no regard for its audience, seems little more than an act of catharsis. And this is an accusation that abstract expressionists sometimes fall prey to.

When art and advertising collude and collide

The paths of art and advertising are both converging and criss-crossing. This is perhaps unsurprising when we consider that both are rooted in popular culture. The nature of advertising is changing from creating selling messages to creating telling moments, events and actions that don't just reflect popular culture but which actually give it shape and meaning. As artists abandon the galleries, and advertisers desert traditional media, both factions find themselves competing for attention in the ambient world, where all the world's a stage and a canvas.

Installation art, street art, community art and graffiti, are competing in the same public arena as flash mobs, holographs, projection posters, happenings and other advertising guerrilla tactics. Their aim is simply to go viral and reach a mass audience for free. That's advertising heaven. And every client's dream when it goes right.

Author, Joan Gibbons draws a distinction between art and advertising when she points out that art constitutes the product (and object of desire) whereas advertising merely represents it. She also suggests that advertising that needs to serve a brief and meet objectives, is more likely to be compromised in honouring the vision of its creator than a freely inspired composition.

That said, many reputable artists have served as the promoters of brands. What Toulouse Lautrec did for the Moulin Rouge and what Norman Rockwell did for Jell-O and Orange Crush, was surely not a betrayal of artistic integrity. Art that is prized has always commanded a price, whether it served a wealthy patron or a commercial brand.

Of course, there is no reason why beautiful form and function cannot coexist, as they have done through most of art history. However, in the 21st century we have begun to see the primacy of beauty as a virtue being replaced by a radical form of originality, freed from the need to be bound by beauty, as long as it attracts our attention.

Beauty is not the first impression one gets from contemplating Edvard Munch's painting 'The Scream' or Damien Hirst's jewel-encrusted skull. Originality has become the prime concern of artist and advertiser alike. The ability to see things differently is the genius of the modern artist. When Picasso combined two discarded items, a bicycle saddle and handle bars, producing the semblance of a bull's head, he created a work of art worthy of the Louvre. Similarly, when Saatchi and Saatchi created the visual icon of the pregnant man, they raised the bar on how originality could be used to get an advertising message across. Both attracted attention by surprising an audience and being disruptive.


Because art is a part of popular culture, it will naturally find itself serving the needs of advertising to be relevant and connected. But when advertising becomes part of the popular culture that art feeds on, the art world is turned upside down. When Campbell Soup packaging was elevated to an art form by Andy Warhol, a crossover occurred. And when Warhol and Haring and other artists produced visuals dedicated to promoting Absolut Vodka, it appeared as though art and advertising had got married.

A more recent example of art and advertising as one is provided by an advertisement for Samsonite showing a medieval depiction of heaven and hell. Although this advertisement belongs to the 21st century, it truly deserves the accolade given by Herbert McLuhan that "advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century". It has both artistic form and advertising function, based on a sound strategy for selling suitcases to business travellers.

It goes to show that although creative with strategy may be advertising, creative without strategy is not art but simply wallpaper.

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