Art and advertising: a mutually rewarding relationship or a marriage of convenience?

As far back as late 19th Century Paris, when Toulouse-Lautrec was commissioned by the Moulin Rouge to design a series of posters promoting the Bohemian nightspot, art has been used to sell product.

Likewise, in 1940s America, commercial illustrator Norman Rockwell created adverts for Jell-O and Orange Crush, and his iconic 1943 series ‘The Four Freedoms’ was used to promote war bonds during World War II. Rockwell’s Utopian Vision of American society carved a different path to the fashionable Abstract Expressionism of the era, but he is now recognized as one of 20th Century America’s most enduring artists, straddling both ‘high’ and ‘low’ art.

Fast forward over a century to 2010 when young French Director David Freymond, 1 of 20 talented young Director’s selected for 2009’s New Directors’ Showcase at Cannes Lions advertising festival, created a pastiche of Old Masters in a promo for Franco-American band ‘Hold Your Horses’. Freymond’s video demonstrates the enduring influence of art on advertising.

’70 Million’ references paintings from 13th Century Italy through to the Marilyn screen prints created by Warhol in 60’s New York. The band star in vignettes inspired by famous artworks such as Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’, Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a pearl earring’ and Magritte’s ‘Son of Man’. The video is a fast moving journey through the history of art, and an obvious example of the close relationship between art and advertising.

“Business Art is a much better thing to be making than Art Art” according to Andy Warhol, who first made his mark in the late 50’s in New York, as a prolific draftsman for clients such as Vanity Fair, Glamour, Schiaparelli and Bergdorf Goodman. His exquisite illustrations of shoes and accessories graced the pages of glossy magazines several years before his now iconic screen prints of celebrities and soup cans infiltrated the art world.

Warhol was a pioneer in more ways than one; he closed the divide between art and commerce; successfully crossed over from advertising to art galleries and museums; and explored more than one media. He recognised the increased importance of branding and growing cult of celebrity, immortalizing iconic brands and celebrities in his screen prints, films, TV series and magazine ‘Interview’. Warhol created print advertising for clients at the beginning of his career, and when his star was in the ascendant, he starred in TV adverts for TDK videocassettes in Japan. He was a conduit for a sort of collective American state of mind in which celebrity – the famous image of a person, the famous brand name – had completely replaced both sacredness and solidity.

Several decades before Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst became household names, Warhol and Surrealist artist Salvador Dali had developed their own cult of celebrity. In the 60s Dali appeared in TV campaigns for Alka-Seltzer and Lanvin. His Lanvin ads capitalized on the persona he had cultivated of a crazy artist, and a surrealist spot for Alka-Seltzer likened the product, and the artist, to works of art.

These pioneering artists continue to have a big impact on the world of advertising, from Doyle Dane Bernbach’s VW ‘Lemon’ print ads of the 60’s, when copy was King, through the off-the-wall Tango campaigns of the 90’s, to Fallon’s surreal Cadbury spots featuring a drum playing Gorilla in the 00’s, and the plethora of celebrities endorsing product to this day.

The late Paul Arden, a highly regarded Executive Creative Director at Saatchi & Saatchi during the Golden Age of the 80s, collaborated with Charles Saatchi on the surreal 1983 Silk Cut campaign. Now regarded as one of the most iconic campaigns of the decade, it referenced Argentine Spatialist Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvases, several of which were owned by Saatchi. The campaign featured an ingenious still life with no copy line, using the brand’s signature colour of purple.

Arden worked with five renowned still-life photographers to create the winning campaign. He went the extra mile for a Silk Cut cinema commercial inspired by world-famous installation artist Christo, and stretched a mile of purple silk across an American canyon. To quote arbiter of taste and media commentator Peter York, “The Silk Cut campaign, launched in 1983, took surrealism on several notches”.

As a graduate in Art History I went from a period in a high profile auction house to work at M&C Saatchi, which is where the worlds of art and advertising collided for me. It was the early 90’s, and Charles Saatchi was showcasing YBA’s and other contemporary artists of note at his Boundary Road gallery.

It would be impossible to discuss the relationship between art and advertising without mentioning Charles Saatchi, whose iconic advertising agency celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. Charles and his brother Maurice founded one of the leading advertising agencies of our time, but it was Charles who championed the YBA’s, and collected their work before institutions such as Tate Modern were buying it.

I fell in love with Grayson Perry at one of the Boundary Road exhibitions, and came across photographers such as Tierney Gearon whose 2001 exhibition at The Saatchi Gallery – ‘I am a Camera’ – provoked controversy with its photographs of her naked offspring, but also led to lucrative advertising contracts featured in glossies such as W, Vogue and Vanity Fair.

A couple of decades before photographers such as Tierney Gearon were making waves, the original agent provocateur Helmut Newton was creating monochrome erotica such as ‘Saddle 1″ (pictured) and ‘Rue Aubriot’ (1975) for Vogue.

Newton’s decadent narratives contained oblique references to the product they were selling, and continue to have a major impact on fashion campaigns to this day. The late JG Ballard, author of ‘Crash’, put it more eloquently: “Though his clients and their advertising agencies would be appalled by the thought, I imagine that few people coming fresh to Newton’s work would suspect that the nominal purpose of these striking images was to sell a collection of high-priced frocks.”

The influence of photography on advertising is still prevalent today, with David La Chapelle – a photographer who has been lauded by both the art world and the advertising industry – directing a new campaign for Sky 1 series ‘Mad Dogs’, in his own inimitable Pop style.

As well as being one of the most famous people in advertising, Charles Saatchi also had his finger firmly on the pulse of the contemporary art world, and his Saatchi collection included 1997 Turner Prize winner Gillian Wearing. Whilst artists such as Tierney Gearon willingly made the transition from gallery to advertising, Wearing’s 1992 series of photographs titled, ‘Signs that Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say’ were, unbeknownst to the artist, referenced in a 1998 advertising campaign for Volkswagen cars.

Wearing accused the agency BMP of using her award-winning idea, where she photographed random members of the public holding up signs upon which they wrote their innermost feelings.

BMP claimed that they were influenced by the video for Bob Dylan’s 1965 single ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’.

Dylan, himself the ultimate poet-chanteur, was accused of lifting the lyrics from Chuck Berry’s ‘Too Much Monkey Business’. And in turn Dylan’s innovative promo influenced a whole range of creative types, from Musicians Curiosity Killed the Cat and The Flaming Lips to film Director Richard Curtis whose film ‘Love Actually’ features a character declaring undying love by holding up signs bearing messages.

Whilst some might adhere to the old adage that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, others might label this type of behavior as plagiarism. Certainly in the latter camp are artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, whose 1987 film ‘Der Lauf der Dinge’ was eerily evident in the multiple award-winning Wieden + Kennedy Honda advert ‘The Cog’. Fischli and Weiss threatened to (but didn’t) sue Honda for breach of copyright, pointing out similarities between their film and the car campaign:

In the history of advertising there have been countless accusations of plagiarism, but at the end of the day both art and advertising are feeding off culture, and inevitably reflect or absorb trends in society. Therefore it would be possible to find a reference to our visual history in every advertising campaign, painting, song, sculpture or film we come across.

Essentially an artist is someone who analyses the world they live in, and reflects their observations or experiences in their oeuvre, someone like Tracey Emin who presented her innermost thoughts and the detritus of her bedroom in her seminal piece “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995”.

A successful advertising creative is someone who absorbs cultural and social trends, and infuses the campaigns they conceive with ideas that reflect contemporary society, in order to appeal to the target audience of their ads.

Inevitably this may include ideas gleaned from the art world, which itself is influenced by wider society. Artists and advertising creatives alike are in the business of translating their view of the world into their chosen art form, and this view could either be an extension of real life, or a Utopian view of what a perfect life could be.

Or it could be a fabrication of how we think life should be, an idealized version of life, upon which we can project our fantasies. To quote ‘Mad Men’s’ Don Draper “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons”.

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About Lee Sharrock

Lee Sharrock is the Global Creative PR for Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide, and founder of Lee Sharrock PR, a consultancy for creative industries. She is also a writer and contributes to Creative Mapping, Art India, Art Wednesday, FAD Website and Kilimanjaro. Lee is co-founder of ‘Watch This Space’, an organisation providing curatorial and promotional support for young and emerging artists. She is on the committee of the annual Macmillan De’ Longhi Art Auction, PR Director of Scream gallery in London and press officer of Azerbaijan Pavilion at the 54th La Biennale di Venezia.

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    Terrific article Lee – with fantastic research …. … it all ! Well done you ….