Walking through Ephesus several years ago, a tour guide drew my attention to a dash of colour on the wall of a street corner. In blood red, hardly faded after thousands of years, I saw a small hand-print with a Greek inscription underneath. The rough translation: ‘come to our house for woman as beautiful as princess,’ was an ancient equivalent to the cards that call-girls post in telephone booths nowadays. It struck me then that twinned with the oldest profession was another occupation of striking venerability: the ad-man.
Of course, advertising has come a long way since crude graffiti was daubed on city walls. In fact, the ad-man’s ability to adapt to new technology has been impressive. Advertising started on its path to becoming a major industry with advent of the printing press, firstly with handbills and then posters. This also saw the concerns about its negative impact with the proliferation of adverts for quack cures. In 1836 the French newspaper La Presse pioneered paid advertising in newspapers, something the rest of European publishing was quick to pick up on.
The next leap forward came with radio. Although government took control of the airwaves early on in this country, the US took a different route. Early radio and TV shows like the US Steel Hour blurred the line between content and ads, slowly giving way to multiple sponsors in smaller sections; ‘commercials’. Television gave this a new sophistication as products fought for attention from increasingly jaded viewers. In 2006 a PricewaterhouseCoopers report estimated a worldwide value of £197 billion yearly, more than twice the NHS budget. Today we’re in the midst of the next technological revolution for advertising, as the Internet opens up new horizons of possibility and advertisers strain ever harder to reach their consumers.
While the poetic content of that Ephesian whorehouse advert may have been fairly low, the link between advertising and the arts is historically strong. In the nineteenth century department stores hired acrobats and clowns, and theatres carried adverts painted onto their stage curtains. Early twentieth century commercial illustrations have seen a resurgence in modern art and fashion. The bright colours and rosy cheeks of these magazine ads have become an artistic style in themselves. Sometimes designs have been copied, taken out of their commercial context and used for other purposes, like images of fifties housewives re-captioned to become emblems of feminine assertiveness. Elsewhere these styles can be reinterpreted in new work – the cover of last term’s etcetera, for example.
Advertising and the arts have brushed cheeks in the music industry too. Since the De Long Hook and Eye Co commissioned composers to put adverts to music in 1891, the jingle has been a ubiquitous part of our culture. The rock ‘n’ roll generation tried to reject this kind of commercialization, but right from the beginning their attempt was doomed. The Troggs, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Ray Charles and Otis Reading were among the artists who recorded Coca Cola commercials in the sixties, a practice so common it prompted the 1967 album The Who Sell Out, which interspersed real tracks with faux jingles. Part of the irony of the record was that The Who were themselves recording commercials at the time, and their faux adverts landed them in legal trouble from the companies they satirized.
Modern artists are frequently criticized for selling out when they allow their songs to be played behind commercials. But tell me I’m not the only person who was introduced to The Only Ones after watching those Vodafone ads? I’m sure the band wasn’t complaining – it sparked a whole new tour for the ageing punks. Film too has been consistently enmeshed with advertising – look at the way we pay for those classic adverts as posters, when once publications were paid to include them.
Film is particularly notable in this area for the use of ‘embedded advertising’, known as ‘product placement’ to you and me. Ironically one of the best known examples of product-placement, The Italian Job, wasn’t really anything of the kind. The maker of the Mini, BNC, was unconvinced by the project and the film’s makers had to buy most of the Minis they used. Fiat meanwhile grasped the potential immediately and provided as many cars as the filmmakers wanted – all the more amusing given far their cars were overshadowed by the tiny British vehicles. With The Truman Show, the topic of product-placement itself provided the material for a film of quality.
But just how much has advertising contributed to the arts? Are these examples of fruitful commercial cross-pollination anything more than scraps, morsels of beauty in a morass of mediocrity? Might it be the case that the corrosive influence which commerce has exercised through advertising is a baleful pull far greater than the positive push it has given?
After all, what exactly has advertising contributed to the world? 90’s ad-man Paul McManus described the industry as ‘all about understanding. Understanding of the brand, the product or the service being offered and understanding of the people (their hopes and fears and needs) who are going to interact with it’. However, this attempt to describe adverts as contributing to the sum of human intelligence is and the body of human knowledge is clearly unfounded. The best that could be said would be that publicists are informative, telling people about products they were previously unaware of and might find useful.
Even this is hard to swallow; for adverts do not tap into demand, they create it. This became clear during the debate over the ban on tobacco advertising. Tobacco lobbyists argued that cigarette advertising didn’t force anyone to take up smoking who would not have done so in any case. The (successful) advocates of the ban countered that statistical and psychological evidence clearly showed the impact of advertisements, and in any case, they asserted, companies would not care so much about the issue if advertising didn’t really work.
Advertisements fit into the economic category of deadweight loss: firms invest so heavily in advertising more to keep up with their rivals than for any inherent gain. It’s like when everyone starts standing up in the seating section of a rock concert: it would be in everyone’s best interest to reconnect backsides to seats, but once one person stands the rest have to follow suit.
From an artistic point of view perhaps the most corrosive effect of advertising is to devalue the creative effort: the prostitution of so many creative minds in intellectual projects they clearly do not believe in. The very principle that abstract ideas are meaningful could be at stake. This is what excised George Orwell most of all in his satire Keep The Aspidistra Flying, which contains that wonderful statement:‘advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket’.
What then, of the cultural fruits of advertising described earlier? And if no self-respecting artist would accept such work, then how should societies pay for their art?
For the majority of European history, the best way for artists to earn a living has been some form of patronage. Shakespeare, Beethoven and Michelangelo were maintained principally through the generosity of powerful individuals. And though it may be nice to imagine these patrons as disinterested connoisseurs, it would be dishonest to do so. Their motives lay in the display of wealth, power and taste. In their own way these artists were advertisers too, for the glory of single men rather than the quality of commercial products.
Today, most people would think of art as being primarily financed by its consumers. Since the time of Alexander Pope, the first great English writer to live from the profits of the public, this has become standard practice. Yet critics continue to traduce the popular and promote the obscure. Is it a hidden aristocratic urge that causes this? Or is it a recognition that artistic endeavurour is inevitably corrupted by capitalism?
The record for government-sponsored art is not much better. Whether stuffing struggling turkeys like the Millennium Dome, limiting the freedom of thought which is necessary for great art as twentieth century totalitarians often did, or spending millions on elite-culture painting and sculpture while others go homeless or starving, culture has rarely prospered under state control. I was certainly grateful when one of Blair’s first acts was making museum entrance free, but there’s an implicit snobbery in subsiding ‘high’ culture rather than pop culture that’s never sat right with me.
In all these criticisms, contemporary thought is heavily influenced by the Romantic ideal of the Artist as a special kind of human being. Perhaps thinking about how art is financed is the wrong way to go about the issue; true art is created not for money, but for the sheer joy of creation. This would be a nicely naive idea, but it isn’t really sustainable. It may work for those wealthy enough or committed enough to live the bohemian life, but the rest of us have got to make ends meet. For every artist who creates as an unavoidable part of life, there are plenty more who work for the money or would be forced to move into some kind of paid career without it. Advertising, perhaps.
Advertising is an unrequested, unwanted intrusion into mental and aesthetic space. Banksy calls it ‘brandalism’. Graffiti is considered a selfish act of anti-social behaviour; what, then is advertising? It would seem logical for advertising to be curtailed somehow, yet we have come to accept that our eyes are subjected to billboards without consent or recompense. On the Thames waterfront, for instance, advertisements are banned – a special exception had to be made for the OXO Tower. In 1987 Florida enacted an advertisement-tax, only to be repealed after six months when companies withdrew planned conventions and caused massive losses in tourism revenue for the state.
At the same time, we should not have too parochial an idea of what art is. Art, Advertising and Propaganda are disciplines with blurred boundaries. Every artist has an agenda and an economic context. It would be foolish to deny the creations of beauty we sometimes get through advertising. It is a key part of our culture, whether we like it or not. In the words of Frederick Pohl;
‘Advertising reaches out to touch the fantasy part of people’s lives. And you know, most people’s fantasies are pretty sad.’