The ever-blurring line between art and advertising

Lowe London has released a new television spot for John Lewis, a Christmas ad that sees a pile of gifts from the store piled up and then lit to cast a shadow of the pressies’ intended recipient against the wall. The spot is elegantly shot but instead of making me want to rush to John Lewis, it immediately made me think of the work of YBA artists Tim Noble & Sue Webster, who famously created Dirty White Trash (With Gulls) in 1998, amongst other artworks incorporating the use of shadows.

Lowe London has released a new television spot for John Lewis, a Christmas ad that sees a pile of gifts from the store piled up and then lit to cast a shadow of the pressies’ intended recipient against the wall. The spot is elegantly shot but instead of making me want to rush to John Lewis, it immediately made me think of the work of YBA artists Tim Noble & Sue Webster, who famously created Dirty White Trash (With Gulls) in 1998, amongst other artworks incorporating the use of shadows.

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Tim Noble & Sue Webster, Dirty White Trash (With Gulls), 1998

Ed Morris, executive creative director at Lowe, agrees that Noble & Webster came up when discussing the concept for the ad, although states that the idea of shadow casting was already on the table before their work was discussed, and in fact that he was equally inspired by the May Annual cover of Creative Review, shot by photographer Dan Tobin Smith.

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Dan Tobin Smith’s Annual cover for the May issue of CR

“Bizarrely, it wasn’t inspired by [Noble & Webster],” he says. “We did look at their work, but discovered that their art isn’t an actual cast of the objects in front of it – their images are constructed by a projection above and the whole thing is an illusion. Some people will say, ‘no that’s bullshit, they just looked at the work’. But it’s a slightly different thing even if overall there’s a strong similarity.”

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One of Lowe’s poster ads for the John Lewis Christmas campaign, shot by Nadav Kander

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Another shadow work by Noble & Webster

The shadow in Lowe’s ad is genuine, and the spot required rigorous rehearsal by dancers to correctly film in one take. This devotion to accuracy, whatever the cost, is a trait witnessed before when art and advertising have collided, most notably in Cog (widely believed to be inspired by Fischli & Weiss‘ The Way Things Go), where over 600 takes were done to get it right.

In spite of this difference, however, the striking visual similarities between the ad and the artworks beg the question of whether, when the artworks were brought to light, a new direction couldn’t or shouldn’t have been taken. Instead, as it is, I am left with the feeling that the agency is falling back on a technicality and that, once again, the campaign is a case of advertising being a bit too literally “influenced” by art, without offering the artists anything in exchange.

Creative Review contacted Tim Noble & Sue Webster to ask what they thought about Lowe’s John Lewis campaign, and they offered this concise response: “We don’t like it.”

  • Long have I maintained that nothing is new, it’s just re-appropriated. I guess this just another one to add to the list. I can see it now: caveman arranges objects in front of fire to cast silhouette… (not to demean whoever’s idea it was first!)

  • I’ll always prefer the original, everytime.

  • I think it’s just an advancement of a simple visual trick, and whether it was appropriated first for artistic expression or for commercial gain is immaterial. Why should the former have more weight than the latter.

    The rampant coloured bunnies in New York, however…

  • Ed Morris is wrong when he said that they “discovered that their art isn’t an actual cast of the objects in front of it” Anyone who has seen Noble & Webster’s shadows in an art gallery know that they are authentic and a very real illusion. The only difference here is that Lowe’s shadows don’t work as well.

    The line between art and advertising is not blurring. Noble & Webster want to make you see rubbish differently. Lowe simply want to sell you rubbish.

  • Sumi

    Shigeo Fukuda also created these shadow sculptures back in the 1980s. I suppose many have come across this as well.
    http://www.designer-daily.com/remarkable-shadow-art-405

    So who comes first? Hmm….

    Whatever it is, I have to agree with Marcus “nothing is new, it’s just re-appropriated.”

  • David

    Like it was said. it was done by Noble & Webster. And much better. But they have advantage of not having entire creative production team and all associated egos behind the process where it al becomes yuk nd its not art its business.

  • Rich

    [commenst deleted by moderator] shows yet again how morally and creatively moribund the vast majority of those working in the desperate world of advertising are. nothing surprising in that, just business as usual.

  • Regarding some of the comments above – “its not art its business”, “desperate world of advertising”, etc – it seems ironic that the very first line of Noble & Webster’s Wiki entry measures their importance by who throws the most money at them:

    “Tim Noble (born 1966) and Sue Webster (born 1967) are artists based in England, whose work is collected by Charles Saatchi.”

  • I think its slightly unfair to heap scorn on it ‘just because it is advertising’ – Do think though that using shadows with this ad is a bit redundant. It doesn’t contribute to its meaning – it’s simply a visual conceit and actually I think this detracts from the overall effect they are looking to create.

  • D33J

    For a magazine/site professing a concern with reviewing creativity, many of the issues/posts seem geared towards advocating a distinctly economic / propertorial concern with this arena. All too often we are presented with overtly obvious opinions that meekly advocate the sanctity of adhering to normative values propounded by fiscal wishes and demands. This post, for example, is a prime example.
    Each time a work appears to be influenced by another we are presented with; dated notions of ownership and originality; art presented as being superior to advertising; of the purity of creativity over the creativity of commerce.
    Proposing ‘one is business the other is art’ does not provide a coherent platform on which to make assessments. Indeed this elitist ideology wholly dismisses a universal form of communication that is modern advertising (simply as it is associated with commerce/selling), in favour of the spectacle of uniqueness of art (which is similarly reliant on the the monetary flow but hides this aspect within the discourse of authenticity). Indeed, one could argue that advertising is the more honest form – you know from the outset it is a lie, a piece of trash out to convince you of it’s fantasy – one we know is a fake yet nonetheless we partake in. Art however is reliant on evading the ‘dirtiness’ of money and talks up grand narratives (of life and death, identity, sexuality etc.) before revealing the horror of the price tag.

    Therefore we need to ask a more pertinent question – ones the dismiss all notions of originality. We should ask ourselves; What is the real difference between the creativity of Noble & Webster and that of the agency Lowe? and, Who designates the line you propose is being blurred? What is the purpose of this line? Who does it benefit?

  • jeff tozer

    Anyone remember the Cobra Beers Campaign done by Joshua! http://www.lloydlewis.co.uk
    Same thing.
    Get real guys.

  • su moberly

    This was one of those commercials which I never tired of watching over Christmas. It is clever, entertaining and has a lightness of touch that you just don’t see very much these days.

    I had to watch a couple of times before I realized what was going on – but often that’s a good thing. Later, I realized that this pile of desirable consumber ‘goodies’ added up to more than the sum of its parts.

    With the music (very evocative) and the final touch of the ‘snow’ on the overall scene, it created a positive image of Christmas that made my heart glad every time I saw and heard it.

    Although I saw and liked the original Sue Webster piece (at the Royal Academy, I believe), I did not associate this commercial with that piece of art until I looked at this website.

    Even if there is an element of appropriation here, I would be hard pressed to say that there was any unfairness involved. One was a still life. The other a commercial. Both have different audiences even though they may overlap.

    I’ve never contributed to one of these posts before, which is a measure of how impressed I am by this creative work.

  • su moberly

    – if it’s my mistake, I apologise. My earlier entry should, of course, read ‘consumer’ goodies and not ‘consumber’ as printed.

  • hugh

    Tim noble and sue webster are a couple of average tallents that have been paid a lot more for their marketing skills than their artistic vision.
    end of story.

  • Creative Review contacted Tim Noble & Sue Webster to ask what they thought about Lowe’s John Lewis campaign, and they offered this concise response: “We don’t like it.”

    Yes.

  • I found this link whilst trying to descide whether or not to use Adsense on my Blogg to increase traffic :- http://louise-maclaren-artist.blogspot.com/
    I read it with interest. whether or not we can say the idea has been borrowed from elsewhere or not, the great thing is that from just the public discussion around this particular advert and piece of art, the advertising
    has increased considerably by word of mouth(or buzz) on the internet for both parties otherwise I wouldn’t have found it myself.
    Salvador Dali in his time, appart from being a brave, imaginative and excellent painter was an extremely good publicist and has had a major influence in design and advertising for decades due to his flexability and readyiness to share his surreal, fun and Quirkie side.
    Whether or not some of the arts establishment condem some artists for ‘selling out’ I personally feel that although I am doing someting I enjoy most of the time I do actually have to earn a living from it. It is my life and has been for most of it in some form or other and as funding for artists Starting out in such a career is difficult to maybe use something like add sense may not be such a crime after all.