All art is quite useless,” sighed Oscar Wilde. What I think he might have meant is that art is a decadent activity, something that humans do simply because we can.
As such it sets us apart from animals, who only do things because they have to. Advertising is a slightly debased form of art for this very same reason. It is art that has been set to work, to do the dirty job of selling things.
You can tell art from advertising because advertising usually has a single, relatively unambiguous message, one that can be summarised in two words: ‘buy this’. Wagner’s Ring Cycle means different things to different people, “Do the shake and vac” only ever means one thing. Even if you sing it in German.
The way that we come up with advertising – teams of two people headbutting one another until an idea comes out – is based on a kind of quantum of communication. That’s one of the ways you know it’s a good idea, if you can get it into the art director’s head, quickly, and without recourse to rolling up the scamp and stabbing it into his eye. But the secondary effect of this is that most advertising is based on a rearrangement of existing tropes, or clichés, if you like French-sounding words and given that you’re still reading, I suspect you do.
Usually when advertising people say something is a cliché they mean it’s won an award recently. In fact most creatives are terrified of not using a cliché. After all, if the symbols in your ad aren’t already understood, how can you be sure that they will be understood? How will the creative director know it’s a good idea? And how, in the name of screaming Christ, will the account man sell it to the client? Some of the most acclaimed advertising of the last couple of years has come out of just one mulleted head, working alone. And it shows.
A gorilla playing the drums did not mean ‘joy’ to more than one person before. It does now. It may not have been original, but it was not a cliché.
Advertising that takes a risk like this, creating a new symbol, might win you all the awards there are. It has the advantage of not looking like advertising and that’s good, everyone hates advertising. But by abandoning the clear message that is advertising’s defining feature you run an even greater risk: you might accidentally make art. Mother’s new Schweppes campaign [one shown below, illustrator: David Hopkins] flies rather too close to the sun in this regard. These ads are, in fact, a series of branded topical cartoons. You are invited to don your beret and ponder if a series of branded topical cartoons can in fact be an advert for tonic water.
I would suggest ‘non’. It might just be useless. Or it could be art. Quite bad art.
Gordon Comstock blogs at notvoodoo.blogspot.com