As a columnist for Creative Review, I sort of have to believe that advertising is culturally important, beyond its capacity for shifting product. But it’s not an opinion I enjoy defending. Cultural importance, by definition, can’t be established by a minority, and I always end up feeling like one of those who prize commemorative spoons or Toby jugs.
After all, if advertising is important, then why don’t we make any effort to hang on to it? Many talented people invest time and energy into producing artefacts of great subtlety, which, after a single use, are deemed worthless. It’s a question of custom rather than utility, but can you even imagine an ad that was built to last?
Creatives are insecure about this, hence the proliferation of coffee table ad books. The glossy pages imply that there are some adverts that are worth keeping. A place in a book is one of the things that you win if you win an award, along with a durable ornament. But as much as you may treasure your annuals, and clasp your Titanium Salamander to your breast at night, the truth is they don’t make the least difference to the chances of your ad sticking around in the collective consciousness.
One problem is that we produce so much advertising that it gets old very quickly indeed. Advertising has a leading edge matched only in comedy, or maybe rap. It shows we’re part of a living culture, but it does skew one’s perspective on the great ads of the past. Yesterday’s ads are like yesterday’s crossword puzzle: the solutions seem so obvious now. We can’t, for instance, use puns because they used them all up in the 70s. Doubtless if we write good ads today these are the giants on whose shoulders we are standing. But we pay them about as much attention as we do our underlay.
Brian Cox, of the History of Advertising Trust, is a fellow Toby jug enthusiast. His job is much harder than mine, he doesn’t have to pontificate about ads but preserve them for future generations. This is tricky when barely a quarter of the agencies that made them can be convinced it’s a service worth paying for. The centre costs a quarter of a million pounds a year to run, and needs seven staff to manage its collection. For creatives, novelists and historians it’s a goldmine. You could extrapolate 80s culture in its entirety from the Gold Blend couple.
But perhaps agencies aren’t the only people who’d stump up. Why not have the whole place declared a work of art and sell it to Charles Saatchi for 20 million quid? We could call it ‘Human Endeavour’. If advertising is important, then it’s as the epitome of our ephemeral culture. It costs more than art, but it’s worth so much less.
‘Gordon Comstock’ is a copywriter