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.”

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