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Advertising: is it art?

Written by Arts

I generally abstain from taking a firm position on what is and isn’t art – the classification of ‘art’ is a complex subject about which I know relatively little, and – more importantly – to simply allow anything to be considered art tends to rile up a certain sort of person (marble statue fanciers, people with Twitter accounts called ‘western trad aesthetics defend evropa’).

However! I will happily dictate what is an isn’t a valid use of art. One notably invalid use of art is advertising.

Were I writing in a pre-1920s Courier (didn’t exist, allow the anachronism), maybe I’d be singing a different tune. Back then, the ‘good old days’, marketing was all about telling you what made a product the best product available: “This razor gets the closest shave on the market!”, “this health tonic has 20% more cocaine and heroin than competitors!”. There was for a while at least a perceived honesty amongst vendors. There may have been lies and snake oils, but at least merchants pretended like their goods innovated or improved on others in some way. And then came along Edward Bernays.

Not so much a household name, but his uncle Sigmund Freud is, and Freud had a particular impact on Bernays. His uncle’s pioneering work in psychoanalysis profoundly influenced him, and it appeared that appealing to a person’s desires was a very successful technique for selling them something – dubbing Lucky Strike cigarettes ‘torches of liberty’ at the height of the women’s suffrage movement in the states did wonders for the tobacco company’s sales amongst women. Bernays had invented a totally new approach to marketing; you don’t have to make a product necessarily better than your competitors, you just have to convince consumers it’ll make them feel better.

So why is this an invalid use of art? Advertising has got out of hand. The appeals to necessity stopped working. The appeals to already existing desires didn’t shift enough products. The advertisers then moved on to creating artificial desires. Without being bombarded with adverts and jingles and shiny ‘buy me!’ stickers all day, how much would you actually purchase? Modern advertising makes you feel like getting something new will fill the hole formed by the alienation of capitalism. You consume and consume and then consume some more because a shiny logo compelled you to, but it doesn’t work. And then you consume some more. Repeat ad Infinium.

Without being bombarded with adverts and jingles and shiny ‘buy me!’ stickers all day, how much would you actually purchase?


Advertising is a bastardisation of art. Other forms of art appeal to the human love of beauty; Subcultures form around them; we use it to express our fealty to a higher power; from certain art movements can come radical political change.

But what comes from a tedious jingle, or from a billboard that absurdly proclaims how the new people carrier will make you feel like an astronaut? It adds nothing that no other art form couldn’t do better. Advertising, the slimiest type media, contributes only to lining the pockets of some fat cat who already has too much.

Tom Leach

The definition of an artist (as the OED confirms) is a ‘person who is skilled at a particular task or profession’. Need I say more. 

Advertising in recent years has fallen sour of many people’s opinions, especially with the rise of personalised adverts. But let’s take a step back into 2002 and the Campbells soup can – a huge marketing strategy used by Campbells to promote sales, using the artwork of pop artist Andy Warhol. 

Warhol’s piece is clearly a piece of artwork and one that has gone on to be sold for over 11 million dollars and is currently sitting in millions of people’s houses as prints (as well as the original one being out there somewhere)

Let’s explore the issue further. Take the copywriter, they create the slogans which spend their day stuck in your head, while creatives produce the images to accompany the words – they spend their day creating, much like an artist producing a work of art. It would be unfair to discard the posters which infect our minds on tube walls and streetlights. They might not be beautiful, but they are works which cause change within the consumer, nudging them to try something new. As Picasso argues ‘all art is copying’, and in a modern work ‘copywriting’ is certainly included under the creative umbrella. 

They might not be beautiful, but they are works which cause change within the consumer, nudging them to try something new.

Iona Lowe

Featured Image: wyliepoon on flickr

Last modified: 17th November 2020

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