A good friend of mine, Nigel Beale and I shared office space for over 6 years. Each day we would find ourselves in great discussions about marketing and advertising as we sipped coffee and looked at the ever changing seasons of the Byward Market in Ottawa.
Nigel is one of the most brilliant minds that I know. At that time, I had an advertising agency and saw myself as somewhat of brilliant marketing person who could do no wrong. I also saw myself as somewhat of a designer, copy writer, salesman and pontificator about all things relating to marketing and advertising. Nigel saw himself as writer and guru in the advertising field. In fact he was turning out some amazing material through a column he was writing for Canada's Marketing Magazine. A brilliant wit and an amazing friend, those days in that cramped little Byward Market loft and the conversations we had over a pint in a Byward Market cafe on hot summer days were some of the best marketing days of our lives. Life seemed simple and the billings were good. We were out to change the world and public policy all at the same time.
The following was written by Nigel and I think it sums up many of the discussions we had. I think you will find it quite refreshing. After all most of us in the marketing and communications field think we know everything there is to know about advertising. Most of our opinions tended to come from osmosis with very little real thought as to the outcome. See what you think. I present Mr. Nigel Beale and his brilliant, Is, Advertising, Art -- note its published without his permission, however I know he will be glad to know its been published somewhere.
Is Advertising Art, by Nigel Beale
Oh Grand and Glorious Southern Guru, I am perplexed. What ails thee, my peabrained little grasshopper? My sleep has been short, my walls have been climbed, my hair has been pulled.
I must know the difference between advertising and high art. Oh Great Creator, please give me the answer.
Stir no longer, little vacuous one. Art is in the eye of the beholder, and yes, advertising can be high art.
But Holiest of the Holy, whilst I acknowledge there is a role for subjectivity in the appreciation of art, and that art and advertising similarly use form, colour and symbol to convey messages, and that both can be aesthetically pleasing and accessible, and that both share the goal of changing behavior and attitudes, and that both often highlight the tension between reality and ideals and can shape aesthetic tastes, does not an adequate answer to my question depend upon a precise definition of the term art?
Are there not different degrees of creativity and originality? Are there not different types of art?
Surely Majestic One, advertising is not "high" art, but rather popular, propagandistic art?
Not so, little inchworm. Art is a function of apprehension, ergo, there is no difference between "high" and "low" art.
But Mighty Aphrodite, do not ads see the world only through a blinkered lens: as products and services, as target markets and audiences? Do they not promote only consumerism and uphold only the status quo? Are not their motives restricted by budgets and deadlines, and by the necessity of pushing product?
How can ads experiment with ideas for their own sake when fettered by this capitalist manacle?
Do ads not craft specific messages for specific audiences at specific times?
Is not their goal to elicit singular responses?
Do they not aim to please, to arrest the intelligence and to allay our fears with easy solutions, and are they not primarily concerned with positive reactions?
And does not the prerequisite of mass appeal demand mediocrity? Does not art allow for a delight in, and the free play of, ideas for their own sake? Truly outstanding art rarely secures immediate popularity, n'est-ce pas Mon Dieu Seigneur?
Does not art encourage many ways of looking at the world?
Is it not often purposefully ambiguous and open to conflicting interpretation?
Surely, oh Towering One, artists do not worship audiences in the way advertisers do?
Do they not intentionally break boundaries, counter the status quo, and question accepted beliefs?
Many spend decades deconstructing society, transcending political, economic and religious systems, do they not?
You listen not, my pint-sized parvenu. Art is in the eye of the beholder. Hence an advertisement, even if it's only one in a million, can be high art.
But Lord of the Rings, is it not the sale that motivates the creation of advertisements?
Does this not put advertising solely in the realm of the shallow and material?
And thusly, are not ads only original in the context of commerce? And furthermore, did not the great Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye suggest that ads are farcical, ironic and trivial (and that their prodigious power rests here precisely because we view them as a joke, without analyzing their bountiful effects)?
In short, Monsieur Le President, are not advertisements viewed primarily with scorn?
And does not true art inspire awe?
And does it not create new ways of looking at the world and increase our depth of understanding about the meaning of life?
And, as such, does it not reside squarely in the realm of the deep and spiritual?
And does not great art burst forth with such stunning originality that it changes the way we see the world and ourselves?
And are great artists, those rare geniuses, not moved by more than the simple desire for coin, and do they not dwell deeply on the profound questions of man's universal condition?
And is not the equating of "high" art with advertising symptomatic of decadent, hollow, bankrupt, violent societies, which value material goods, "happiness" and facile solutions above all else?
And as such, All Knowing One, is this not an equation we should actively oppose?
Get not thy knickers in a knot wee Gordian. Your philosophizing incites me to slumber.
Nigel Beale is an Ottawa, Canada based writer.
Kensel Tracy is a Marketing Coach and pontificator, Friend and confidant of Mr. Beale.
"When it looks like its time to toss in the towel, Get not thy knickers in a knot, wee Gordian.