Ever notice that when a brand does well, it’s advertising’s fault? It isn’t long before the same ad gets deconstructed in the academic world and chewed apart in laymenese by Naomi Klein. Sure, we’ll point fingers at the company behind the ad, but the agency gets a lot of flak too. And I have to wonder why.
When I was in university, we spent a whole week during one of my courses on advertising, and, to paraphrase, how evil it was. What made it evil? The fact that it summons specific imagery to speak to an elite market, or the fact that fashion photography favours a particular type of woman, and more importantly, how effectively advertising techniques work to sell a product or represent a brand.
Later, when life became about paying off the education debt (while I tried to see how my education payed off), it became clear that there was a divide among communications graduates. There were those writers who starved as journalists, and those who didn’t in advertising. As someone who’s been to both sides, I’ve observed that journalists tend to hate copywriters more. “Sell-out” is the usual accusation, and it’s a fairly easy one to throw around.
But here’s my problem with it. Never mind that the creative teams behind some of the ads we like most are genuinely nice people who often vote NDP. The question really should be, why does advertising work?
In my experience, many of the creatives I’ve worked with also have a hobby: art. I’m not saying this is the case for everyone, but they really are sensitive to this sort of thing because they put the same kind of energy into their work. Sure, they have to analyze a brief from a corporate angle, but the output is basically borne of an artistic process. And many of the art directors I’ve been paired with are more or less artists with jobs (and a bigger audience). As for the copywriters I’ve known: you should see what happens when they’re allowed to lock themselves up in a room and write a radio spot. Granted, clients rarely let these creatives express themselves the way they want to, but when they’re allowed to, you get “I’m a Mac.”
That aside, when we like an ad, we respond to it, and that’s what I’m getting at. It takes a certain kind of craft and skill to make us respond to it in the way that we do.
We all know that when we’re being advertised to by a company, with a laundry list of product benefits, we hate it. But when a company isn’t afraid to let creatives do their work in peace, you get something as timeless The Economist campaign.
Are ad creatives artists? It would be unfair to generalize, but kind of. And we’d never criticize artists, would we? Of course not! Art is sacred. Ads are business.
But you know what? Even the Mona Lisa was commissioned by a patron. Alphonse Mucha’s work involved a lot of packaging, and many Art Nouveau relics are posters, magazine illustrations and ads. Whether or not it’s hanging in a museum now should be irrelevant. I like to marvel at the idea that it takes an artistic process to really reach out to the masses and impact culture.
Is all advertising art? Absolutely not. I’m really talking about the process of creating ads. Not everything turns to gold, especially if the client has anything to do with it (and they always do). But even those crappy Bell beavers came from the blood and sweat of many a creative who tried to make the frickin’ concept work (I know; I was one of them).
So it seems silly and short-sighted to belittle advertising without taking into account what goes into creating spots, and how effective they can be because we, the audience, aren’t indifferent. It’s worth mentioning, as well, that for every GM account, there are at least 5 non-profit organizations or disease research funds. Remember “this is your brain on drugs?” Yup. An ad agency was behind that one. And while it became dorm-room poster material, there was still a public service behind it.
Taking the critique to a more constructive level might involve looking at a system that allows corporations to use advertising to persuade the masses. But that’s not as easy to do, is it? Because that same system also makes room for thousands of clone magazines on newsstands, and narrowing the selection down is what we like to call censorship. It’s a shame that it’s almost as easy to throw around as “sell-out.” We really should only use “censorship” for special occasions.
Anyway, as an exercise, I’d like us to consider Naomi Klein’s point about Gap pioneering the branding movement, and to keep in mind that when the creatives worked on the Khakis series, it’s quite possible they were just having a little too much fun.