Advertising isn’t art…or is it?

Whether advertising is or isn’t art and whether it can or can’t be art, is a debate that’s drifted on down the decades. Advertising is selling and I think the minute we lose track of that is the point where we go wrong. But selling is persuasion and there are different ways of persuading, some of which verge on art. In the film Art & Copy, Jeff Goodby memorably said that “Advertising is art in service of capitalism.” Now, that’s a bit of a broad brush and I’d argue that 99% of advertising is more like ‘a grab-bag of cliches, stolen visual styles and shouty typefaces’ in service of capitalism. But there are some – extremely rare – ads that embody what Jeff Goodby was talking about. The dictionary definition of art is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination…producing works to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power.” These rare ads do just that.

For example, the VW commercial above (‘Milky Way’), throbs with a sublime emotional power that I find as moving as a Rothko painting or a poem by Philip Larkin. The Nick Drake song ‘Pink Moon’ is as close to perfection as music comes and injects infinite poignant layers of meaning and intrigue into a timeless human story in the format of a 60-second ad. An epic, wordless love letter about what it feels like to be young and alive, full of fear, insecurity and hope, about the meaning of freedom, the power of connecting with other human beings and being on the verge of becoming the person you’re meant to be. Watching the ad now, with this part of my life behind me, reminds me of how precious those days are and of that quote from the Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard – “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

Now I get that the idea that all of this emotion could be dredged up by a car advert is kind of preposterous. But for anyone dubious, simply watch it with headphones on, turn up the volume and allow the story to wash over you. Yes, this film is flogging the VW Cabriolet but it’s also doing, saying… being so much more. As the blue light dances across the girl’s face at 53 seconds, the famous Keats lines come to mind – “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”


About antmelder
Executive Creative Director at Host/Havas Sydney; passionate vegetarian; lover of books, boxing and Bruce Springsteen.

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