Artful dodgy theory

Art and Advertising
January 20, 2006

Joan Gibbons knows a fair amount about contemporary art - she is a senior lecturer in visual arts at the University of Central England - but not much about advertising. This is quite a shortcoming in the author of a book entitled Art and Advertising .

The book's bibliography lists more than 200 references, of which but a small minority concern advertising. All the fashionable aesthetic and cultural theorists are referenced, but no leading advertising writers or any of the numerous books on the long history of poster art. Worse, Gibbons has almost no interest in the effectiveness of advertising - how it works, when it does not - and so she ignores the immense body of research on the subject that has appeared in the past two decades.

Naturally this makes the book lopsided. Even when Gibbons devotes a short chapter to the US advertising agency Weiden & Kennedy - no British agency is similarly honoured - more than half the chapter is about contemporary artists whom she believes to have influenced W&K's campaigns. The artists dominate the chapter, just as they dominate the book.

Gibbons tries to deal with her relative lack of advertising knowledge by meeting and talking to some industry practitioners. The risks inherent in such a process are obvious. Gibbons skims the surface and seems only to have spoken to people sympathetic to her hypothesis. Her hypothesis is that art and advertising have recently grown much closer.

This is debatable, to put it mildly. Had she known more about advertising history - she is seemingly unaware of the History of Advertising Trust archive in Norfolk, the foremost advertising repository in the world - she might have known that Bonnard, Cheret, Manet, Mucha and Toulouse-Lautrec were all creating advertising posters in the late 19th century; that Guinness employed H. M. Bateman and the portraitist John Gilroy in the 1930s; that Shell has employed a plethora of painters and poets to create its campaigns; and that Bridget Riley was ripped off in 1970s ads until she got stroppy.

But the crucial point about these incursions of art into advertising is that in terms of the totality of advertising - and in terms of the totality of art - all the overlapping occurs at the periphery.

Gibbons trots out a handful of famous campaigns - Benetton, Benson and Hedges, Silk Cut, Absolut Vodka, Apple, Nike - to show how "artistic" advertising can be. But these campaigns, most of them long dead, are exceptions. This is why everyone quotes them. The vast majority of advertisements have never had much truck with art, nor do they now.

If Gibbons's knowledge of advertising is small, her knowledge of the literary arts is not much greater. She is unaware that the writer Charles Lamb was penning advertisements early in the 19th century, that soon afterwards Trollope published a good novel about advertising (one of numerous novels about the subject that have been written over the years), and that many novelists have been copywriters. Speaking of James Joyce's Ulysses , Gibbons says, in her somewhat strangled style, "Leopold Bloom is substantially dependent upon advertising clichés to carry out his interior monologues".

Hardly surprising, as advertising was his trade. Nor does she mention - which would have been more relevant - that in Finnegans Wake Joyce revelled in such stout characters as Guinnghis Khan, Allfor Guineas, Ser Artur Ghinis and Mooseyeare Goorness.

As the great Dubliner would have recognised, Art and Advertising is a feeble brew, hardly worth imbibing.

Winston Fletcher is visiting professor in marketing, Westminster University, and chairman, Royal Institution.

Art and Advertising

Author - Joan Gibbons
Publisher - Tauris
Pages - 198
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 1 85043 586 3

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