Why is advertising not art? A quality commercial, after all, is almost as cinematographically loaded as the next European award-winning film. Also, is a high-profile print advert not an exercise in conceptual photography? Doesn’t advertising rely on emotions, feelings, sense of style and appreciation of beauty?
If so, why is advertising not art?
Apart from any utilitarian arguments – such as “advertising is just a marketing tool” – the key (or a key) lies within our ever so favorite notion of willing suspension of disbelief. More precisely, in the “willing” part. Even more accurately – the lack of it.
See, what happens when we perceive art – and I’m not just talking about observing it, but about actual in-depth involvement with a piece – is that we are initially aware of our physical and temporal “not-there-ness”. Yet, we choose to let go of our immediate reality, in order to allow the piece of art to penetrate and possess us. Whoever has cried at a movie, play or a musical piece, knows exactly what I mean. Or maybe you held your breath with suspense, or pulled the blanket over your head in absolute terror…
Advertising can do that as well, you say?
You are absolutely right.
Albeit infrequently, advertising masterpieces will make us cry. Or laugh, or fear, or fume… Naturally! Advertising relies on emotion, more so than rationale, to deliver its message to us. (It’s just so much faster!)
But where, then, is the boundary between art and advertising?
What lies beneath our willing suspension of disbelief – a state of permeability in which we knowingly put ourselves – is a deeper, unconscious suspension of disbelief. The former relates to the particular instance of advertising to which we are being subjected, which talks to our conscious self. The latter – to the brand that is secretly talking to our unconscious.
How is that?
The very piece of advertising that we are perceiving is a single message. It is attuned to the brand’s overall tone, resonating with its historical communication patterns. It is just a new layer of lacquer, applied to the luster of the brand.
The brand itself relies on multiple, superstructural instances over time, of different – yet coordinate – messages. Season after season, year over year, companies strive to build their brands by appealing to us – the consumers – and hoping that we will perceive them as they desire. Generally, a brand has existed for a while (or, to be more factually correct, many brands have existed for a while), and we are intrinsically accustomed to this fact. Virtually all people, living in developed countries, are so used to brands, that we perceive them as something natural, something ordinary, legitimate – essential, if you will. They have become a kind of a social instinct for us. And it is within the banality of their existence that their credibility rests. This state of mundane validity makes brands almost feel eternal, existing beyond time – like fairy tales, or folklore. Even newcomers inherit this property, seeing as they are brands, and this property is (or seems to be) indigenous to brands overall.
So now you probably see where this is going.
While we may or may not willingly suspend our disbelief, while being subjected to any particular advertisement, we are but ignorant to the fact that our perception of the products or services it stands for has already been altered by their very association with a brand. This is the unconscious suspension of disbelief that marks the art-advertising frontier. In fact, you may not be paying much attention to a commercial (let alone diving into its temporary take on reality), but the suspension is there. After all, you believe that Volvo is safe; you feel that you Open Happiness with Coca-Cola (yes, you do, even if you prefer to use other words); you believe that Apple is innovative and high-quality… You don’t need proof.
Because you know.