By Kate Nettleton, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 05 June 2009 12:00AM
An audience sits in silence awaiting the performance by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Paris. It's 1926 and the surrealist artists Max Ernst and Joan Miro have designed the set and costumes.
But things aren't going smoothly. The audience's quiet anticipation is broken by the cries of two other surrealists, Louis Aragon and the founder of surrealism Andre Breton, who are so outraged that Ernst and Miro are "selling their souls to commerce" - they are protesting, jeering and handing out leaflets declaring: "It is inadmissible that ideas should be at the behest of money!"
Given their indignation more than 80 years ago, Aragon and Breton would be turning in their graves if they saw what was being shown on television today. The bizarre imagery of their artistic revolution has become so ingrained in adland's DNA, they would undoubtedly be confronted with an ad that plunders the genre to a far more obvious commercial end than Ernst and Miro ever could.
But this isn't a recent trend, surrealism and its core creative constructs, from the incongruous juxtapositions of objects to its dark sense of humour and irony, have proved a rich vein for advertisers since the 30s.
"There were a number of key exhibitions in 1936 in Paris, London and New York which helped to register surrealism on the radar screen of the advertising community," explains Michael Parke-Taylor, the curator of "Surreal Things", an exhibition exploring the relationship between surrealism and the commercial world at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
And by the late 30s, companies such as Shell and Ford were already referencing surrealist art in their poster campaigns, with Ford's V8 ad carrying a Rene Magritte-esque eye, and Shell's 1938 "zero" poster featuring similarly inspired imagery.
The influence of the surrealist movement became prevalent once again in the 70s when Collett Dickenson Pearce launched perhaps the most famously surreal ad campaign, the Benson &Hedges gold series ads.
These commercials set a precedent for using surrealism to beguile audiences, rather than overtly sell to them - a technique that has since become part of the advertising heritage of numerous brands from Guinness and Stella to Tango and, more recently, Cadbury and Skittles.
For an avant-garde artistic movement, which defined itself as the "dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation", to infiltrate adland, initially appears entirely inconsistent with its logical and aesthetic leanings.
But for brands such as B&H, this visually confounding and attention-grabbing style proved irresistible, especially when their ability to communicate the true appeal of their brand was stifled.
Robin White, the chairman of Engine, explains: "Surrealism distorts reality. But the Bill Bernbach school of advertising was very much about being real. What you saw in the 70s, especially in the B&H gold campaign, was that when you are so restricted by the rules of reality - you can't say smoking is good for example - the only choice is to go into the realms of unreality."
It wasn't just the restrictions placed on advertisers that made agencies turn to surrealism though; both shared an obsession with the mind of the viewer. "The whole relationship between the two is inevitable," Parke-Taylor explains. "The seeds of the advertising industry are deeply imbedded in surrealism. Surrealism is about probing subconscious and advertising is about selling and exploring aspects of desire, which is similar to surrealism."
Can advertising really be surreal?
Yet, for some, equating advertising's use of incongruous imagery to an artistic movement such as surrealism is a denial of its core strategic and commercial objectives.
Laurence Green, the chairman of Fallon, argues: "In our world, to say something is surrealist seems flimsy and flaky because if you say 'we're surrealists', it's like saying we're fine artists. The word suggests a work of art that is unique and challenging but not necessarily effective."
Yet others are happy to embrace the term. "Advertising has always plundered the influences and expirations of the art world," Ed Morris, the former Lowe executive creative director, explains. "The surrealist movement was very broad and the basic tenets of surrealism are very interesting and a great source of new forms of communication."
For Green, however, what makes ads such as Guinness' "surfer" or the B&H spots work as successful pieces of communication is not because they are "surrealist" per se, but because they were written to a looser model of advertising than the one usually adhered to. Rather than sticking to conservative obsessions with precise brand objectives, what these ads do successfully is cut through by delivering their message in a different, broader, richer and more emotive way.
"Over the past 50 years, we've built a rational message delivery machine - brands are nine-parts emotion and this kind of advertising respects that more than the traditional model," Green says.
Whether we define "this kind of advertising" as surrealist or not, the limitless possibilities of surrealist imagery - from Salvador Dali's bright pink sofa, modelled on Mae West's lips, and his Lobster Telephone to Magritte's "Time Transfixed" painting of a train emerging from a fireplace - undoubtedly appeals to creatives' slightly selfish pursuit of original ideas.
Matt Koen, the creative behind Fallon's recent surreal Cheestrings spot, explains: "It allows creatives, who don't want to do the same as everyone else, to do whatever they want."
And, by referencing a world that rejects logic and reasoning, creatives have free range to indulge their imagination, often at the expense of any concerns over the idea's efficacy.
As a result, surrealist imagery can become something of a creative crutch. Graham Fink, the executive creative director at M&C Saatchi, says: "When a creative team is stuck, the book they always go to is the Magritte book. If you look through that you will be immediately reminded of 101 ad campaigns. It is a bit indulgent and sometimes a substitute for lazy thinking."
Rather than being indulgent, others maintain that the creatives' obsession with surrealism is borne out of an appreciation of its close relationship with that tried-and-tested method of engagement - humour.
As Robert Saville, the creative partner at Mother suggests, us Brits have long-been amused by the bizarre. From Monty Python to The Mighty Boosh, if there's one thing guaranteed to grab our attention and tickle our funny bone, it's something ridiculous.
Fink adds: "Out of all the emotions, humour is one of the easiest to do in a TV commercial - you can get three or four jokes in 30 seconds, shocking people in that time is a lot harder."
This trend for plundering the basic tenets of surrealism seems to be enjoying a resurgence of late, thanks, in part, to its ability to capture the imagination of awards juries.
You need only look at recent Cannes winners, such as Skittles' "touch" or Cadbury's "gorilla", to see that these ads, which take full advantage of surrealism's cognitive dissonance, are gaining plaudits among adland's most influential.
Arguably though, their success is simply symptomatic of the nature of awards juries who, after hours of ads, will undoubtedly be wowed by the one commercial that appears to display a modicum of abstract thought, rather than because they are particularly effective as a piece of advertising.
Yet Phil Rumbol, the marketing director of Cadbury, responsible for the unmistakably surreal "gorilla" campaign, remains an advocate for the effective power of surrealism.
"With the proliferation of channels, the bar in terms of engagement has been raised. There are so many pieces of fascinating and often surreal content out there that, as an advertiser, you really need to aim to do something extraordinary in order to get any sort of cut-through."
For Cadbury, the "gorilla" spot ticked the effectiveness box, with the ad leading to an initial 10 per cent uplift in sales on launch, and contributing to the brand growing its market share by 7 per cent in the same year.
Case studies such as these are rare, however, and unless the campaign has a solid strategic backbone, around which the surreal idea is built, it will fail to tick the effectiveness box. As Morris says: "It's only ever going to be the creative icing on either a good or a bad strategic cake."
Without this, brands run the risk of isolating rather than engaging the consumer. "The thing with surrealism is that, perhaps more than any other creative technique, you've got to get it right. Otherwise, rather than inspiring, captivating or amusing your audience, you're simply leaving them confused, bored or indignant," Paul Brazier, the executive creative director at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, explains.
Ultimately, the success of a surrealist treatment is dependent on the product. For an already well-known brand such as Cadbury or Skittles, doing something off-the-wall could well lead to a sales boost, especially in an impulsive sector like confectionery, while brands with more to communicate than a wider brand "feeling" will struggle to achieve any cut-through by utilising surrealism.
What's more, when your target market is younger, these ads have more chance of striking a chord with the target market, which, thanks to the expansion of the virtual world of the internet into their social space, has become used to the "real" and "unreal" sitting side-by-side.
Mark Figliulo, the chairman and chief creative officer of TBWA\Chiat\ Day New York, which produces Skittles' advertising including the Cannes-winning surreal "touch" campaign, says: "The virtual world has changed everything. That's at the heart of the Skittles work, it's a magic place sitting right next to a real place, and the characters within the story are completely comfortable with the unreal nature of it all."
For many brands, the allure of an ever-growing global online audience is frequently tempting them into creating something shockingly strange that will prompt viral behaviour, especially in a climate where consumers are desperate for a slice of escapism.
But brands and agencies should heed one warning: despite the longevity and persistence of surrealism's influence up until now, its popularity within advertising is finite.
After all, its success relies on the element of surprise in its unexpected juxtapositions and as consumers begin to expect the unexpected, these ads may begin to lose their power as an effective commercial tool, leaving them as just a footstool for the lazy creatives' feet.
ROBERT SAVILLE ON SURREALISM
1971, and a pair of chimpanzees dressed as removal men carry a piano down some stairs. 1974, and a bunch of cackling Martians are sitting in a spaceship discussing mashed potato. 1993, and pianos fall out of the desert sky while a fat man painted gold strews marbles in front of a speeding car. 1999, the crests of waves transform into gigantic white horses. Move over Dali, the admen are in town.
Surrealism in advertising is nothing new, but this shouldn't surprise anyone, should it? British culture has always been in love with the absurd. From Alice In Wonderland to The Goon Show, to Monty Python to The Mighty Boosh; the ridiculous and the surreal has formed the bedrock of our sense of humour for hundreds of years. Our Germanic cousins laugh at fart gags, the French love slapstick but show a Brit two grown men hitting each other with oversized fish and we'll be rolling in the aisles. Using surrealism in advertising isn't some clever, modern trick or trend, it's just writing that plays to the uniquely British love of the absurd. Perhaps it's because absurdity is so fundamental to our culture that it took the French to intellectualise it and give it a name. To the British, "surrealism" is frequently just another word for "funny".
But let's remember that when they coined the phrase, Breton and friends were trying to create art that was "beyond (sur-) the real (-realism)" - work that would startle, amuse and stand out from what they saw as the clutter, mediocrity and creative stagnation of early 20th-century Paris.
Doesn't sound all that different from the challenges facing any decent creative agency today, does it?
- Robert Saville is the creative partner at Mother.
TOP TEN SURREAL AD CAMPAIGNS
1. Benson & Hedges: 'iguana', 'mousehole', 1978, CDP
A helicopter, an iguana - all unexplained but an ingenious way of avoiding restrictions from the golden age of CDP
2. Stella: 'bench', 2005, Lowe London
Three men suffer surreal fates when they give in to the temptation of tasting Stella's forbidden fruit
3. Guinness: 'surfer', 1999, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO
A combination of tanned surfers and CGI technology made for an award-winning, visually confounding ad
4. Skittles: 'touch', 2007, TBWA\Chiat\Day New York
The surreal tale of Tim, who turned everything he touched to Skittles, went on to win gold at Cannes
5. Cadbury Dairy Milk: 'gorilla', 2007, Fallon
Proving surrealism was the order of the day for awards juries, this ad, featuring the now famous drumming gorilla, scooped all the top gongs in 2008
6. Guinness: 'fish on a bike', 1997, Ogilvy & Mather
You could not get two more incongrous items than a fish and a bicycle - perfect fodder for a surrealist spot
7. Starburst: 'bus stop', 2007, TBWA\Chiat\Day New York
Proving itself to be full of surrealist ideas, this spot from TBWA\Chiat\Day featured a very lively singing elf with a passion for berries and cream
8. Tango: 'orange man', 1992, HHCL
A prime example of the humorous power of surrealism, this HHCL ad became a classic of its time
9. Cheestrings: 'Mr Strings', 2009, Fallon
One of the more recent ads out of the surrealist stables, the ominous presence of 'Mr Strings' makes for bizarre viewing
10. Orangina Lite: 'naturally juicy', 2007, Fred & Farid
Anthropomorphised creatures straddling spouting bottles of Orangina, from the dark wit of the Paris-based duo Fred Raillard and Farid Mokart.
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk