THE AD OF THE FILM: When ads borrow from art, the only stipulation is that the result works as commercial speech. Matthew Cowen reports

By all accounts, the brief that arrived at Dorlands in 1973 was not one of life's simplest. The agency was to move a particular aftershave away from its fuddy-duddy image, associating it with youthful masculinity while avoiding any hint of homosexuality - a tricky task given that male cosmetics still carried more than a whiff of "the love that dare not speak its name". Oh, and if the agency could also throw in a maritime reference, that would be helpful, since the aftershave bottle was branded with an old-fashioned sailing ship.

Enter Rod Sumpter, not a member of the Dorlands creative team but a British surfing champion who had been using revolutionary film-making techniques to shoot fellow surfers in action in Hawaii and Australia. Sumpter's methods allowed him to capture a wave's-eye view of surfers travelling down the tube of a breaker - and the images captured the poetry of the sport and the ocean itself in ways never seen by a mainstream audience. Dorlands' Mike Fox and John Simeoni snapped up the footage. The resultant Old Spice ad not only became one of the longest running in commercials history, it also played a major role in establishing the men's fragrance market and helped to define images of masculinity for decades.

It caught the wave of a surfing revival and created the enduring cinematic image for it, five years before Big Wednesday hit movie screens. Not bad for £400 - the fee Dorlands reportedly paid Sumpter for the film.

Despite the jackpot success of Old Spice, however, agencies have traditionally remained cautious about repackaging the existing work of film directors as advertising. The concerns are not moral or legal. After all, paying and crediting someone such as Sumpter is a certain way of avoiding the type of accusations levelled at Wieden & Kennedy over its Honda "cog" spot earlier this year. The doubts instead go back to the differences between advertising and art and whether one should ever aspire to perform the function of the other.

"The branding should be central to the creative idea," Caspar Thykier, a partner at Campbell Doyle Dye, says. "If there's no route back to the brand then it's really just glorified sponsorship."

CDD itself memorably blurred the lines between film content and advertising with "lucky star", its Mercedes-ad-masquerading-as-movie- trailer, two years ago. However, Thykier is keen to point out that what was apparently a Benicio del Toro vehicle actually contained more footage of the Mercedes model in question than a conventional car ad would. He believes this is the missing ingredient when agencies simply buy in what is effectively existing creative.

"The nature of an existing film might fit the brand in a way that's brave and unique but, by definition, it's going to be a one-off, short-term thing," he continues. "It's really just tactical initiatives that they could be used for. It's very hard to build a long-term campaign around something like that and that is what effective advertising's really about. That's what builds value for shareholders."

In recent years, however, the power of arthouse films to sell initially unrelated products has been demonstrated by a swathe of advertising awards for the successors to Sumpter's surf flick.

TBWA\London's "wolfman" spot for PlayStation 2 picked up two silver Pencils at the 2002 D&AD Awards, despite the fact that it was essentially a re-cut version of an existing short film by the animator Tim Hope. According to Graham Cappi, who picked up the Pencils as the credited writer and art director on the ad, its success was directly due to the delicacy of that editing process.

"You have to be very, very careful that what they intended to come across in the original film still comes across," he says. "It's wrong for us just to put out art. As admen, we are selling something and we worked with Tim on how to take something that's there to entertain and make it into something that sells. But it's all about making sure that the original integrity of the filmmaker is still there in the finished film."

An essential feature of "wolfman", for Cappi, was that the film and the animation technique that characterises it were not part of mainstream popular culture. "'Wolfman' wasn't Terminator 2," he points out. "It wasn't jumping on to the bandwagon of something and trying to benefit from it even though it doesn't fit. Commercials are less successful when they borrow from mainstream things. It's quite important to take something that's interesting but undiscovered and bring it to a mainstream audience."

According to Cappi, giving young filmmakers a break isn't just generosity on the part of agency and client. There's a fundamental benefit from going off the beaten track.

"People tend to see brands as predictable," he says. "But something like this really broadens the brand out and keeps it fresh. There's no way consumers would have been able to guess what was coming or what the next step will be."

Another example of TBWA's talent-spotting skill was the agency's decision that the Bafta-nominated arthouse film Je t'aime John Wayne, by Toby McDonald, was the perfect vehicle to launch fcuk's winter 2002 collection.

It was, in many ways, a natural fit - a tribute to the classic French flick A Bout de Souffle, it featured a young British man obsessed with Gallic cool. The potential problem was it didn't feature any fcuk clothes.

This, as it turns out, was easily rectified, with fcuk bringing out a product line inspired by the look of the clothes in the film. The art brought in to advertise the brand had both given fcuk the credibility to extend its product line and provided the template for the extension.

The ad won a Golden Elephant award for best use of cinema and provided the theme for an entire integrated campaign, with posters mixing French and English in lines such as: "Does my derriere look grand in this?"

"Vive le fcuk" wasn't the first ad to show that existing films could provide the basis for an entire campaign. The highest-profile example had launched a year earlier, and although it didn't result in any new products, the transforming effect on the brand was even more dramatic. Before 2000, Budweiser's advertising was a world of shire horses, fields of gently waving wheat, and the occasional craggy blues guitarist chuckling over a cold bottle of suds. After 2000, it was the epitome of African-American urban cool, hip enough to cross the globe, inspire a thousand spoofs and even become a goal celebration for Arsenal's Thierry Henry.

DDB Chicago didn't just take one Charles Stone III film and turn it into the "whassup?" campaign - it brought in the director himself and encouraged him to develop a variety of executions. As a result, the agency was able to secure an ongoing advertising property, rather than simply a one-off execution.

The "whassup?" story also gives an idea of the pros and cons of the art-as-ads process for the original artists involved. Stone had hoped that his original 1998 film, True, which at $1,000 cost little more than Sumpter's 70s footage, would prove his ticket to feature-film direction. Via DDB, it did. Stone didn't sign up as a creative director at the Chicago agency.

Instead he went on to direct two critically acclaimed, if not commercially significant, movies - one about drug pushing and one about marching band competitions. For the client Anheuser-Busch, "whassup?" was a worldwide marketing sensation; for Stone, the campaign was a shop window that did exactly what it was intended to do.

The internet was a significant factor in the explosion of "whassup?" and the web may well have a further role to play in the further blurring of art and advertising. For BMW's "driver" films, starring Clive Owen and directed by the likes of Ang Lee and Guy Ritchie, it provided a medium free from legal restrictions affecting the content of car advertising.

More generally, though, the mechanism of viral campaigns has raised the value of entertaining, credible content that doesn't appear to be selling anything overtly. What better means of providing this than using credible, entertaining films that were never intended to sell anything in the first place?

The first examples of art being roped in to serve the purposes of advertising all use the medium of the moving image - but this is far from the only arena where the approach can pay dividends. What seems, with hindsight, to have been one of the most cunning uses of art content did not, at least initially, involve film at all.

Mother's acclaimed campaign for Schweppes essentially takes the work of the photographer Alison Jackson and inserts the Schweppes logo and tagline: "Sch ... you know who." Jackson's approach of shooting celebrity lookalikes displaying almost-believable behaviour had already attracted plenty of sensationalist media coverage after one of her first shows included a picture of "Princess Diana" and "Dodi Fayed" with an apparent love-child. For Mother, she developed a series of similarly shocking scenarios - including "Camilla Parker-Bowles" trying on a crown and "Tony Blair" in Union Jack underpants. The link to the Schweppes brand may have seemed somewhat tenuous at times but the timing of the push and the escalating publicity around it brought its own reward. When Jackson, her mainstream appeal established by the ads, went on to launch a TV series based on the concept, Schweppes had effectively landed several half-hour TV ads.

"It's what I call watermark branding," Jay Pond-Jones, a former creative at Mother and TBWA, and now a director at the agency Will Pond-Jones Collective, says. "If you can embed your brand in the creative idea, then the association remains, even when the idea goes back out into the mainstream as pure entertainment."

Content is king of the advertising vocabulary these days, with agencies such as TBWA also launching consultancies devoted to harnessing the power of art and entertainment for brands. It is tempting to see recent growth in indie film/ad crossovers as evidence creatives are taking on more of a role as managers or editors of existing material rather than creating everything from scratch themselves. Cappi, though, thinks that agencies enlisting pre-existing work is simply an extreme version of the normal creative process.

"I don't think it's a new trend because it's something we all do anyway," he says. "You're always looking for ideas that you can twist and make work for clients. The antennae are always up. It's just very fortunate when someone has been going through exactly the journey your brand has and it's a perfect fit."

Creative processes can shift, however. For evidence of just how far advertising's use of art can develop, we only have to look back to the other essential ingredient of Dorlands' Old Spice ad from 1973 - the music.

In the age of the jingle, throughout the 50s and 60s, music was predominantly written, or heavily adapted, specifically for use in ads. The Old Spice ad was an early example of something else - the potential that could be unleashed when a previously obscure track was introduced to a mainstream audience under the aegis of a brand.

Carmina Burana was, at the time, a little-known oratorio composed by Carl Orff in 1937. Three years after the surfer campaign, in 1976, it appeared on the soundtrack of The Omen, becoming one of the most famous pieces of classical music in the world and still associated in the minds of many consumers with the Old Spice brand.

The relationship between music and advertising has gone through many different permutations since then. In 1991, Pond-Jones was responsible for remixing the Harry Lime theme from The Third Man as the soundtrack to a Sol beer ad - and then releasing it as a top-ten single. At the same time, Bartle Bogle Hegarty's ads for Levi Strauss have moved from referencing nostalgic hits from previous eras, such as Marvin Gaye's I Heard it Through the Grapevine, to unearthing wholly new bands. Agencies today function as virtual record producers - is a further extension of their role into art-house film studios really that unrealistic?


- For Budweiser's infectious 'whassup?' campaign, DDB Chicago drafted in Charles Stone III after seeing his short film, True. Stone was closely involved in making the ads

- Rod Sumpter was a British surfing champion with an interest in catching surfing on film. His film was snapped up by Dorlands, reportedly for a mere £400, to give Old Spice an image of youthful masculinity

- TBWA\London's animated television campaign 'wolfman', for PlayStation2, took its inspiration from a short film by the animator Tim Hope

- Wieden & Kennedy made no secret of the fact that its 'cog' spot for Honda was inspired by a 1987 short film by the Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, though that didn't stop threats of legal action for copying the original

- Mother worked closely with the photographer Alison Jackson to adapt her distinctive photographic style for a new twist on the 'sch ... you know who' Schweppes campaign.