Close-up: Examining advertising's 'artistic' credentials

HAT brought adland luminaries together at the Arts Club to debate whether advertising is art, David Bernstein writes.

Art? You cannot be serious! Business, yes ... trade, craft, OK ... but art?" So began a double-act presentation on behalf of the History of Advertising Trust.

The evening was the idea of Archie Pitcher CBE, the former president of Ogilvy & Mather, who enlisted the help of myself to explore the subject. As co-presenters, we have much in common: Londoners, octogenarians, National Service in the RAF, careers in advertising, past presidents of the Solus Club, Fellows of the Royal Society of Arts, governors of HAT.

Archie, though, is unique in also being a member of the Arts Club in fashionable Dover Street, the location of the presentation.

The Arts Club was founded in 1863 and lists among its luminaries Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Barbara Hepworth, Conan Doyle and several painters: Pissarro, Degas, John Piper, Duncan Grant and the current president, Peter Blake. Although billed as a social venue, the club has long been known as the hub of the arts, and was involved in the early controversy between fine art and commercial art.

Exponents of the latter, such as Abram Games and Hans Schleger (practising as Zero), were members and their work was featured in the presentation. As was one of the fine art fraternity, John Everett Millais whose painting "Bubbles" was sold to the Illustrated London News as a promotion, the magazine selling it on to the maker of Pears Soap. The club's official history refers to the soap poster as the start of advertising being regarded as "an art in itself".

This was the spark that ignited the evening. Could advertising be termed an art? I drew on my research as the author of the Phaidon book Advertising Outdoors. Watch This Space, a critique-cum-history of the poster, to construct a dialectic that examined and illustrated the ways in which advertising has involved itself with art - imitating, borrowing, sponsoring, adapting, appropriating, commissioning and, in one case, accidentally, turning it into a business. The club member Francis Barraud painted a dog listening to a gramophone entitled "His Master's Voice" and, before long, that became the name of a company making gramophones, records and wireless sets, and exists as HMV today.

Posters got into their stride in the last third of the 19th century, coincidentally with Impressionism. The two disciplines were similarly criticised as non-conformist, vulgar, confidence tricksters and being obsessed with the ephemeral. Other schools were also featured in the evening: Art Nouveau, Expressionism, Art Deco, Symbolism, Futurism and Constructivism, all by means of posters. However, Surrealism did not find its place until photography had well and truly overtaken illustration - in the 70s with the Benson & Hedges campaign when cigarettes were allowed to say virtually nothing.

On the night, we concentrated on two media - posters, for the obvious reason of overlap, and TV. In fact, Brian Palmer, the creator of the first commercial broadcast on British TV, for Gibbs SR toothpaste, was in the audience. HAT sourced 62 ads to be shown, which staggeringly only represents 0.002 per cent of its archive.

In an attempt to justify advertising being called an art, we screened many examples of "artistic" ads. Ads made by artists in the two media such as Mucha, Bonnard, Manet, Toulouse Lautrec, Beardsley, Alan Parker, Hugh Hudson and Ridley Scott were featured, and much was made of the financial success at auction of posters from Shell's golden period (late 20s and 30s) with works by Paul Nash, John Armstrong, Graham Sutherland and others.

Ultimately, we left it to the audience to decide, individually, if anything they had seen that evening, or anything that lodged in their memory, could be classified as art. But as a duo, we did suggest a couple of examples: the poster for the Italian newspaper Il Giorno, designed by the French master Savignac; and the "water in Majorca" commercial from the Heineken "refreshes the parts" campaign, we both felt could easily be considered.

The best definition I can come up with is that advertising is not a genuine but a bastard art, and has but a modest claim to being called a science. The process of making ads begins and ends with the inexact science, respectively research and analysis. Thus, it is a bastard art in the middle of an inexact science. Put like that, it sounds just the job to attract the charlatan, the opportunist and the failed academic.

- David Bernstein is the founder of The Creative Business


You have

[DAYS_LEFT] Days left

of your free trial

Subscribe now


Our new premium service offering bespoke monitoring reports for your company.

Find out more

Become a member of Campaign

Get the latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to, plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Become a member

Looking for a new job?

Get the latest creative jobs in advertising, media, marketing and digital delivered directly to your inbox each day.

Create an Alert Now