Ads that pretend to be art.

This post originally appeared on Monster’s Blog.
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A few days ago Jason Kottke linked to this list of The Best Magazine Articles Ever, a whole month’s supply of first-class procrastination material. It’s an excellent resource, though predictably heavy on stuff from the last twenty years or so: the late David Foster Wallace gets six (well-deserved) entries, while Tom Wolfe gets only two, and Joan Didion doesn’t even make an appearance.

Yesterday I found myself reading “Shipping Out”, Wallace’s 1996 Harper’s article about his adventures on a seven-day luxury cruise of the Caribbean. He describes an “odd little essaymercial” by the author Frank Conroy that appears in the cruise line’s promotional brochure. The essay is “graceful and lapidary and persuasive”, but “also completely insidious and bad”:

In the case of Frank Conroy’s “essay,” Celebrity Cruises is trying to position an ad in such a way that we come to it with the lowered guard and leading chin we reserve for coming to an essay, for something that is art (or that is at least trying to be art). An ad that pretends to be art is – at absolute best – like somebody who smiles at you only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what’s insidious is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real substance, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair.

This upsets me, because my great respect for Wallace makes me fear there’s something to his argument, which I would otherwise wave off as the predictable anti-consumerism of the Adbusters crowd.

Here’s my view. We’re all in agreement that King Lear is a work of art and that the latest Mountain Dew ad isn’t. In between, things get fuzzy. Is an indie film like The Kids Are All Right art? What about the current number one movie in North America, Inception? What about Spike Jonze’s 30-minute short film I’m Here, sponsored by Absolut Vodka? What about those Old Spice “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” clips that went viral not long ago?

Wallace’s comments imply that there’s a straightforward heuristic one can use to differentiate art from non-art. I don’t think there is one. I think there are elements of art, craft, and commerce in all the works mentioned above.

Having experience in both advertising and art-for-art’s-sake, I can identify only one real difference between them: advertising is way harder. When you’re making art you have to please yourself and your audience – and if you don’t mind being a starving artist, you can settle for just pleasing yourself. But when you’re making an ad, in addition to pleasing your audience, you have to sell them something.

It’s tough. You have to think about every word and every image from two totally different perspectives. It’s tempting to compromise on one side or the other – weaken the pitch to make the ad more entertaining, or toss out the entertainment and focus on the selling message. But there can be no compromise. If your ad isn’t pleasing, your sales pitch will flop. But if your ad is pleasing and your sales pitch still flops, that’s it. You’ve flopped.

That’s why most advertising is so terrible. It’s not because marketers are hacks. It’s because it requires exceptional talent to make a good ad. I haven’t made one yet. I keep on trying, because it’s a challenge, but also (let’s face it) because I have to – marketing is the only career where a semi-talented writer like me can make a decent living. If I decided to join the righteous ranks of the artists, I’d be living in a cardboard box within a year.

From the excerpts Wallace supplies, I’d say Frank Conroy’s “graceful and lapidary and persuasive” Caribbean cruise essay is an unusually good ad. Did Conroy get any satisfaction from the assignment? In a footnote, Wallace reports that he got in touch with the author to ask him how he got into the “essaymercial” biz. The reply: “I prostituted myself.”

What would happen if all the talented writers in the advertising biz quit prostituting themselves and became artists? There would be a whole lot more mediocre novels sitting unread in people’s desk drawers. There would be a whole lot more undernourished authors living in their parents’ attics. And there would be just as many ads – only they’d be that much worse than they are already.

I wish David Foster Wallace were still alive to have this disagreement with.


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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

Michael isn't on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter and won't be on whatever comes along next. If you need to reach him here's his contact info.

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