Your Ads Aren’t Art

The pandering discourse manufactured by the likes of Nike and Gillette insult our culture and intellect

Usually, when someone solicits my attention with the often heard “You gotta see this…,” or “Get a load…,” it’s some funny meme or mesmerizing YouTube essay. For those, I’ll always bite. During a recent sit-down, however, the important thing I needed to see was an advertisement. I would tend to say no to this — I myself am a designer and copywriter, and I see enough of this stuff at work — but I was hungover and my intellectual defenses were, let’s say, less than Thermopylae-strong.

The ad happened to be one of those ‘men aren’t great’ missives — faux-free-guidance so graciously given by the good folks at Gillette. And before you roll your eyes and quit this with assumptions about my politics, know that I’m not some loony Shapiro-lover or anti-femme asshole. This is not about that. In fact, it’s not even about politics (I beg you to consider that not everything is). But I’ve spent much time since trying to answer this: Why did the Gillette ad feel so fake and sleazy? It’s certainly a powerful video, but something about it made my moral core squirm. I have come to realize that I non-politically think the Gillette campaign is flimsy fourberie, and how seriously so many social media-addicted, advertising-affiliated adults seem to take it led me there. Same re Nike.

The 6 months leading up to my seeing this ad were maybe the busiest of my life. As a wannabe-writer, I always try to leave lots of holes in my schedule for boredom and thought-prodding, but, in 2018, I had a close friend ask me to run the ADDY Awards in my little fun-sized town. An easy way to explain the ADDYs is to say they are the Emmys for the advertising community. You may have seen a great Mad Men episode about them, replete with 1960s carousing, drunken client presentations, and stormy blackouts that circumscribe an entire weekend. Our modern ADDYs aren’t all that different: they denote a night in which 200+ professional graphic designers, copywriters, creative directors, clients, CEOs, et al. get together to congratulate, pat backs, and figuratively (this may get literal during the after-party; I had trouble keeping track of everyone) jack each other off in a circle. One time I attended a national ADDYs gala in Chicago, and I regret to inform you that it was four fucking hours long — all but required by law to give us a full-bladder intermission.

Upon entering the arena, I had no idea what my agreeing to plan and host these awards entailed. During my time as ‘Vice President of ADDYs,’ I would give up countless personal-life nights to planning, theme-creation, and problem-solving. I also lost lots of time I could have spent reading or writing. I know I made this choice and all this extra work is my own damn fault, but I had no clue that, from Nov. 2018-Feb. 2019, my little life would be transposed, a scheduled black hole. This is not to say I made some huge self-sacrifice or anything, but the whole process tore cherished moments from me: sleep became a quixotic hope, getting home before 10PM was a victory, date night meant working while we ate, and not to mention my 9–5 becoming naught but Phase I of a long workday.

Despite it all, I believe I did a bang-up job. It didn’t pay well (something like $-45.00), and it was the most thankless thing I’ve ever done. In fact, I was personally insulted by several advertising professionals — directly following the very event I threw to celebrate them. Please n.b. that I have not encountered a more ungrateful group of people since high school. I could write a Hugo-length novel about the ersatz and hurtful shit I saw and heard during this hectic period, but, for the sake of time, let me just provide some exemplary (and completely earnest) quotes from the good folks in my advertising community:

  • “Art follows advertising. What Nike’s doing is culture.” (You can’t make this stuff up.)
  • “Give a damn or die.” (I wouldn’t mock this sentiment if it weren’t said about advertising. I mean come on.)
  • “Creatives think differently. We aren’t meant to work 9–5s.” (When I die, bury me in entitlement.)
  • “What can an ad do?” (This was during a hifalutin advertising keynote, and isn’t super germane to the theme, but it makes me laugh every time. Sorry.)
  • “These awards represent the pinnacle of our creative community…” (Again, these are awards for ads. Forgive my harping, but I can’t stress this point enough.)
  • “Good job! We didn’t think you had it in you.” (Not unkindly said by a more than portly man immediately after the awards gala concluded (200+hrs. of my own free time notwithstanding).)
  • “Let’s be honest, the ADDYs were all you.” (Said to another member of the team, with me standing right there, at a party weeks after the event. This was said by the “Give a damn or die” guy.)

And so on. But before you believe I wrote this as bitter revenge for my post-ADDYs mistreatment, know that I do have a point outside of me. You’ve probably picked up on it by now. It goes something like: “Despite the justifications and intellectual acrobatics these advertisers and designers do to try and deify their work as art, it just fucking isn’t.” I aver this to you based on my experiences as an advertising acolyte and their distinct disparity with the literature I read by night. Any person on the street can confirm that their worldly purposes are vastly divergent. My volunteer year as an ADDYs chair only served to solidify and confirm these suppositions.

I’m sure many eyes will roll when I invoke this name, but the late David Foster Wallace had something significant [and inspiring — q.v. this entire essay] to say about this stuff way back in 1995. He sums up the entire situation more cogently than I ever could in his collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (pp. 288–289).

“This is extremely bad…Whether it honors them well or not, [art’s] fundamental obligations are supposed to be to the reader [or viewer]…Advertisements have certain formal, legal obligations to truthfulness, but these are broad enough to allow for a great deal of rhetorical maneuvering in the fulfillment of an advertiser’s primary obligation, which is to serve the financial interests of its sponsor. Whatever attempts an advertisement makes to interest and appeal to its readers are not, finally, for the reader’s [or viewer’s] benefit. And the reader [or viewer] knows all this, too…This is why even a really beautiful, ingenious, powerful ad (of which there are a lot) can never be any kind of real art: an ad has no status as gift, i.e. it’s never really for the person it’s directed at.” [Italics mostly mine]

So, ads aren’t art. I see three key reasons for this:

  1. Intent
  2. Intent
  3. Cultural-societal benefit

In an unconscious way, you already know this. It’s why you feel off when a car salesman approaches; it’s why you laugh at the absurdity of infomercials; it’s why your boss’ desire to cut your hair leaves you obdurate and cold: You realize, not even that deep down, that these entreaties don’t exist to help you or even commiserate with you. Their purpose is one of money and greed, of shaping you to their purse; they serve some old grubbing goon somewhere — which we can argue all night whether money and greed and capitalism are inherently good or bad or neither, but you must at least admit: whatever they are, these intentions are far from art.

I’ve mentioned at myriad dinner tables my belief that monetary transaction deforms our art, that when money gets involved, art leaves the building. E.g., if an author is more concerned with clicks or book sales than they are with expression (or even just as concerned), I lose all desire to read their work — the book’s meaning has mutated from message to money. They’re not writing to communicate with me — they want my monetary attention. These dinner remarks are mostly met with scorn or derision or stupefaction, and I think I know why. You do too. People want to believe in the fantasy they’re fed via advertising and commerce. E.g., if I buy a $300 Apple Watch, my hope is that I am now a hip and attractive yuppie who swims laps before work. E.g., if I wear $60 Patagonia shorts, I believe I am a cool, bearded mountain climber (I can’t grow much facial hair myself and have still somehow clung to this delusion). The frisson you feel when you find an ad that “speaks to you” is fractured when you realize it is meticulously and purposefully manufactured to pluck dollars from your pocket. The only thing an ad wants you to feel is an urgent desire to buy, any other good feelings you experience are incidental (but never accidental). An ad that serves you or communicates with you could and does happen, sure, but that is nonessential — it is not the main intent.

Some may feel sort of affronted when confronted with these facts (the person who sat me down for the Gillette ad got mad when I said it seemed sleazy), but now imagine how it must feel to be the industrious soul who spent time away from his/her children to create these ads. I.e., what if these ads took up 55 hours of your week instead of 30 seconds? In order to give your advertising work and life meaning, you would need to believe your work was art. You would justify the huge swaths of your time any way your brain could manage; you would employ intellectual trapeze, no matter how involuted — you would deify even a pretty sales pitch.

Ads exist to make money for their sponsor. I think designers, at least the designers that attended my ADDYs, are eager to forget this. Art’s raison d’être, on the other hand, is a human connection: a communication uninhibited and unencumbered by financial expectation. I.e., it’s a person expressing him- or herself to another, without any expectation of recompense. As Wallace said, it’s a type of communicative gift (it’s no accident good artists are alleged “gifted”). An ad is decidedly not this, it just doesn’t exist for that reason. An ad can be communicative and connective, but underneath it still yearns to make its master money. If an ad merely expresses or communicates but doesn’t sell, its financial foundations will speedily erode; the client will back out. And, sure, you could argue that art needs monetary backing and patronization too, but if these supports are cut, the artist will continue to create — advertisers won’t. If a graphic designer lost his or her job, would he or she continue to spend 50hrs./week tweaking an ad for chicken tenders?

Art is also more culturally enriching than advertising. I can’t believe I even have to write this, and I certainly don’t think I need to expound or provide examples. It’s a priori. LinkedIn sophists and ADDY attendees would have you believe otherwise, but you know it’s true — these subsidized, corporate messages are not culture, no matter how woke they may seem. Why does your favorite movie make you weep while your favorite ad…Wait. How many times have you sat your family down to watch your favorite ad?

You may believe I am building some type of strawman here, that there can’t really be people out there who believe they make art when they design a beer bottle, but I can assure you — these people exist. They are the loudest and most flagrantly chichi in any room. I know this because I volunteered to help them celebrate themselves.

Oh, and that’s another thing. Even the best ads, the ones that win weighty trophies at ADDY Awards ceremonies, aren’t really remembered by anyone other than the hard-working folks who made them. There are lines in Lunch Poems that will permanently alter your perspective, but the best beer ad of all time merely moodifies the room for a moment. No one outside of advertising watches or even revisits this junk a year out.

Designers, copywriters, and ‘creatives’ aren’t bad people — a bit pompous, maybe. I don’t despise them or wish them ill at all. In fact, I consider most of them very talented and intelligent and diligent, and I have many friends in the field. But give it up already — admit that the pretty poster you spent all week designing and writing for A&W isn’t some great work of art; you’re not expressing anything you truly felt inside. You’re not saying anything except maybe, “Buy root beer!” which isn’t really a two-way communiqué, it’s a directive. You’re relaying nothing about the human condition. Stop trying to tell me and sell me on how important and cool and special ‘creatives’ are; it’s entirely obvious to me and every other weary listener who these justifications are for. In your work, the only thing you’re really communicating — regardless of how efficacious said communication is — is what the clients want to say to their prospects, nothing more. (Hence Creative Briefs: a packet that good clients give to advertising pros with their specifications for the campaign. These Creative Briefs are sometimes quite specific, and they can cut a creative advertising cadre down to a mere bay of technicians. In these scenarios, we as advertisers don’t exist to express anything ourselves, only to build the client’s idea.) With any modern advert, the moral-humanistic connection taking place in its dermal-deep aesthetic is not its main aim…unless handing dollars over to a cash-register can be considered connection.

And at the same time, advertising insults our connection-craving hearts in ways art never could. Whereas a piece of literature, by implication of its mere existence, treats us as thoughtful, sensitive adults — i.e., considers us worthy of not only unpacking but understanding the vital connective message — an ad, on the other greedy hand, supplants this connection, claiming what you as a sensitive and thoughtful adult really need is to buy and own what they’re selling, then you will achieve the connection you so desperately desire. Art actualizes us: it makes us feel humanly loved, connected-with, conjugable; it affirms us as real flesh, capable of conversation with other souls in other times; it reaches out to us and assures us we’re worth reaching out to. Ads, with a spit-soaked, outstretched hand, however, perversely condescend to us, claiming they possess what we, so puerile and impoverished, pennilessly pine for; and what they offer as prophylactic for this connective need is merely a cynical, cyclical placeholder for more need. Maybe that’s why so many of us feel lonely — we insanely imbibe far more simulations of connection than we do real human connection, more billboards than paintings, and we naively and secretly hope that these directives will heal our hearts. We’re so cosmically alone, parched for touch, and we thirst for that easy cure: a star-bound, communal conversation that doesn’t require us to think or read or write or stare for extended periods with hand-on-hairy-chin pensiveness, and we seek this cure in what we have all around us: bite-sized, morally-digestible advertising.

But both Nike and Gillette aren’t saying anything we haven’t already heard in our art, and if they are it certainly isn’t for our benefit. Ads follow and feed culture back to us so that we will trust and buy from them. Any so-called gift given to the audience is just there to stir guile. Nike tells you Colin Kaepernick is important because they know your sanctimonious ass gets off on feeling liberal and morally superior to rednecks; meanwhile, the company donates hand-over-fist to the GOP. Gillette shows us what decent men do so that you’ll shave with their razors to feel like a decent man — so that neo-liberals can grandstand, glib ethics held high in hand. None of these sponsored messages are for you (unless you’re buying), and people who think these companies are doing crucial cultural work are deluded and dumb, duped for the holy dollar every day.

I realized all this when I hosted the 2019 ADDY Awards in my own town. These professional ad people didn’t want to converse or connect with me, they wanted a pat on the head for being pious and politically appropriate and morally superior and ‘creative.’ They want to feel like an artist without any of the risks — communicative vulnerability, poverty, loneliness, et al. — that make artists great. They’re ungrateful to any non-client benefactor (q.v. me, the idiotic guy who awarded them) because they’re so unused to communicating anything other than a proffered, supine hand that whispers, “Where’s the dinero?”

And yeah, this stuff is probably obvious to you, a cognizant citizen who reads essays on Medium about ads and art, but to the blowhards trying to win awards for designing them, it’s not. Some of these professionals go home every day sincerely believing their work is entirely vital for society, that they’re creating serious, urgent work. I know this because I met them. I volunteered my time for them. They swear they’re saving the world by selling it, but they dance unseeing under a glassy pastel sky, and the sad thing is they never even touch it.

Writer and rural poet.