Advertising, Art and Technology

Published in the Irish Times on 8th June last

Ad vertere: to turn towards something. Advertising has been with us since the early Egyptians used papyrus to promote sales messages. Marketing strategists organise campaigns with almost military-like efficiency to evangelise and crusade for their brand clients.

A 1914 obituary in the New York Times to Thomas J Barratt noted that he ‘inaugurated the first systemic advertising campaign”. Barrett was an advertising innovator and the chairman of A&F Pears Ltd, which sold a mild, glycerine-based soap. “Good Morning. Have you used Pears’ soap?” became a well-known catchphrase across the world. Barratt’s exploitation of Sir John Everett Millais’s painting ‘Bubbles – a Child’s World’ for Pears soap led to a stormy public debate about the commercialisation of art for advertising.

A direct rival of A&F Peers, Lord Leverhulme (of Lever Brothers) countered his competitor’s use of Millais by himself exploiting William Powell Frith’s copyright-free painting ‘The New Frock’, for Lever’s marketing campaign for Sunlight soap – an act which Frith vociferously protested prostituted his art for commercial purposes. Lord Leverhulme is also attributed with the infamous marketing quote: ‘I know half of my advertising is wasted. The trouble is, I don’t know which half.”

An effective marketing campaign requires creative instinct and a deep sympathy for current public tastes and trends. Don Draper, the fictitious and colourful protagonist of the recently concluded TV ‘Mad Men’ drama series, exemplifies the focus and intensity of the alpha males of Madison Avenue in the 1960s. Indeed in 2009, Draper was nominated by the online magazine ‘Ask Men’ as the most influential male of that year, ahead of real-life men. One cult which has arisen from the Mad Men series is the appreciation of the art work associated with the different characters. In the series, Draper’s own taste in art is for abstract expressionism, often heavily textured, and perhaps pointing to a deep ability to transcend from the mundane to the essence.

Whilst artwork has told a thousand words in billboard, newspaper, radio, TV and film advertising, digital advertising is changing the marketing industry. More or less at the same time that Barratt and Leverhulme borrowed classical art themes to promote their products, art was itself transforming. Using relatively small brush strokes, and adding fluidity and movement, but most of all focussing on ordinary people in their daily lives (rather than the grand religious, mythological, royal or military themes of classic art), Claude Monet’s 1872 painting of dawn at his home town of Le Harve launched the impressionist movement. A fine-grained attention, rather than broad-brush strokes and swathes of oil and colour, ultimately led to pointillism, exemplified perhaps by Van Gogh’s 1887 self portrait.

Like pointillism, digital advertising is fine-grained. Consumers are targeted with marketing messages and offers which are selected specifically for each individual, based on what is known about them and their past online behaviour. Draper, Barratt and Leverhulme would no doubt have been astonished and perhaps overwhelmed that instead of a single common message being comprehensively delivered uniformly to all the masses, separate and specific suggestions incentives can be delivered to turn individuals towards particular brands. Nevertheless, most of us have from time to time been subject to poorly targeted online adverts: in response, perhaps Edvard Munch’s primeval painting ‘The Scream’ comes to mind.

No doubt Leverhulme would have been pleased that today’s agencies know precisely which halves of their advertising are in fact working, and can throttle back on the remainder accordingly. The selling of digital media space for placing advertising is becoming increasingly automated. No longer do advertising sales teams from the newspapers sell space to enable marketing agency executives place their creative adverts in print on behalf of brands. Instead, individual slots on (web) pages for each individual consumer (on their smart device or desktop) can be sold by the media companies to the highest bidder in real-time with automated, programmatic algorithms run by the agencies and brands. Each such auction is held within a fraction of a second, and thousands of such auctions concurrently occur each second – not unlike the automated trading desks for electronically traded shares on stock exchanges. The outcome of each advert placement is known pretty quickly: did the consumer move their computer mouse over the advert, and did the consumer then actually click it, or in fact did the consumer just completely ignore the advert? Based on the observed outcomes, an agency can then adjust its programmatic strategy for purchasing further ad slots.

If selling of advertising slots is becoming increasingly programmatic, what then of marketing campaigns themselves? In the same way that the news industry is no longer run on 24-hour cycles with copy-deadlines for journalists before the overnight print-run, marketing is moving away from the well-planned discrete military-like campaigns that Don Draper would have commanded. Rather, branding and marketing are transforming to a continuous, fine-grained, ambient presence in which consumers behaviours and oblivion nudge and adjust the strategy of brands. Digital innovation in marketing business models may even more transforming than the already deep impact of digital innovation on advertising. The artist at work in the studio has in fact become the art gallery.

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About chrisjhorn

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