Can ads be art if they aren’t political?

The jewel of television advertising is undoubtedly the Christmas ad, which is very representative over the wider Christmas period in that it generally leads to arguments. While families row over Aunt Janice’s timekeeping or What Sharon Did In ‘94, the marketing industry tends to argue about the quality and impact of the season’s TV ads. As soon as those ads become cinematic the argument became about which supermarket was being the subtlest about its commercialisation of Christmas, but now a few years have past there’s also an argument about whether 2019’s batch match the quality of the previous years. Truly, it’s a magical time of year.

2018’s Iceland’s ‘banned’ Rang-Tan ad, which wasn’t approved for broadcast by Clearcast due to being “directed towards a political end”, caused a lot of rows in its own right. The implication, helped along by savvy Iceland marketeers and some celebrities who were generically outraged, was that this advert with its subversive message about what’s really important at Christmas was somehow more genuine and deserving of an ad slot than those of rival supermarkets. Instead, obviously, it was an advertisement for the supermarket that had co-opted a campaign by Greenpeace, which went on to market the character in a number of ways.

Art gallery
No room for art.

It was effectively an argument about Clearcast’s judgment about political ads on top of an argument about which Christmas ad was the best which was itself the extension of in-fighting among the supermarkets to see who could make the most money. Now I’d like to throw another argument on top of it, and question whether the fact that ads are banned from making political messages in certain mediums disqualifies ads from claiming to be art.

The definition of ‘art’ is, of course, subjective, and works of fiction and visual pieces that we recognise as being art now are often banned for sedition by regimes that fear the power of art as a catalyst for change. It’s also a fact that the UK’s ban on political ads on TV is broadly supported, even in Westminster, in order to avoid the sort of free-for-all venomous ads that appear on TV in the US. 

That situation is exacerbated, of course, by the fact that political ads on social media are largely unregulated. Facebook effectively shrugged its shoulders and asked the world to just accept that vetting political ads online is impossible, while Twitter gamely stepped up for a quick PR win by announcing that no political ads would be allowed to exist on its platform at all. That its total political ad revenue is less than $3million, and that its definition of ‘political’ is extremely woolly, were complications that Twitter didn’t think it was necessary to elaborate on.

But the reality is that many ads are already political in execution, even if their creators aver otherwise. Some, like the hilariously poorly-judged Kendall Jenner x Pepsi ad, was supposed to heal division in society, which it did very briefly by bringing everyone together to laugh at it. Others, like HSBC’s ‘We Are Not An Island’ campaign, are held by their creators to definitely not be political, even by accident. Definitely not about Brexit, anyway.

Are ads that promote luxury brands political just by dint of being tacitly about being upper class, and of being able to afford items that plebs can’t? Conversely, are ads like Nike’s award-winning ‘Nothing Beats A Londoner’ campaign overtly political in their celebration of a city’s diversity at a time when a negative depiction of that diversity was at the core of the Leave campaign?

Even if some of those ads have genuinely political motivations, does the fact that they are primarily about selling goods or services disqualify them from being art? The subtext of the Rang-Tan advert, after all, was ‘buy from Iceland’, which isn’t exactly something that a Year 9 English student would struggle to grasp. But since a lot of what we’d consider art is designed to make someone money, whether that’s the individual artist or the movie studio that puts a film together, does that similarly disqualify them? After all, many movies and books that have explicitly political bents went on to make their creators a lot of money.

For the moment, then, advertising sits in a limbo between being art and commercial content. It’s too long for Dick and too short for Richard; political in execution and apolitical in its aims. Whether or not it is regulated in the UK is immaterial. If advertising is to be considered art, then some aspects of the marketing industry needs to drop the pretence and acknowledge that if advertising is art, then it is inherently political, and that simply pretending it isn’t won’t cut it.

Chris Sutcliffe

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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the media, information, technology, communications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.