Art is one of the most ancient forms of expression. An expression that speaks volumes about the community, culture and peoples it was created by. Advertising too has existed since a long time, albeit in simpler forms: from ancient Rome to Egypt before that, papyrus was used for displaying sales messages and political campaign slogans. There were also times when these two distinctly unique forms merged together, such as in the rock/wall paintings, used in displaying commercial advertising artistically. In medieval times institutions like the aristocracy and church began to commission artists to adorn their walls with portraits of grand scenes of self-promotion. So the desire for this rudimentary form of brand advertising developed a framework for a beautifully symbiotic relationship between those with the need for a public image and with the budgets to pay for one, and those that are blessed with the creative talent to construct it but have a need for money. It is not surprising then that this relationship of Art and Advertising was an intricate one that transformed the two dynamic forms over the years, and has stood the test of time to continue to influence one another even today.

At the outset, understanding the function and motivation behind the two forms is crucial in understanding how they work in tandem. Art is defined as the application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”[1] Advertising too is an application of skill, and is defined as, “the activity or profession of producing advertisements for commercial products or services.”[2] The differentiating factor is that art is a naturally creative process born out of the pure desire to express, while advertising is a calculated one created with a specific end goal in mind. Some may argue that making art is a calculated decision and in today’s commercial world, the lines between the two can definitely be quite blurred. However, seen on its own, art has always been more about the process and advertising more about the end result. Therefore, when combined, the two have worked beautifully together, with art playing the role of inspired facilitator in the making of advertisements, and advertisements providing focused direction for art. When done right, these roles can allow for a healthy blend of creativity and computation.

Looking back, there have been some historical examples of advertisers realizing the invaluable role of art and trying to harness its power, and also of some exceptional advertisements that became art in and of themselves. As far back as the 19th century, art was sometimes selected with a particular advertising purpose in mind. Thomas Barratt, the Managing Director of A & F Pears, purchased the famous ‘Bubbles’ painting by Sir John Everett Millais, with the intention of using it as the central image for their soap promotion. Despite initially being hesitant to commercialize his art and the picture of his grandson, Millais was eventually won over by the idea of the advertisement and agreed to give the copyright. For this he was criticized for prostituting his talent, by a society that did not yet consider advertising as a legitimate creative profession. Today, Tate curator Alison Smith acknowledges Millais as “a pioneer in mass reproduction of art – leading the way where artists like Damien Hirst have followed”.[1]

pears soapPears soap advertisement, adapted from John Everett Millais’ Bubbles (1886)

Paris of the 19th century, however, was more forward thinking than Britain. Toulouse-Lautrec was commissioned by the Moulin Rouge to design a series of graphic posters promoting the nightspot, the most famous being his Moulin Rouge: La Goulue. The creation of such posters blurred the line between high art and advertising. As scholars Kirk Varnedoc and Adam Gopnik explain, by the 1890’s advertising had become an art form in its own right and the posters created by key artists were turned into legitimate pieces of art. They were universally appreciated and many were even sold by the city’s art dealers as limited edition prints and displayed in galleries and exhibition spaces as a work of ‘art’ in and of itself. This continued and by the 20th century American illustrator Norman Rockwell was creating the iconic ‘Four Freedoms’ series to promote bonds during the war. Rockwell’s art eventually added to the trend of Abstract Expressionism of the era, and he is today recognized as one of America’s most versatile artists, able to create both ‘high’ intellectual art and ‘low’ consumerist art!

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Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Moulin Rouge: La Goulue (1891)

norman rockwellNorman Rockwell, The Four Freedoms (1943)

Closer to home, iconic Indian artist M.F. Husain started out his career in 1942 creating advertisements and toy designs for the Fantasy Furniture Shop in Bombay, the designs of which were later incorporated in Air India’s 1963 promotions of Indian art history.[1] Though Husain went on to become famously recognized for his signature brushstrokes on canvas, it was through these initial works that his style truly developed into art.

Fantasy Furniture Ad (1942) M.F. Husain and tribute to him by Air India (1963).

With the intellectual evolution of the Western world into the contemporary space, advertising started playing more and more of a crucial role in society’s exploration of art. In 1962, Andy Warhol’s iconic display of thirty-two canvas paintings of the Campbell soup can advertisement planted ideas about the notion of advertising as art and art as advertising in the minds of the public. It was the first time an advertisement was converted to art and not the other way around! Warhol once commented, “Business Art is a much better thing to be making than Art Art”, proving he was pivotal in reducing the gap between art and commerce, and opening up the possibility of exploring more than one media as an artist.[1] What set him apart was his recognition of the increased importance of smart branding, commercialization and the immortalization of the growing cult of celebrity. His art was brilliant because it appealed to the masses, especially America’s growing urban middle-class, while also making a direct social commentary about them!

warholAndy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962)

No conversation about art and advertising can be complete without the name of Charles Saatchi. An American-Iraqi businessman, he founded Saatchi & Saatchi, the world’s largest advertising agency in the 1980’s, with his brother Maurice. Subsequently he used his wealth to invest in art and amassed a priceless collection that he went on to showcase in his Saatchi Gallery, a 30,000 square feet space on the outskirts of London. His patronage of the arts and ability to promote quality artists, most notably the YBA’s (Young British Artists), gave him credibility as both an art curator and an effective advertiser. In 1997, his collection was showcased at the prestigious Royal Academy London in an exhibition titled ‘Sensation’, which went on to travel to Berlin and New York and, staying true to its name, grabbed headlines everywhere. He successfully used his eye for art in his advertising agency to create iconic campaigns such as the surrealist advertisement for UK cigarette brand Silk Cut. The inspiration for the campaign was the painting style of Italian conceptual artist Lucio Fontana whose technique entailed puncturing and slashing canvases. The advertisement was extremely contemporary and didn’t feature any cigarette packs, but instead just showed a slashed purple silk cloth of the brand livery – a word play on the brand name. This edgy, artistic and intellectually elegant depiction evolved the audience perception and paved the way for selling products differently than the usual norm. This understated combination of art and advertising was literally personified by Saatchi, and was the first successful example of the inherent value of creativity in product promotion.

saatchiSensation, Royal Academy of Arts, London (1997)

 lucio fontana

Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale Attese (1967)


Silk Cut Campaign Posters, Saatchi & Saatchi (1984)

While exploring the dominant mediums in advertising, photography cannot be underestimated, especially since by the 1920’s it had started replacing hand-illustrated drawings as the dominant medium in print. The primary need for change was to be able to differentiate products from the vast array of standardized goods being industrially manufactured and through photography a stronger emotional pull could be exerted on the consumer – a fact that businessmen quickly understood. In 2010, Harvard Business School paid tribute to this medium by putting on an exhibit, The High Art of Photographic Advertising: The 1934 National Alliance of Art and Industry Exhibition’. It explored a new generation of photographers with a modernist sensibility, including Margaret Bourke-White and Edward Steichen, who were pursuing commercial photography as both an artistic endeavor and a profession. According to the exhibit curator Melissa Banta, “this was a rich period of experimentation in photography when artists were pushing the boundaries between art and advertising.”[1] Many of the exhibition’s works capture the emotive appeal well. A vivid ad for Lady Esther Face Powder catches the viewer’s attention with the use of a novel before-and-after approach. On the left side of the frame, half of a woman’s worn and wrinkled face appears without the miraculous powder and in absolute despair. In stark contrast, the right side image shows her skin as smooth and wrinkle free after an application of the powder, and she is visibly younger and happier. This creatively intelligent work plays on the viewer’s mind using strong and emotive visual imagery that is also characteristic of art.

photo adAdvertisement for Lord & Taylor (1934), Art and Industry Exhibition Photograph Collection, Baker Library Historical Collections.


photo ad 2Gilbert B. Seehausen. For Lady Esther Face Powder (1934)

Apart from the direct buying of art or commissioning of artists, there were also posters created by advertisers that were directly influenced by famous art styles and movements. In 2011, KitchenAid produced an advertising campaign inspired by artists whose works are representative of their periods.  Even the works of classic masters of the Renaissance have been adapted into advertisements: Armalite an American gun manufacturing company used the image of the statue of David holding a gun to promote their products.[1] Likewise, an investing company, Steven J. Schneider, used ‘The Creation of Adam’ scene from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel as an entertaining means to grab eyeballs.

matisseKitchenAid ad by DDB Brazil, inspired by Modernist artist Henri Matisse (2011)

daliKitchenAid ad by DDB Brazil, inspired by Surrealist artist Salvador Dali (2011)


armaliteArmaLite Campaign (2013)

investing adSteven J. Schneider Investing ad

Perhaps, most interesting is the idea explored by Parisian Etienne Lavie who Photoshopped works of Renoir and Delacroix on billboards, directly replacing advertisements all around his city.[1] The results were fascinating and shed light on the idea of art being as accessible to the masses as advertising is.

untitleduntitled 2What A City Would Look Like If Ads Were Replaced With Fine Art’, Etienne Lavie (2014)

However, despite such progressive attempts to marry the two forms, the question that still remains up till today is, to what extent can advertising be called art and displayed as such in museums and galleries? The Smithsonian has a large collection of advertisements from American history. ‘Summer Breezes’, Procter & Gamble’s first color advertisement from 1896, is just one of the 5,000 print, TV and radio ads dating back to 1882 that P&G has given to this National Museum of American History. The advertising archives also include many other well-known brands like Krispy Kreme doughnuts and Coca-Cola. But does that justify terming advertising as a prestigious art form? The opinions on this vary. Mary Warlick, an art historian and the executive director of One Club, the NYC trade organization that recognizes creative excellence in advertising says, “I don’t consider advertising art. Art is a visual imagery that is meant to elevate thinking in an aesthetic context. What advertising does is give a visual record of our cultural ambiance and history, our tastes, our trends, our wants, our needs, our buying, but it is never meant to elevate us to that higher plane.”[1] Ironically, some of those opposing the recognition of advertising as art come from within the ad agencies itself, while advertising’s greatest advocates can be found inside cultural institutions. “I get annoyed when people call it art,” says David Lubars, executive creative director at Fallon, Minneapolis. “You’re there to sell ideas or products, and if it turns out to be very artful, that’s great.”[2] “Of course it’s art,” counters Charles Sable, curator of the William F. Eisner Museum of Advertising & Design in Milwaukee, “advertising is the truest vernacular art form. The fine arts represent the appeal of the average person in American society.” The Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Film and Media has a collection of advertising work, picked up from the award shows where creative work is judged by artistic standards – on the basis of legitimate work like cinematography, for example.[3] These credible institutions provide a much needed legitimacy to advertising.

It seems that the relationship between these two creative and innovative forms goes much deeper than expected. Though on the surface, they seem to have very different motivations and goals, a similar force of desire for impulsive ideation and exploration drives them both. History’s prominent artists all over the world have contributed in some way to the commercialization of creativity and have as a result helped in allowing wider accessibility and appreciation of art. Perhaps the most important role art plays is a qualitative one that makes sure someone has something substantial to take away and consider each time they view a new advertisement. The dynamic interaction between the two professions (artist and advertiser) allows for new methods to be born, layered perspectives to develop and greater collaborations to happen. Limiting the purpose of either or isolating any particular individual process is only going to lead us backwards in the evolution of Art and Advertising. Finally, it is crucial to appreciate each form in its own cultural and historical context in order to understand that the fundamental common link between them is the fact that they both actively take inspiration from the inevitable and inescapable experience of being human.