Is Advertising Art?

Inside America’s largest museum complex, the untutored eye might assume the image of a woman adorned in a bright yellow dress, one white-gloved hand gripping a parasol, is something by an Impressionist. And after a cursory glance, the poem of love and longing printed beneath her could be confused with a Robert Browning work.

Not until one notices the words “Ivory soap” at the end of the poem does the work reveal itself—as a Procter & Gamble print ad.

“Summer Breezes,” P&G’s first color advertisement, made its debut in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1896. It’s one of 5,000 print, TV and radio ads dating back to 1882 that P&G has given to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, marking the first time the Cincinnati-based company has donated one of its ad vertising collections.

The gift joins other advertising already housed at the Smithsonian, for such brands as Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Hills Brothers coffee and Simmons mattresses. Earlier this year, Coca-Cola donated 50 years of its TV ads to the Library of Congress.

Ads belong in a museum or library, some say, because they are a form of art that is part of America’s history. Critics call the practice nothing more than a shameless exploitation of America’s institutions of higher culture. Still others argue that while there is a place for advertising in cultural centers—largely for research purposes—it can never be considered on the same level as Monet’s “Woman With a Parasol.”

“I don’t consider ad vertising art,” says Mary Warlick, an art historian and executive director of The One Club, the New York trade organization that recognizes creative excellence in advertising. “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. It is never meant to elevate us to that higher plane.”

The Museum of American History’s chief archivist, John Fleckner, is careful to avoid discussing his opinion on advertising as art. Instead, he sticks to some facts: The well-known photographer Edward Steichen was hired in 1933 by Compton, a Saatchi & Saatchi predecessor, to do work for Ivory soap. The Ayer agency, now N.W. Ayer & Partners, New York, used a painting by Georgia O’Keefe in a Dole Pineapple ad. The DeBeers diamond ads often depicted work by well-known artists.

“As a history museum, whether advertising is art is not the key question we ask,” he says. “We want it because we think it is historically significant and people will use it over time. What would we want to have saved 100 years from now? Somebody, somewhere ought to be saving parts of our advertising heritage.”

At P&G, it is archivist Ed Rider’s job to preserve his company’s ads. When the 120th anniversary of the first Ivory soap ad came up this year, Rider thought it time to find a place where the public could have access to the collection. He felt the Smithsonian would place the Ivory brand in a broad context of American culture. He also knew the Museum of American History’s archivist, so he picked up the phone.

“All you have to say is the word Smithsonian,” Rider says. “If you look at what the Smithsonian collects, it is a broad representation of American culture, and this culture has a commercial component that needs to be documented.” P&G’s donation included a $60,000 gift for maintaining the collection.

The exhibit, which kicked off with a “Soap Day” featuring a sculptor carving a six-foot Uncle Sam likeness out of Ivory soap, has spurred criticism. “The Smithsonian is now hawking soap, and it’s not a proper role for the Smithsonian,” says Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a Ralph Nader-founded group dedicated to limiting commercial in tru sion into American life. “We are talking about our greatest cultural institution, and this undermines its integrity. Some things should not be for sale.”

Fleckner acknowledges that some scholars within the Smithsonian are critical of its growing commercialization. Some complain that under Law rence Small, the museum has grown too cozy with corporate donors. “Beh ring Center” was added to the Museum of American History’s name after an $80 million gift from entrepreneur Ken neth Beh ring. A $38 million gift from Washington businesswoman Cath erine B. Rey nolds earned her considerable say in the creation of a “hall of achievers.” And current negotiations with General Motors for a $10 million gift could mean renaming a transportation hall after the car maker.

Ironically, some of those who oppose defining advertising as art—and who sometimes argue against even considering ad vertising as worthy of preservation—come from inside ad agencies. And advertising’s greatest advocates can be found inside cultural institutions.

“I get annoyed when people call it art,” says David Lubars, president and executive creative director at Fallon, Minneapolis. “It’s a very dopey notion to me. You’re there to sell ideas or products, and if it turns out to be very artful, that’s great.”

“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 a rarified strata of American society. Advertising ap peals to the average person.”

But Chuck McBride, North America creative director of TBWA ChiatDay, agrees with Lubars. “You do have to be careful, because I don’t think it’s very safe for people in advertising to think of their work as art, because it loses its purpose,” he says. “We’re here to help business grow. The moment I have a bunch of people yelling at me that their advertising is art and that nobody can change it is the time I really have to go, ‘Oh, shit. You’re not an artist, you’re a peon. Get to work.’ “

Rich Silverstein of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Fran cisco is more emphatic. “No advertising in the world deserves to be in a museum,” he says. He does make one exception: “The Smithsonian is a reflection of America, and advertising belongs there.”

Beyond that, Silverstein clearly sees his mission as a strictly commercial one. “I don’t believe marketing is art. It is an artful business. Art ists start from an internal struggle that they are trying to convey. We start off with marketing, and we have to make our clients successful. We go really wrong when creative people decide they want to make something just for themselves or their peers.”

For Lubars, an exception might be made if a commercial purpose no longer exists: “Maybe some advertising can become art later, after it’s done what it’s supposed to do in its time, like an interesting artifact.”

Stan Richards, founder of The Richards Group, takes a different approach. He thinks that if advertising is good enough to be hung on a wall, it’s good enough to be considered art. “If you were to walk through my home, what you’d find are some pieces of original art, paintings and sculpture,” he says, “but what you’d find mostly are European posters done 40, 50, 60 years ago. They were done for commercial purposes. They are pure pieces of art, as far as I’m concerned. In the same way that they belong on the walls of my home, they belong on the walls of museums.”

The Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Film and Media has a collection of advertising work, culled from the awards show sponsored by the Association of Independent Commercial Producers. Creative work is judged by artistic stand ards—on the basis of cinema tography, for example.

Matt Miller, AICP’s president and CEO, argues that wealthy patrons have supported artists through commissions for centuries. “How could these artistic expressions be seen as anything but art?” he asks. “Does someone believe that because Michel angelo took money for a certain piece of art that that piece is less valuable than something he dreamed up and did based on pure inspiration?”

Miller has a broad definition of what art is—”a reflection and expression of what is happening in society,” he says. “Advertising is a very artistic expression, and it reflects a given time in American history.”

Ellen Gart rell is director of Duke University Library’s John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History, which houses collections from J. Walter Thompson and D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, among other agencies. Part of her job is to convince ad agencies that, indeed, their creative work is worth saving.

“When I call agencies to ask for their ad vertising, very often the immediate re sponse on the phone—and you can just see the eyebrows rising—is ‘Why?’ ” Garrell says. “Advertising doesn’t have a reputation that makes people who work in the industry proud to feel they work there, and they are surprised to find that this is a field that has a rich history that is interwoven with our culture.”

At the Duke library in Durham, N.C., advertising is displayed in an elegant book room, side by side with rare 15th-century manuscripts and early editions of Walt Whitman. “When agencies visit, they are surprised by the juxtaposition,” Gar trell says. “This stuff is so important. Most agencies don’t have professional archivists, and every time an agency moves, they tend to throw things out. It’s very painful. I cry when I hear a particular collection has been thrown out.”