In Conversation: How Advertisements Sell Familiarity in Exchange For Consumer Dollars

Good artists copy, great artists steal. But from who? The act of copying colleagues and contemporaries is of course a very real part of the art world. Artists must and should protect their intellectual property to receive the monetary and cultural recognition for their original work. So often, however, artists will attempt to mimic or copy the work of others. In some cases, this “borrowing” becomes controversial and even illegal. For example, Shia LaBeouf received his fair share of criticism from repeated accusations of plagiarism in 2013. After spending some years in turmoil, sleep-walking through the Transformers franchise, which he later highlighted in the self-penned and excellent Honey Boy, Shia received as much attention for plagiarism as his own excellent works. Perhaps it was in effort to start a dialogue on the restrictiveness of copyright laws, but in the end he was forced to apologize and abandon the shtick. 

Honey Boy Trailer

There are times, however, when artists are able to mimic to great acclaim. For example, Griselda Records co-founder and centerpiece Westside Gunn recently released his excellent fourth studio album, Pray for Paris, featuring cover art created by consummate artist Virgil Abloh. Virgil edited a few large chains onto Caravaggio’s “Goliath with the Head of David.” While this may appear as stealing or plargiasm, the media has called it referential. Album art is the first advertisement any consumer sees before hearing the product. What better way to ensure potential sales than having a well known art piece, with small modifications, sell the album for you.

Paris for Paris cover art by Virgil Abloh for the Westside Gunn album

I do not mean to trivialize Abloh’s work. In fact, he is far from the only artist repurposing famous artworks from the past. Advertisements from some of the biggest brands in the world have been using this method to sell their products. The idea of using a known image gives the consumer a sense of familiarity already, perhaps tapping into a cultural nostalgia that makes them more willing to spend their money. Often, can hire famous artists to create original works with the intention of tapping into that pop culture relevance such as when Abloh famously collaborated with IKEA; however, often that repurposing can be done without bringing in a notable known artist to reference a past work. 

Mad Men – The Carousel

The Instagram page Art and Ads highlights popular “borrowing” in advertisements from various mediums in the art world. From wildly popular films such as to The Exorcist, The Godfather, and Frankenstein to Picasso’s ‘Trois Femmes’ (Three Women) used to sell fashion to cartoons selling cars to da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” selling IKEA, the page offers a wide view of how different advertisement art directors are “borrowing” and referencing iconic art to sell their products. The variety of industries using this tactic highlights its effectiveness as a selling point. 

The wide range of borrowing raises the questions: when is it okay to mimic other work? When is it not? To get the scoop on this seemingly normal part of the advertisement world, I emailed the page’s founder Victoire Forneri to get the expert’s take.

GSC: First off, who are you and how do you identify? 

A&A: Just a girl that’s passionate about art, its history, and advertising – and always thinking “where to next?”

GSC: When did you start the page and what inspired the original creation?

A&A: My first post dates back to September 2017. At that point I had just graduated from Fordham University (Go Rams!) and like many recent graduates I was wondering what I was going to do after College. I was back at my parents’ apartment in Paris, looking for jobs but I thought the process was taking longer than it should… At this point I was a little discouraged but eventually I asked myself: What are you passionate about? Can you turn that into something? 

The first answer came easily. I’ve known since I was a kid that Art and Advertising fascinated me. Growing up I aspired to be Claude Monet and then Maurice Levy, president of Publicis Groupe (go big or go home!)

Figuring out how to turn these passions into something more concrete came fairly randomly. 

I have this vivid memory of being alone in the house, watching Mad Men (for the 4th time) and at some point I hear “Art in advertising? Why would anyone do that after Warhol?” (Season 4, Episode 4) And that’s when I clicked. I knew my two worlds collided and I wanted to explore that. I felt lucky I had found passions that could live together, it was time I figured out how I wanted to unite them.

I already knew that advertisers sometimes reference works of art in an obvious way, but I also wanted to see if there were any other subtle references that could be found. The first post wasn’t really inspired by much. I just saw this Balenciaga ad in a magazine and I dug in the back of my head to think about a painting I could compare it to.

Auguste Renoir. ´Madame Monet Reading “Le Figaro”´. 1874. Oil on Canvas. Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, Portugal  and Balenciaga F/W 2009. Model: Jennifer Connelly. Photo: Steven Meisel.

GSC:  How do you decide which art and advertisements you want to put on the page? Where do you find advertisements that borrow from famously known art? 

A&A: When it comes to what makes the cut on @art_and_ads, I would say anything is a fair shot as long as I find a way to post it. For example print ads and static art are the easiest to post, you simply juxtapose two images. But it gets trickier when we start looking into TV ads or movies, and I have yet to find a way to include radio advertisement! 

I try to be as diverse as possible: paintings, movies, installations, and performance art… as well as TV, social media, and print advertisements. But I tend to stay away from advertorials (think of it as contextualized advertising), simply because there are a few pages on Instagram that play with fashion and art, using images that are often editorial advertisements. I’d rather focus on something a bit different. 

I have a few methods to draw comparisons, but it always starts because I am constantly looking for advertisements. I pay more attention to the ads on TV than the show. I don’t really read the articles in a magazine, I immediately jump to the ads. The easiest way for me to find parallels is to start from the ad and focus on one element. For example, if it pictures people sitting on the grass, maybe picnicking – I immediately think of the Impressionist movement. These kinds of sceneries were very popular during the end of the 19th century. Other times, I focus on the colors, the movements, and people’s postures. I often end up having to do some research to find the work that will match the ad the best – Google’s Art & Culture app makes it a bit easier.  

GSC: How do you feel about advertising heavily referencing other famously known art? What’s the difference between copying and referencing? Where do you draw the line?

A&A: These are tricky questions, but the easy answer to the first one is: I love it! Why wouldn’t I? It’s everything I like in one medium – as long as there is no plagiarism of course. For me the difference between referencing and copying is mostly a question of whether credit was given or not, if a contract has been made and if there is some kind of monetary compensation (for art that’s not public domain). Thankfully, in order to avoid plagiarism, there are a lot of laws and legal steps an advertiser has to follow, but sometimes an idea is taken from an artist and twisted just enough to avoid legal penalty, such as Gucci in their Cruise 2020 teasing campaign, and this is such a shame because I truly believe artists and adwomen/men can work hand in hand. 

Sharona Franklin 
Gucci Cruise 2020 teasing campaign 
More here 

GSC: Which brands do you think are the best at doing this sort of practice? Which brands have you noticed do it the most?  

A&A: Kenzo! Now a little less so than before, but usually their print ads remind me of a few surrealist painters, like Magritte. Overall, I really appreciate their graphic design, I think it’s a little outside the box, which is great to grasp people’s attention. I also noticed that Gucci does it often, and maybe more consistently. It is not uncommon for luxury brands to reference art in their promotional messages, simply because they are not essential goods. They do not compete with their prices, but rather their aesthetics – so why not draw inspiration from elements that have passed the test of time and/or the public’s opinion? 

GSC: Are all advertisements forms of art? What makes a piece of art a strong choice to use as an advertisement influence? Or does it rely on the talent of the advertising director for the product?

A&A: I wouldn’t say that all advertisements are a form of art. Some ads are purely promotional and bring nothing more than information on the products and their benefits. But I believe advertising is an art; and a science. It tangles both aesthetic features with social sciences and now, more than ever, collected data. Mastering all these elements asks the advertiser to have a deep understanding of others and the world we live in. I think that the reason why art is so often referenced in marketing is to convey a sense of familiarity for the viewer. One is most likely to retain a message if they feel like they’ve seen it before. For this reason, I believe that referencing a piece of art that is easily recognizable is an effective way to advertise. A talented art director will also know and understand how to draw inspiration for an artwork subtly, and combine it with acquired knowledge, in order to boost a product’s sales.

GSC: What do you believe has led to the increased frequent sales of art pieces for millions of dollars?

A&A: When you look at the Art market, it’s usually correlated with economic health. China is actually a great example: in the past 15 years, the number of high net worth individuals was multiplied by 9. As a result, China went from representing 9% of the global art market to 20%. We also notice that the Art market is shifting towards a younger audience, mostly investing in Contemporary art. I believe that one reason we’re seeing this increase in sales of that nature, mostly coming from new collectors, is that more people are realizing the power of investing in art. They have an appetite for risks and are hoping to resell for a higher price later. 

GSC: Do you consider yourself an artist? What makes someone an artist?

A&A: Well, I do think I can be creative, but I don’t think of myself as an artist. In my mind an artist is someone who manifests their passage on Earth via a creative medium. This is why I consider the homosapiens that painted the Lascaux caves to be artists. They were able to create something never done before, and paint the world as they saw it. But I merely compare works that already exist. Technically, I am not making anything new. At most I offer an alternate perspective for elements that surround us. 

GSC: How did you become interested in art? How did you become interested in advertisements? What role do you think they play in each other’s world?

A&A: My parents love art and they always took me to museums as a kid. We were lucky to travel often and see some of the most breathtaking pieces, either outdoors, at temples or in museums. So I guess you could say I get it from them. 

Growing up I remember always liking ads. Like any other kid I would sing the jingles along with the TV. It wasn’t until I had my week-long internship in 7th grade (most French schools make you do that, it’s very cool) that I became obsessed with the advertising world. 

I was interning at Publicis Group in Paris, and I remember they were working on an ad for a lifting cream. Everything happened in an elevator: it was going down before the actress applied the product, and went up after she did, referring to the lifting nature of the cream. I was absolutely mind blown! Now I realize it is pretty standard but that’s what did it!

In my mind, advertisements often need art to serve their purpose (sales) and the art market needs marketing techniques (sometimes beyond advertising) to sell. For example, you can now see that auction houses are thinking of marketing ways to adapt to the new waves of collectors we talked about earlier (live auctions, website designs, social media, etc.) but I do not think art needs advertising to exist, only to be sold. 

GSC: As an art lover, who are your favorite artists? Any medium, not just visual. 

A&A: Although the way I feel about different artists can vary depending on things like my mood, my age, maturity, experiences, and so on – I keep a top 3: Mark Rothko, Quentin Tarantino, and Claude Monet.

GSC: How have you been spending time under COVID-19? Do you have any recommendations for art or artists for GSC readers to check out? 

A&A: Up until two weeks ago I was busy with work, but now that things have slowed down, I am focusing more on @art_and_ads. I actually recently revisited the format – you should check it out! 

I’ve really been into young, pop, and colorful artists lately, perfect to boost your mood! Here’s a small list of my favorite ones: Dennis Osadebe, Eric Friedensohn, and Takashi Murakami.

Also, Hayao Miyazaki’s movies are now on Netflix , they gave me the daily dose of escape I needed while confined! (Editor’s note: Unfortunately, Miyazaki’s films are still not available on Netflix in the US, Japan or Canada.)

Check out Arts and Ads on Instagram. Also, the image on the top of the page is from Charles M. Schulz’s “Peanuts” comic strip from 1950 and Volkswagen’s “The Polo, just a bit wilder” from DDB Germany.

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