Finding the art in the advert

 

CULTURE SHOCK: Guinness has long been recognised for creating beautiful advertising that sells - but is it art?

CAN ADVERTISING ever be art? The instinctive reaction of most artists and art lovers is probably an indignant “no!”

Ads have a purpose external to themselves – to sell products. Art, at least in the modern conception, is its own purpose. Ads work by simplifying desires – buy this deodorant and you will have lots of sex – art by complicating them. Ads provide easy answers, art raises questions.

Ads work entirely within the frame of monetary exchange, art imagines itself as being at least in part outside it.

Ads tell lies – the deodorant will not make you irresistible to members of the opposite sex – art tries to tell the truth.

Yet the distinction is not quite so clear cut. Much great art started out as a form of advertising – for the ruling elite and/or the church that commissioned it. The consumption of art is mediated through various forms of advertising – interviews, posters, packaging. The 19th century division between the functional and the artistic was blown away by the Modernist movements in architecture and design. The only real working definition of art we have in the 21st century is “transformation”. Art transforms its materials, circumstances and purposes. In principle, there is no reason why an ad can’t meet this test.

I raise the question because Guinness, as part of its 250th anniversary celebrations, is re-using eight of its most famous ads on TV this year.

Removed from the immediate flow of hard-sell imagery and placed in this retrospective context, at least some of them do look rather like works of art. Minor art, certainly, but work, nonetheless, that does transcend its simple purpose of selling more pints and that deserves as much recognition as, say, a good pop song.

The brilliance of Guinness advertising is rooted in its relative difficulty. After the bright, jolly animal cartoons that became famous in the 1950s, Guinness became a different kind of hard sell. It is an old, highly traditional product in a marketplace increasingly obsessed with novelty and youth. And it is a product that demands, in an age of instant gratification, that its purchasers wait for a few minutes before they can consume it. These counter-cultural elements made Guinness ads hard to do.

They demanded an inventiveness far beyond the usual ad-agency pretensions. In essence, they pushed Guinness into an almost purely aesthetic territory.

The most striking thing about Guinness ads is what they don’t do. Most beer ads – like most ads in general – work by associating the product with a lifestyle or a social group. The really good Guinness ads don’t do this, presumably because there’s an insuperable dilemma in trying to sell a traditional product to younger consumers – make it too explicitly young, and you alienate your core market; make it too traditional and you’re stuck with that core market.

But if a product is not being linked with a particular social group or lifestyle – and if the requirement for a minimal adherence to truth means that you can no longer claim that “Guinness is good for you” – what do you use to sell it? The bold answers that Guinness’s marketing gurus have come up with are twofold. You turn the drawback – waiting – into a unique selling point. And you fetishise the product itself as a thing of beauty. The materials for the ads become the materials of drama (time) and of visual art (flux). Though utterly different from each other, two of the best of the ads have a pure theatricality that many dramatists could learn from. Their virtuosity comes from having to do something that is almost impossible: suggest a long wait in a very short time-span. If your theme is waiting and you’re working in a medium where time is money and everything has to be compressed, you need to be very smart.

The superb 1977 Man of Aran spoof in which the islanders wait in the pub for the currach to arrive with the barrel of Guinness suggests the passage of time by sound alone – the ticking of a clock and the plash of oars – and is almost wordless (“Ta said ag teacht” and “aris” being the sum of the dialogue). So is the other great take on this theme, the 1994 Anticipation ad, with Joe McKinney performing his strange jerky dance while he waits for a pint to settle.

The other repeated theme is that of the pint, not as something to drink, but as something to look at. There is a fascinating medical condition called synaesthesia, in which the stimulation of one sense or cognitive function leads to an involuntary stimulation of another faculty altogether.

Some of the best Guinness ads attempt a deliberate version of this experience, evoking the sense of taste through the eyes. The settling pint is fetishised as a piece of kinetic art, a kaleidoscope of movement and colour. While much earlier Guinness advertising relied on the simple notion of the black and white pint, the more sophisticated ads deliberately break down this visual opposition into imagery of waves, surges and swarms.

The famous Surfer ad of 1999, repeatedly voted the best TV ad of all time, fuses these two strands of time and flux, moving from the sensation of waiting (the surfer anticipating the wave) to the visual imagery of waves turning into horses. Like so many of the best Guinness ads, it also makes effective use of unusual music, in this case Leftfield’s Phat Planet re-recorded with an added bodhran.

The bold and quirky choice of soundtracks – from Perez Prado’s Guaglione to Patti Smith’s Horses, and from Louis Prima’s Sing Sing Sing to The Pixies’s Isla de Encanta – have allowed Guinness to remain in step with youth culture and the You Tube age while not being tied to any single era or age group.

At their best, these ads do achieve the kind of transformation that defines art. They turn the obvious into the strange and objects into images.

They transcend their blunt mercantile purpose and the immediate period in which they were created. For all the banished braincells of the geniuses who have overused the product, they make a small but real return to Irish culture.

fotoole@irishtimes.com