Mad Men and Artists – How the Advertising Industry Exploited Fine Art

In the middle ages, when many people could not read, advertising was graphic, ie. the ‘medium is the message’.  Metal signs hung outside shops to promote their wares such as scissors for a tailor and a cauldron and pestle to indicate an apothecary.  When Caxton introduced printing the first ever advertising leaflet promoted his work on ‘The Pyles of Salisbury’ (pyles referred then to clerical rules).

In the absence of photography, or any other media form, famous artists were commissioned to get the message across.  The Gainsborough portrait of Mr & Mrs Andrews seeks to show off their wealth and standing in society by depicting the land they owned, which takes up a large proportion of the painting.  The Arnolfini portrait by J. Van Eyck promotes the prosperity of the sitter as a trader indicated by the oranges casually strewn around the room, (these were a very expensive commodity at this time), the chandelier and the large mirror which was very unusual then.  Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Davide sought to immortalize the heroic leader on his rearing white stallion, a totally unsuitable horse for such an endeavour.

In the latter part of the 19th C Alfred J Barratt took over publicity for the Pears Soap advertising.  By purchasing the painting of Bubbles by Millais and using it as the advert he tapped into Victorian snobbery which could relate to fine art and it worked brilliantly.

Into the 20th C the Mad Men of the title worked in the booming advertising industry concentrated along Madison Avenue in New York.  The spread of media lead to the general public being much better informed about such subjects as fine art so advertisers knew their audience would identify with famous paintings.  The Monarch of the Glen by Landseer was used very extensively for a wide range of products, as was Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling painting of Adam touching hands with God.  The famous sculpture of David by Michelangelo was clothed in cut off jeans to advertise Levi’s.  Fr. Angelico’s painting of The Annunciation appeared with a speech bubble from the Virgin Mary’s mouth saying ‘thanks but I already know’, to promote a pregnancy testing kit.  The two cherubs at the bottom of Raphael’s The Sistine Madonna have become an enduring image to advertise everything from socks to toilet paper. Leonardo’s brilliant solution to the table set up in the Last Supper has been and still is used widely in advertising, as is his Mona Lisa.  Marcel Duchamp, a leading light in the Dada movement, (which despised fine art) produced a facsimile of the Mona Lisa with a moustache and a goatee beard which was later used as an advert for Bic pens.  When America entered the 2nd world war the New York Times used a painting by Norman Rockwell – ‘Free from Fear’- as propaganda, especially as the father in the painting is holding a copy of the New York Times.

Very recently there was a pop video by a Canadian Rock band called Hold your Horses in which they dressed up in set tableaux to portray famous paintings whilst singing their mostly incomprehensible song, 70 million.  The works portrayed included Leonardo, Boticelli, Velasquez, Mondrian, Van Gogh, etc. and numbered more than a dozen; check it out on YouTube.

Our very entertaining lecturer, Tony Rawlins, recounted a story from his own advertising experience which, although it did not have a fine art content, was illuminating from the advertising perspective.  He happened to be in Jamaica (as you do) when a very good product was brought to his attention – Old Jamaica Ginger Beer.  He was officially asked to conduct a promotion campaign in the UK.  The target audience for this drink was deemed to be people between 30 and 45 years old so they ran an advertising campaign in the Financial Times but then they had to make sure that it was stocked in supermarkets to feed the demand.  They managed to identify an executive of one of the big supermarkets and the car journey she made every day to her office.  Then they produced some eye catching posters featuring a top hat and a cane with the words, ‘the liveliest Ginger since Fred’, emblazoned with the name of the product and posted these all along the route she took.  When she got into the office and opened the Financial Times there was the advertisement.  As a result the supermarket stocked Old Jamaica Ginger Beer.

Members were unanimous in expressing their enjoyment of this lecture and many thanks went to Tony Rawlins.