When advertising is art


Art & Copy tells the stories behind successful ad campaigns for clients like MTV, Nike, got milk?, Esquire, Apple, and Perrier.

Advertising. The word brings to my mind TV commercials, unwanted pop-ups, sponsored posts on social networking sites and sneaky ads from radio DJs. I have a love/hate relationship with advertising. Like many Americans, I feel constantly bombarded with ads almost everywhere I look. They often feel like an unavoidable nuisance in our capitalist society. However, I can appreciate when an advertisement is creatively executed. I can recognize a well-written tagline, a visually strong design, and a funny/clever/powerful commercial. I can still remember certain advertising campaigns I enjoyed as a child.

I recently watched Art & Copy, a PBS documentary about advertising. The documentary explores the advertising world and it specifically analyzes successful campaigns, some of which I enjoyed when I was younger. The film tells the stories behind ads like Nike’s “Just Do It,” “I Want My MTV,” and the “got milk?” campaign. I was creatively inspired by many of the film’s designers, art directors, copywriters, and other creative titans. I was fascinated by how the campaigns were created.

One of the inspirational figures in Art & Copy is George Lois whose work included over 92 covers for Esquire magazine. Lois felt that advertising could be “subversive” and “revolutionary.” In one of his most famous covers for the magazine, Lois convinced heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali to pose like the famous religious martyr St. Sebastian as he is depicted in Botticini’s 15th century painting. The cover was created during the Vietnam War era and the cover’s headline was “The Passion of Muhammad Ali.” Ali had recently converted to Islam and as a conscientious objector to the war, refused to be inducted into the military. As a result, Ali was stripped of his world champion title, banned from boxing for three years and was condemned by some as a traitor. Using a classical painting as a model, Lois created a cover that powerfully illustrated the issues of war, race and religion that surrounded Ali’s story.


George Lois’s Esquire cover of boxer Muhammad Ali depicted as St. Sebastian (1968).

I have often thought of advertising as cold and calculating. I suppose that’s how bad advertising makes you feel. But when people can effectively create an aura and paint a story around a product, an ad can make you feel good. The commercials of Hal Riney demonstrate this very well. Riney’s TV ads are undeniably warm and appealing. For instance, his commercial “It’s Morning in America” for Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign brought the then-president to tears. Riney’s commercials take place in an idealistic world with feelings like hope, love and camaraderie. He managed to create this same beautiful world whether he was promoting a political candidate or a product like Perrier sparking mineral water.


Video still from Perrier commercial by Hal Riney (1986).

Art & Copy boosted my excitement for the craft of design and its relationship with copywriting, advertising, and film. The film helped diminish my somewhat jaded view of commercial art. I am inspired by the work and words of George Lois, Hal Riney and others. I am motivated by their commitment in telling a story very well. Their work demonstrates that when advertising campaigns are created with the high level of care that they deserve, the results are outstanding. Art & Copy reminded me that when advertising is done right, it is art.

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