The power of persuasion

Advertising and design cannot afford to have art’s intangible qualities if they want to appeal to people, says David Bernstein. The message has to be clear

A recent Vox Pop (DW 25 March) examined the blurring between works of art and design. In the same week, in the New Statesman, playwright David Hare chose to define ‘the true purpose of art: simply put, the creation of beauty and meaning’. Well, is that the true purpose of design? Not really, and yet as another contributor, Lucy Holmes, creative director of Holmes Wood rhetorically asked, ‘Hasn’t the crossover always been there?’ Indeed, it is a border post the Florentines would have recognised.

Aziz Cami, managing partner of The Partners, reminded us that graphic designers used to be called commercial artists. ‘I quite liked that straightforward description,’ he said. So did I. It defined the job, its commercial purpose. Was it discarded because it relegated the practitioner to a lower caste, that of skilled artisan?

In advertising, however, with the title art director (which, interestingly, stayed the course) you could, should you wish, maintain a connection with pure art, both being concerned with producing works of creative imagination. Furthermore, said some, advertising is demonstrably not a science – there are no fundamental laws, no clear paths from cause to effect. If advertising were a science then it could accurately predict human behaviour. It can’t so, goes the specious argument, if advertising is not a science, it must be an art, a false dichotomy and one that could apply equally well to stewed rhubarb.

True, advertising employs the skills, tools and terminology of artists. And it has always borrowed from real art. Victorian advertisers raided the salons for classical motifs and popular paintings of the period. Bubbles by Sir John Millais was appropriated by Lever for Pears, the advertiser subsequently adding to the picture a branded bar of soap. Even when advertising began to commission its own advertising art, some indigenous pieces possessed a distinctive merit or worth and found their way into serious collections, a phenomenon still strong today, especially with posters.

But is it art? Does it matter? No. What matters is that it is done well, that it achieves its purpose. Which brings us to Angus Hyland’s perceptive Vox Pop contribution. He is a partner at Pentagram, where art and design coexist in a symbiotic relationship to the benefit of both. ‘All design,’ he says, ‘has a primary and secondary function. For example, the primary function of a chair is that you can sit in it, while its secondary function is to embody a set of aesthetics or values, or to communicate a message or opinion. This secondary function of design is the primary function of art: this is where the two cross over.’ In the case of the chair I would submit that the aesthetics might enhance the seated comfort.

The difference between art and advertising concerns function. Art moves. It reveals truths, arouses passions, opens eyes, stimulates concern, inspires, elevates, intoxicates… to move the viewer is its primary function. Not that art can’t also induce action, but that is incidental. Advertising – and, I venture to say, design – can’t afford the luxury of aesthetic satisfaction for its own sake. Ads are not created to decorate the media, though they may coincidentally do so. Ads are created to help sell products or services. Art moves. Ads move merchandise.

Appreciating a work of art can bring greater satisfaction than appreciating an ad, but it involves less effort. Gottfried Leibniz, the 17th century German polymath, described the effect of art as providing a ‘peculiar satisfaction… no rational process of thought occurs but rather an intuitive apprehension’. The satisfaction is aesthetic. How it happens is hardly relevant, except to the student of aesthetics. Asked for my reaction to a work of art, this ‘intuitive apprehension’ is paramount. I know what I like – though I may not know why. On the other hand, asked, in my so-called professional capacity, my reaction to an ad, my ‘intuitive apprehension’ is not enough. The fact that I like it is less important than why I like it. I must give reasons. But, even so, to articulate why I like it may be irrelevant unless in so doing I can explain why other people may like it and, more importantly, why I believe it may move them towards purchase. This is not ‘intuitively apprehended’: it demands a ‘rational process of thought’.

The creative director therefore has to operate in both modes, passively reacting and actively analysing, treating the art, for all its meaning and beauty, not as an end in itself, but as a means to a commercial end.

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