The art of ‘selling shit’ beautifully

The worlds of advertising and art have more in common than most may realise, argues Simon Lee, executive creative director and partner at The Hallway.

Not so long ago, I was talking shop over drinks with a group of marketers and ad industry folk, and someone chimed in with a line I’ve heard many times before: “What we do is basically sell people shit they don’t really need.”

There were a few laughs, a couple of resigned shrugs and the conversation moved on, but this old cliche of a line stuck in my head and got me thinking. Of course the work we do has to “sell shit”, but when I look at the passion, talent and creative energy that gets poured into the work, it’s clear many of us are at least striving to do more than just fulfil this primary function of selling. But what is that “more”, and does it matter?

Advertising is by no means alone as a creative field that has ambition that goes beyond its primary function. Architecture exists primarily to provide shelter – but no architect worth the title would ever be content if that’s all their work achieved. There’s a section in Alain de Botton’s ‘Art as Therapy’ that I find interesting in this regard. He compares two very different shopping centres: Chadstone in Melbourne and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan. Both fulfil their primary function of housing shops, but one is described as “a vast, mean-looking, architecturally disastrous complex” while the other is held up as a creation that is beautiful as well as functional. I’ll leave you to guess which is which.

If De Botton is so scathing of poor old Chadstone, it’s because it had the potential to do much more than that just house shops, but choices were made in the process of its design and construction that saw it fall far short of that potential. De Botton argues that the role of art – of which architecture is a form – is to appeal to human beings’ better nature, to elevate us, bring out the best in us and help us live better, happier lives. And in this regard, Chadstone is a missed opportunity.

I’m not going to argue that advertising is art, but I do think that advertising shares with art the potential to help people live happier, better lives and that this may well be what many of us are striving for in trying to make the best work we can. The laughter that a great comedy spot provokes is as good for its viewers’ spirits as it is for the announcer’s bottom line. And amusement and entertainment are just the start – great advertising can, amongst other things, provide hope, positive aspiration, make us remember, or hold a mirror up and help us grow. And when our work does achieve these things, it seems fair to say that we’re playing in the same realm as an architect who provides beauty to the world along with shelter.

But let’s not get too comfy in the warm glow of new found self-worth. With advertising’s potential to elevate, I believe, comes a responsibility to do so. Every Chadstone that gets put out into the world is a missed opportunity to create a Galleria Vittorio II. Every spot on a media schedule is an opportunity to positively impact its audience and environment as well as achieve commercial objectives, and it’s incumbent on us all – the people who commission and make the work to make sure that it does.

Something to discuss when drinking in bars returns, maybe?

Simon Lee is the executive creative director and partner at The Hallway.


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