John Lewis, art and advertising

With the recent hype surrounding the latest batch of Christmas-themed TV adverts, it is notable how their reception appears to have displaced ‘proper’ art. I have witnessed, on social media and elsewhere, more excitement, anticipation and discussion regarding these adverts (particularly the ubiquitous offering from John Lewis) than I have any film, TV show or song in recent memory. While this is not inherently a bad thing – it’s not that I’m precious about people paying more attention to advertising than capital ‘A’ Art – the way people are coaxed into venerating content that exists solely to extract money from them is rather sinister.

Of course this has been the case since the birth of marketing, but now more than ever it is apparent that the aesthetic of the advert has itself become a commodity  – in the case of John Lewis it’s even spawned its own spin-off merchandise. The content is the product and the product is the content, there is no separation between what is being advertised and what we should be buying; there are so many layers of cynical commodification it’s nauseating.

In these adverts vague signifiers of Christmas, and the social relations bound up therein, are abstracted and reified to the point where the agents of this commodification, the adverts themselves, become the mediators of social relations. Like the spectacle, of which advertising is of course a part, the concept of advertising is now ‘not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.’[1] Aestheticisation and commodification orbit each other ever-closer, leading to the ultimate conclusion that in contemporary capitalism there is no such thing as art, only advertising.

This total assimilation of the hollow ghost of artistic content into the realm of advertising and capital echoes an element of Adorno and Horkheimer’s work that still rings true today, although with a disconcerting twist

‘The assembly-line character of the culture industry, the synthetic, planned method of turning out its products (factory-like not only in the studio but, more or less, in the compilation of cheap biographies, pseudodocumentary novels, and hit songs) is very suited to advertising: the important individual points, by becoming detachable, interchangeable, and even technically alienated from any connected meaning, lend themselves to ends external to the work. The effect, the trick, the isolated repeatable device, have always been used to exhibit goods for advertising purposes, and today every monster close-up of a star is an advertisement for her name, and every hit song a plug for its tune.’[2]

The key difference to note about this concept today is that rather than the aesthetic characteristics of mass culture lending themselves well to advertising, it is advertising itself that (in terms of popular reception) is the great cultural form of our time. Discussions of art being co-opted by advertising and artists ‘selling out’ now seem rather quaint and outdated in the face of art and advertising being one and the same thing in any practical sense.

To return to Christmas TV advertising, perhaps the most defining feature of John Lewis’ campaigns in recent years is the high stock it clearly places in the choice of music.  Before the advert even aired, the announcement of the singer and the song for this year’s advert was an event in itself, with the choices dissected in a manner usually reserved for the casting choices of major film releases.

The soundtracks are arguably the most successful aspect of the whole campaign, with the featured songs seemingly lasting longer in the memory than the actual visual content of each ad. This has now reached a point where ‘John Lewis music’ is practically a genre – there’s even compilations attesting to such. The advert seems to have replaced the ‘season finale’ in being the method of choice to kick start (or revive) the careers of a certain flavour of overly-understated, New Boring, major label artists. Getting asked to help John Lewis flog furniture is an honour, a career highlight, an end in itself rather than a means of exposing one’s music to a wider audience, as advertising has been commonly used by record labels in the past:

‘the musician behind this year’s John Lewis advert was named as Gabrielle Aplin ahead of the launch of tomorrow’s 2012 Christmas campaign. The singer from Bath, 20, has recorded a “haunting” reworking of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “The Power of Love” which will be released tomorrow as a single in conjunction with the ad. Having previously gained attention with cover songs that she published on YouTube, Aplin had been about to release her debut single with a record label “Please Don’t Say You Love Me”, but has postponed it to February “so that the single can get the attention it deserves” . In a video on her YouTube channel Aplin said: “So I’ve had some really, really amazing news which I’m finally allowed to share with you after months of trying to keep my mouth shut.” “For those of you who know me you’ll know that I’m a massive fan of the adverts. I started crying in Tesco when I found out [I had been chosen]. It was a big deal.”’

The lasting effect of John Lewis putting such an emphasis on music is that the difference between a song and the advert it soundtracks becomes negligible. Lily Allen’s ‘Somewhere Only We Know’, wherever it is played, is presented as ‘the song from the John Lewis advert’. That will always be the song’s fate, its role; it has no purpose beyond advertising – in John Lewis’ case this is even more apparent, due to the song in question apparently being commissioned especially for the ad.

Despite facing strict advertising regulations, Radio 1 has placed the song on its ‘A List’, ensuring it gets an airing on every daytime show. Every time I heard the song it was inevitably followed up with a discussion about the cute little cartoon animals and their cuddly friendship, and what a great piece of work the advert is, falling just shy of reading out the address of the nearest John Lewis store and its opening hours.

The song has now reached number one in the UK (with Keane no doubt delighted that their original has also managed to crawl on its hands and knees into the upper reaches of the chart), with scores of people apparently keen to recreate the warm fuzzy feeling they get when Lily coos in their ear about cute rabbits and price match deals on L’Occitane hand cream. John Lewis and Lily Allen make a fortune (and Keane I suppose, bless them) while the masses are not waving but drowning in vague scraps of cultural comfort, seducing them to spend money on commodities they probably can’t fully afford but feel the imperative to do so to maintain the aforementioned social relations wrapped up in them.

This is, of course, not confined to Christmas: the haunting of creative works by advertising plumbed new depths recently with the release of the latest Romeo and Juliet screen adaption, directed by Julian ‘plebs are too dumb for proper Shakespeare’ Fellowes. The film is produced by noted shiny-thing peddler Swarovski, and is as cynical as corporate branding gets. In their own words:

‘Swarovski Entertainment is Swarovski’s film division, which collaborates with established industry partners and exceptional talent to develop, finance and produce original and artistically accomplished feature films with international box office appeal.

Swarovski Entertainment aims to express Swarovski’s philosophy, identity and creative essence through moving images to enchant and inspire audiences around the world.’[3]

The effect then, is that you’re not watching an artistic work, but a 90-minute evocation of Swarovski’s brand identity. Their ‘creative essence’ oozes out of every frame, permeating the whole film with a sad attempt to get the viewer to give Swarovski some cash:

‘Swarovski estimate that half a million crystals were used to evoke the lights and colours of the period…”Moving into film production was a natural evolution for us” says Swarovski. “We were looking for a property which expressed our brand’s ability to enchant and inspire through moving images, and we realised that the world’s greatest love story told by our greatest screen storyteller was a winning combination.”’[4]

The ultimate goal, of course, is that this project will result in more footfall in Swarovski stores, as executive producer Nadja Swarovski is well aware:

‘We are looking for passion products, something we really care about or are interested in, that also links to the Swarovski customer base and to our values. Whether it’s for the sheer empowerment of what the viewer is seeing or whether it’s the educational value, that’s the position we want to take, and to have our jewelry reflected in the film in a subtle way, and our retail stores can help promote the film through the jewelry collections tied to the films.’[5]

The power of the convergence of ‘art’ and advertising as reached a point where even vague separations between the two cannot be clearly defined. I saw this ad on TV recently and, having switched from another channel, was initially unable to tell whether it was an advert, a trailer for a film, or a TV show. Due to this ambiguity, I must admit that for a moment I was seduced by its cinematography.  I thought it looked good, I started to wonder who the actors were, who was directing it, when it would be in the cinem-oh…it’s just advertising Audi – because boxing is manly, driving is manly, and manly drivers buy Audis.

While we see the effect that advertising masquerading as creative content has, this is only highlighted by the mirror of this: instances of art masquerading as advertising. This summer the Art Everywhere project launched in the UK, which saw posters of famous artworks being displayed in advertising spaces at 22,000 sites across the country. This sounds noble enough, but its purpose (which isn’t that clear to begin with) is nullified due to the overwhelming extent to which advertising already permeates the art world. When I first saw one of these posters, in a supermarket car park, my reaction wasn’t ‘what a wonderful act of detournement, this piece of artwork has surely brightened my day’, but ‘what brand/product is this advertising?’

Of course, the whole endeavour is not as philanthropic as it might appear – if giving us a break from being bombarded with ‘unartistic’ advertising was the intention we’d have seen 22,000 blank billboards nationwide. The project has a huge array of commercial partners, including Clear Channel UK and CBS Outdoor, two of the largest outdoor advertising companies in the country. While their intentions are not clear, it would be sensible to assume that this particular instance of ‘reputation management’ is an attempt to massage any ill-feeling one may have about the amount of advertising encountered in daily life. The project fails in this aim, but for reasons likely unbeknownst to the organisers. The mistake they made has nothing to do with the execution, but in the failure to realise that they needn’t bother. We’re already willing to treat advertising like it’s simultaneously art and commodity; we have reached the point where the image (in particular but not exclusively) is inseparable from commodity.

This is not unique to art of course: sport too has been stripped of any social function in the name of capital. The past few weekends I haven’t been watching Wales’ Autumn International test matches, I’ve been watching the Dove Men’s Series, where Unilever, under the guise of a sporting competition, have been at pains to tell rugby fans – the manliest men of all, of course – that it’s okay to use grooming products without the fear of losing their masculinity. Apparently, “the strength and quality of the current Welsh side offers the perfect platform to showcase the high performance and superior skin care benefits of the Dove Men+Care male grooming range.”[6]

Art and advertisement (and, by extension, culture and commodity) are not binary, but exist as extremes on the same spectrum. The two meet in a murky, abstracted centre ground where everything is reified and nothing escapes the totality that is commodity exchange.

[1] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, (Detroit: Black & Red, 1970)

[2] Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment As Mass Deception’, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. by John Cumming (London: Verso, 1979), pp. 120-167, (p. 163).