I was talking to comedian Martin Soan‘s daughter Sydney yesterday.
She is writing what sounds like a fascinating university dissertation on Humour in Graphic Art and I told her I don’t think her father is actually a comedian at all – he is a performance artist with humour in everything he does. Art ain’t just Tracey Emin’s unmade bed in a Saatchi gallery.
A famous English comedienne once wisely told me that, because of the money involved, the best creatives go into the ad industry, the second best go into television and the third-rate go into PR for the publishing industry because there’s no money into it.
People complain about advertising hoardings in the street but they wouldn’t complain about a new art gallery which has free entry and, every day, changes the art it displays. That’s what ads are. You drive down the road or you walk down the street or you take a tube train anywhere in London and you’re travelling through an ever-changing art gallery. Some of the most creative people in the country are creating continually visually and verbally exciting works of often high originality, displaying them across the country at roadsides, on buses, in trains and stations… and these very creative and usually very costly visual works are constantly being changed for something new and equally visually stimulating and original.
In the Renaissance, art was sponsored by people who had the most money – the Church and the Medicis. The same applies today. The ad industry, using commercial businesses‘ money is sponsoring sometimes great, though always transient, art. I still remember some of the images in a famously surreal Benson & Hedges ad campaign of long ago. They were a bloody sight better than Van Gogh’s awful pictures of sunflowers or dodgy-looking chairs. And I remember the Benson & Hedges cinema ads. Particlarly one shot in the desert with a lizard and an isolated luxury house with a swimming pool.
People complain about ads between TV programmes but they don’t complain about the quality of up-market art films on TV or in the cinema. Per minute of screen time, an ad very often costs more than a mega-budget movie. And often both are directed and designed by the same people.
The ad industry attracts, most often, the brightest, best, most creative visual talents in the country because that’s where the money is. The best graphic artists, the best photographers, the best directors, make-up artists, designers and cinematographers earn their living from the ad industry. The highly-regarded British film industry is built on the financial cashlow provided by our ad industry which supports and stimulates the talents of the best creatives.
It’s bloody great for Art and ‘twas ever thus.
But what I don’t understand is this…
It seems to me that US ads are concerned with selling the qualities of the product – all those dull shampoo ads telling you the scientific reasons why the product supposedly works.
It feels like UK ads are more concerned with making jokes, adding surreal images, linking the product to a general but very vague happy feeling. What are those Guinness ads about? They’re not about the quality of the beer – not when you are watching Peruvians doing odd things in Andean villages. What are the Marks & Spencer ads about at Christmas? Not about the products they sell; this year it’s all about Peter Kay and Twiggy prancing around very entertainingly.
US ads have a tendency towards the hard-sell. UK ads seem to be soft-sell sometimes to the point of the joke or the surreal image overwhelming the product. The artists seem to have taken over the asylum.
What’s that all about?
Is it because, as American comic Lewis Schaffer currently says in his act, the British like to define themselves by their humour – or, as Colonials like him would say, humor?
All countries believe they have a sense of humour/humor but Britain, suggests Lewis, is the only country that actually thinks its strongest defining factor is its humour. Even Margaret Thatcher had to try to appear to have a sense of humour to soften her image. Being seen as ‘strong’ is not enough in a British leader; he/she has to be seen to have a sense of humour.
President Obama has to show humour too, for PR reasons. But Americans do not see humor as their best characteristic.
The Americans arguably like to see their best quality as being go-getting and full of energy. The French define themselves by their food or as great philosophers. The Germans are efficient. But the British think their single main national defining characteristic is their humour.
To an extent, you can get the feel of a country by watching the type of ads they create. In UK ads, humour often seems more important than products’ qualities.
For sure, any day, I’d rather watch Peter Kay dancing in a Marks & Spencer TV ad than hear about the quality of their beans or sprouts – or look at another badly-drawn bunch of sunflowers by Van Gogh.