The Collision of Art and Advertising

Advertising is the perpetual search for creative ways to promote a product (or occasionally a brilliant idea or worthy cause). A recent Samsung ad campaign borrows (really, takes) that creative inspiration from classic works of art. The ad campaign shows famous self-portraitists taking “selfies” with the NX Mini camera that features a “flip-up” screen display. The tag line reads: “For self-portraits. Not selfies.” The idea behind the ad is that the camera allows one to take masterpiece-quality self-portraits and not the ubiquitous “selfie,” which is often a low quality image.

The ads—while admittedly attention-grabbing and amusing—call into question the relationship between art and advertising. Historically, this relationship has been characterized as “antagonistic, even exploitative.” And certainly Samsung is not the first company to use famous paintings in a product advertisement.

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As I discuss in a previous blog post, art is most commonly conceptualized as a system of relationships between the creator, object and viewer. The artist generally hopes to convey meaning through the work of art. Advertising can be conceptualized as a means to promote thoughts or actions, from encouraging someone to buy a product to promoting socially-desirable behavior. Ads are generally targeted to a specific audience.

But what happens when art and advertising collide?

Let us first consider law and ethics. From a legal perspective, most works of art enjoy copyright protection, so a company cannot legally take any work of art and use it for commercial purposes. However, certain art works (like van Gogh’s famous self-portrait) are now considered public domain, and they become freely available for commercial or non-commercial use.

Second, ethics must be considered. Ultimately, the ads lack originality and potentially do great damage to the original art works and to human appreciation of art works. Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait” has been destroyed and trivialized for the sole purpose of selling a product. The style and concept of the original piece have been appropriated, which thereby calls into question the actual “creativity” of the ad campaign itself. In addition, the ad itself is a manipulation, which is disconcerting considering the fact that the product being advertised purports to capture “real images.” Finally, the ad plays into the “selfie” craze, which is undoubtedly reflective of our self-obsessed, media-centric culture. This is not the first time Samsung has capitalized on the selfie craze. Product placement by Samsung was directly responsible for the disingenuous Ellen DeGeneres Oscar selfie.

From an aesthetic perspective, one could potentially argue that these Samsung ads are beautifully crafted with poignant (the sunflowers) details, reflective of popular knowledge concerning van Gogh’s art. But in examining them closely there are some disturbing features, including the incorrect angle of the camera image, which is not accurately reflective of the subject to the line of sight of the camera. I could almost get over that. But what I cannot condone is the distasteful inclusion of the knife on the side table, which is most certainly intended to be a reference to van Gogh’s infamous self-mutilation. The inclusion of the knife is shameless, not to mention potentially historically inaccurate given new research that purports that van Gogh himself was not responsible for the loss of his ear lobe.

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The selfie craze and the Samsung ad campaign are a vivid reminder that we live in an age in which something cannot possibly have happened unless we have a photo to prove it—and further that we then have to flaunt the selfie-captured activity via social media.

Particularly disturbing in this case is the collision of selfie and art for this ad campaign. Van Gogh was a prolific self-portraitist and created the images of himself as an opportunity to perfect his art and to save the expense of a model. He most certainly never intended his likeness to be manipulated and exploited to sell a product.

Samsung ad and header image courtesy of http://designtaxi.com/news/371378/Samsung-Ads-Show-Famous-Artists-Taking-Selfies-To-Create-Iconic-Self-Portraits/

Vincent van Gogh Self-Portrait curtesy of https://www.nga.gov/collection/gallery/vangogh/vangogh-106382.html

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