Ever since I was a little kid, I loved commercials. Between episodes of “My Life as a Teenage Robot” and “Spongebob Squarepants”, I would enjoy the little 15 second messages, all promising hours of fun if you called a number on screen. I liked to imagine myself with all of these advertised trinkets and toys and how cool it would be if I had them (my personal favorite was the Spiderman gloves that sprayed silly string or water when you made his trademark hand position). Little did I know that I was actually watching a fascinating combination of art and psychology on my television screen. In fact, advertising combines both science and art that can, at times, actually create an interesting product worthy of preservation.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), psychologists have been involved in advertising since the 1950s when Vance Packard released the book “The Hidden Persuaders”. The book detailed all of the ways advertising agencies employ psychologists to tap into consumers’ minds and create ad campaigns based on what they find. Even today, psychologists work as both consultants and strategists for companies and advertisement agencies to help get the best results out of a message or campaign. For instance, in the 1960s, Pepsi and Coke used to end their advertisements with showing their brand name, but psychologists have figured out that this method does not actually help people remember the brand,“By then, says Raymond, viewers are so engrossed in thinking about the preceding images they often don't even notice this so-called punctuation” (Clay, “Advertising as Science"). Even now, consumer psychologists are working to find the best ways to get messages across to consumers and to compel consumers to buy said product. It is natural to feel a bit nervous about the idea that there are scientists attempting to find the best way to affect your behavior towards their own ends. Even the government recognizes that commercials should be regulated; the FCC has limits on time and content when it comes to marketing on children’s channels. However, rest assured, psychologists (nor anyone else for that matter) have not somehow conquered the world with advertisements just yet. First of all, according to the APA, psychologists are continually being cut from advertising budgets due to a long term trend of cutting the research and development side of companies. While there are psychologists working in consumer advertising, the vast majority of marketing workers are not trained psychologists. It is also important to remember that science is constantly changing. Take Packard’s book for example. Packard used an example in which a theater would subliminally show images of popcorn and soda during a movie to drive people to buy concessions. While this did partially ruin the reputation of consumer psychologists (in the eyes of consumers) for generations to come, the given example actually turned out to be an ineffectual method. In a way, because of consumer psychology, we have been able to make progress in science by having incentive to apply it in a manner outside of an academic journal.
There has been an increasing debate about the relationship between advertising and art. Is advertising an art form? Proprietors of the argument are quick to cite artists such as Tim and Eric and Norman Rockwell and their work for GE and Kellogg’s respectively. Even now, the Smithsonian shows vintage print advertisements for products such as ivory soap, Krispy Kreme, and Hill Brothers coffee, validating the advertisement of having the potential to become larger than its original purpose of selling a product. Some argue that advertisements are both a piece of history and an art form. Others, such as Mary Warlick, do not consider advertising so fondly, “Art is a visual imagery that is meant to elevate thinking in an aesthetic context. What advertising does is give a visual record of our cultural ambiance and history, our tastes, our trends, our wants, our needs, our buying. It is never meant to elevate us to that higher plane” (Mellilo, “Is Advertising Art?”). Warlick here takes on the argument that because the intention of the piece is allegedly not beyond the scope of wanting the consumer to buy a product, it cannot be considered art. This creates another debate of whether or not art, by definition, must have a purpose (and if it does, it must have an acceptable purpose). While I do not think that every single piece of advertising is worthy of the Smithsonian, there are some advertisements that deserve to be preserved as art (such as Rockwell’s Kellogg’s ad). We have already naturally culled out pieces of advertising that do not deserve to be preserved just as we have naturally culled tv shows, music, and books that we have not deemed deserving (for better or for worse). No matter the intention, advertisements still apply human skill and creativity to create a visual form, no matter the intention.
Advertisements are everywhere in this modern capitalist society that combines artistry and psychology to become pieces of their own. Psychologists try to take apart what makes a person tick. How can one create a message that sticks with someone long after the advertisement? Artistry also has its own element in advertisement. A good advertisement has the ability to transcend its product and become a work of its own as demonstrated in the Smithsonian exhibits. The Smithsonian saw something more than just an advertisement and chose to preserve it as a landmark of American cultural history. Advertising is ubiquitous, but it should not be underestimated. It is a snapshot of both art and science coming together for a purpose.
Here is a great example of how advertising can actually become art. Below is performance artist/comedy team Tim and Eric’s GE ad. While still advertising GE lightbulbs, Tim and Eric simultaneously mock advertising GE lightbulbs, creating a hilarious, but oddly deep, cultural commentary.