When I started in advertising, I was told by some of my colleagues, often in a melancholy tone, that our creative department was littered with the wreckage of failed novelists, poets and painters. I took this to mean that our industry was the refuge of artists who couldn’t make a go of the real thing.
As I met more people and gained more experience, I realized that this was a distorted view. I met many in the business who were published writers but enjoyed writing ad campaigns. And art directors who had exhibited their art quite successfully. I came to see that “pure” and “commercial” art could co-exist. The choice was up to the artist.
As of late, I’m come to realize that in fact, what sets apart great advertising from the merely “good enough”—is poetry and artistry. As human beings, whether we’re looking at an ad or a mural on the side of a building or a piece of furniture, we are susceptible to—and yearning for—poetry. Poetry, in the sense of beauty. In the sense of craft. In the sense of something sublime. We do not turn off this faculty when we’re looking at an ad. It is always active, always seeking to be inspired. We want our ads to be made by real poets and painters and photographers. Because it works.
What made Absolut Vodka into such a powerful brand, was not really the vodka itself. Most people have a difficult time truly distinguishing the taste of one vodka from another. It was the gorgeous and original campaign that extended for years, using the shape of the bottle and logo to pay homage to artists such as Warhol or Christo. But always in a way that was artful, and that honoured both our intelligence and our desire for beauty.
Since we’re on the topic of vodka, two more moments of sublime: First, the iconic Smirnoff ad from the 60s that launched the vodka martini, via an unforgettable photograph of a martini glass in mirror image, taken by the great photographer Irving Penn. You can frame this ad. It’s visual poetry.
The other, the Grey Goose commercial from a few years ago, which has no words at all. Just images and sounds of people enjoying an afternoon on a yacht. You never see their faces, but you can hear their laughter, the sound of oysters being shucked, the clinking of ice in tumblers. You see their feet dangling over the sides of the boat, and the sun peaking through the sails. And the voice at the end that simply tells you: “Grey Goose. The best tasting vodka in the world.”
Bartender? Can you pour me a Grey Goose?