What art history has to do with advertising

We owe this contribution to Heidi Klum. Well, of course I wrote it. But Mrs. Klum offered me the perfect introduction to today’s topic: How advertising copies art. I discovered her, Heidi, at a bus stop. On the poster for the current season of her casting show she climbs onto a white sandy beach, dressed with a very small panty around her body and a very big pearl in her hand, from a very big shell. And because I am a professional idiot, I didn’t think at first sight, “Oh, the Heidi”, or “Oh, vacation”, but “Oh, Botticelli”. More precisely, to his Venus.

Just lazy instead of creative?

In advertising one likes to fall back on art. Yet you expect enough creative minds there to be able to come up with their own ideas instead of using old pictures. Or…? I’ve already briefly touched on the topic of pictorial memory the other day, and I want to take a closer look at it here with you.

To stay with Venus: As goddess and epitome of (female) beauty, it’s not surprising that her name and image are used for advertising: A well known manufacturer of shavers named the female version of his product (pink, of course…) after her and has pretty young ladies running around on pretty blue beaches in his commercials. Combined with the slogan “Discover the goddess in you”. Greek mythology reduced to a minimum.

Why there is a car called “Adam” is not deciphered by me, but a famous Adam, or a part of him, has also become an advertising figure in various variations: The depiction of his creation in the Sistine Chapel, above all the detail of the almost touching hands of the first man and his creator, has not only been reproduced countless times on art prints. This motif has also been used by advertisers diligently – and not just once. This is obvious in the poster for the film Bruce Almighty (which is worth seeing, by the way).

The gesture of the hands moving towards each other has also been recorded by mobile phone manufacturer Nokia. When you switch on the device, you can see a large and a small hand gliding across the display, synchronized to the sound of the jingle. The gesture not only goes hand in hand with the “animation” of the device, it also refers as a non-verbal action to the animation of verbal communication through the mobile phone.

Slightly alienated by the product, but no less clearly recognizable, Lego has also taken up the motif of the hands stretched out in the opposite direction. In the play with the little plastic man, this comes to life (at least in the imagination of the person acting with him).

A manufacturer of care products who “garnished” his goods into the pictures of the Old Masters was quite brazen, because he didn’t even come close to trying to contribute something creative himself. (What annoys me in addition to the low personal contribution and the lack of any reference to the picture theme is the evaluation of earlier body representations according to today’s criteria. As if they had always been valid, and not, like all body ideals, a child of their time. Then the Three Graces are posthumously declared by Rubens to be problem zone ladies, so to speak, whose cellulite can finally be creamed away after 400 years…)

On the other hand, the advertising agency of a big bank did it more skilfully many years ago: On a poster (unfortunately I couldn’t find it on the net) it used forms that immediately reminded me of Joan Miró’s pictures. The artist’s heirs, who held the image rights, complained about this. But unsuccessfully, because none of the used forms had actually been taken from a Miró picture. The graphic artists had clearly oriented themselves on the painter, but had then devised their own forms.

Two Careers as a Coverboy

The print media also make diligent use of art. In its last issue, a well-known weekly newspaper used the young man on the left as a cover boy. A true treasure trove is also the archive of one of the largest German news magazines. Here the Who is Who of art history is “reflected” (…). Of course we also meet Venus and Adam here.

As a friend of the subtle, I like the title pictures more, which work with allusions to paintings and sculptures. It’s like playing memory, except you can’t flip cards. Here are a few examples:

Don’t we know each other from somewhere?

But why do advertisers and newspaper cover designers like to use art motifs so much? First of all, pictures attract our attention much more than pure text (unless it’s oversized and bold and you write “picture” next to it). Images make it possible to convey themes much more concisely and quickly. If the picture is also known to us, even if it is only that we have unconsciously stored it in our memory, we don’t have to “read” it completely anew. The recognition effect accelerates our receptivity. (This is similar to reading texts. Because of our experience and routine, we no longer have to struggle from letter to letter, as novice readers do. Rather, we recognize the words immediately by the form and typical combinations of the letters). In addition, we simply like things that we are familiar with.

What we also see in the examples here (and this is not due to a specific selection made by me): They very often resort to representations of people. (Also) We may not be so aware of this – with the flood of images we encounter every day – but we identify with every person we see on posters, covers, advertising films, etc. – Because we belong to the same species and because of our evolutionary heritage we are trained to recognize faces very quickly and to grasp their state of mind. An image that only runs over objects or products is never as appealing to us as one that uses a human figure and (of course this is the real key) its emotions.

A particularly subtle, albeit macabre, but successful example, which manages without people, but nevertheless “portrays” one, is a poster of the Café in the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.