Smithsonian considers advertising as art


Picture the museum of the 22nd century. After you've gone through the ancient Romans and Greeks, the Byzantines, the Gothic, the renaissance, the baroque, rococo and realists, on through the Impressionists, painting would virtually disappear from the walls after, say, the abstract expressionists.

Instead, you would enter a room featuring technology. Video screens would be on the walls in place of the paintings. And at each you would pause and watch 30- or 60-second television commercials, the highest and most important art form of the second half of the 20th century.

The artistic supremacy of the television advertisement is one of the arguments presented in "Selling the Dream," tonight's edition of PBS' "Smithsonian World" on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, at 9 o'clock.

Though certainly a better job of examining this phenomenon than the advertiser-supported networks could ever have done, this hour still suffers from the relentless upbeat optimism that pervades even the Smithsonian museums.

Still, there is much insight and a great deal of entertainment in the documentary, which is structured around the step-by-step procedure that takes one ad campaign -- for Mitsubishi's hot new sports car -- from idea stage to TV screen, as it digresses at various point to give a cursory history of advertising.

Narrated by Susan Stamberg, whose voice is so believable she could sell candy at a dentist's convention, "Selling the Dream" goes back to the beginnings of advertising in the 19th century, when manufacturers made the claims and ad agencies merely bought the space, until the agencies persuaded the manufacturers to forget about the product and start thinking about the consumer.

The examples chosen to illustrate this switch seem unbelievable now -- a magazine ad that tells women to use this cold cream and get engaged, another for a mouthwash warns "Always a bridesmaid, never a bride" -- but those museum goers of the 22nd century will undoubtedly chuckle at the more-than-implied promises of easy sex that accompany virtually every beer commercial made these days.

The beginning of television in the 1950s allowed even more manipulation of the consumers' fantasies. A product wouldn't just give you a cleaner home, it would give you a white knight galloping through on a horse, or a white tornado that would magically make your life sparkle.

One of the superstars of the ad world interviewed is Shirley Polykoff. She came up with the slogan "Does she, or doesn't she?" for Clairol hair coloring products in 1959. Those five words were credited with a 400 percent increase in Clairol sales, as well as a change in the country's attitude toward women dying their )) hair.

The 1960s are seen as something of the renaissance of television advertising, when the technical and creative skills of the agencies were reaching their peak and had yet to be burdened by the extensive research and testing that accompanies every campaign now. From Volkswagen to Alka Seltzer, the ads of the time made you want to watch.

Along the way, the Smithsonian cameras go to Grey Advertising in New York, where groups of "thirtysomething" types -- loosened ties, baggy pants -- work to come up with campaigns for Mitsubishi, taking their ideas to higher and higher executives, hoping to get that go-ahead.

Finally the ones chosen by the agency are presented to the Mitsubishi advertising executive. The winner is one that equates the sports car with a thoroughbred race horse. That goes before a higher Mitsubishi exec. Further refinements occur before a director and crew and horse and car take to the track at Hollywood Park to film the spot.

Roland Marchand, a professor in the history department at the University of California at Davis, makes the argument that advertising is one of the most predominant art forms of our time, pointing out the amount of talent and creative energy that goes into it.

Accustomed as we are to the surface separation of art and commerce, at first the idea seems absurd. But when you think about it, most great art over the centuries has been created at the behest of big money, whether it was the riches of pharaohs, popes, kings, Medicis or the industrial magnates of the 19th century.

And much of it was advertising something, a ruler's life after death, a particular form of religion, a patron's saintly works or a performance at the Moulin Rouge. Removed from the world of commerce by time, television ads may be able to be judged on their aesthetic content. And perhaps deemed worthy of admiration.

In any case, they are such an important and intrinsic part of our lives, they are certainly worthy of our attention. "Selling the Dream" is far from the last word, but it's a good place to start.

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