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A Hard Sell: The Boundaries between Art and Ads

Art-oriented students are often conflicted about pursuing the financial security of advertising on the one hand and the stigma of "selling out" on the other.
Art-oriented students are often conflicted about pursuing the financial security of advertising on the one hand and the stigma of "selling out" on the other.
By Charlotte D. Smith and Natalia Wojcik, Crimson Staff Writers

“There’s no way GQ hired you to be a staff writer. So it’s obviously one of those advertorial sections, where it looks like a real article so they trick you into reading it, and then you find out it’s a paid advertisement. Which is both morally and creatively bankrupt. So who’s the sponsor?” So says the character Ray on “Girls,” in a recent season three episode of the show in which protagonist and aspiring writer Hannah gets a job in the advertorial department of GQ. His cynical view of ad-making is borne out by Hannah’s experience at the magazine. Hannah soon realizes that her co-writers are has-beens—their art has dried out, and they have sold out. Frustrated by the nature of “advertorial” work and terrified of ending up in the same place as her washed-up colleagues, Hannah simultaneously quits and is fired after a very public outburst. “Girls” may be pure fiction, but this made-for-TV plot speaks to a question that many artists are forced to confront—whether it is possible to earn a living in the advertising industry without “selling out.”

For student artists at Harvard, as well as students involved with business side of advertising, the answer appears to be yes. According to independent artists around campus, there will always be tension between the creation of art for art’s sake and the creation of artistic advertisements designed to sell a product. But technological advancements have opened up more avenues for creative innovations in the realm of advertising and are making the field appealing to artists for reasons that go beyond financial perks.


Consumers began tuning into television shows in greater numbers and taking more notice of the 60-second commercial spots that aired after the newscasts. Many advertising agencies, like Young and Rubicam, produced their own shows, which maximized exposure to their diverse line of products. In 1948, three agency-produced shows—”Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” (produced by Y&R for Lipton), “Toast of the Town” with Ed Sullivan (Kenyon & Eckhardt for Ford’s Lincoln-Mercury division) and “Texaco Star Theater” with Milton Berle (Kudner Agency)—were hits that contributed to the surge in purchases of television sets. Though television commercials communicated ideas in a different medium, agencies still had their in-house creative teams draw storyboards for each scene.

Madison Avenue became synonymous with  advertising’s “golden age” in the 1950s and 1960s. Agencies in New York became just as famous for the talented individuals in their creative departments as for the work these agencies produced. One such individual was David Ogilvy, one of the founders of Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather (now Ogilvy & Mather). Ogilvy gained fame for his ads promoting Rolls Royce cars and Dove soap bars, as the advertisements for these products represented a departure from traditional messaging for consumer products of this sort because of the more subtle nature of each campaign. He retired as chairman of Ogilvy and Mather in 1973 but remained a legend in the advertising world.

Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, and countless other Madison Avenue advertising figures ushered in a gilded age of print advertising. As consumerism in America rapidly expanded, creative leaders in these agencies continually found new and effective ways in which to glamorize the mundane. Don Draper, a character in the widely acclaimed television series “Mad Men,” embodies the various attitudes and characteristics of agency leaders in the ’60s, including an eye for the unusual, an intuitive sense about what resonates with an audience, and a relentless drive to succeed. Strong creative teams and talented artistic teams were the cornerstone of these agencies, as effective visualization in these print advertisements was the top priority for ad-makers.


The nature of advertising changed as technology began to increasingly dominate the way in which people collected information. In addition to more sophisticated television sets with a more diverse line of shows and commercials, people began to invest in home computers, cellular phones, and the still-rudimentary Internet. Because this new technology was so dynamic, any advertisements promoting new technology products had to be equally as interactive. Industry insiders working for a Forbes panel on Super Bowl advertisements agreed that a  watershed moment in technology advertising came in 1984 in the form of an Apple Inc. commercial promoting its Macintosh Personal Computer. Its story-like structure resonated with audiences long after the football game ended. The ad spot was rerun so many times by news outlets that the company estimates it gained about $5 million worth of free press from these favorable reactions . This was not an insignificant outcome, as Apple spent $900,000 making the commercial. Notably, the most popular commercials aired in the ’80s and ’90s featured artists (actors and musical artists) but did not glorify the work of copywriters and sketch artists working behind the scenes.

This trend became even more pronounced with the advent of internet advertising. The first banner ads were placed at the top of websites in 1994 and were shortly followed by pop-up ads and pay-per-click keyword advertising. Instead of changing the channel on a the television set during a commercial, Internet users were forced to encounter pop up ads as they clicked through to their desired pages--ads were unavoidable. As Youtube, Facebook, and other forms of social media gained prominence starting in 2006, online advertising began to slowly become more and more accessible. Advertising campaigns now became “viral” and videos promoting certain products could be shared on numerous sites by millions of people.For the first time, online campaigns allowed the consumer to actively interact with the product and the company behind the product, a dimension that print advertising could never fully replicate. Instead of carefully considered drawings, companies began searching for graphic designers with a working knowledge of digital advertising.

Modern advertising is in many ways similar to its earlier post-war roots, though there is a notable shift in the types of art that are successful in digital advertisements and the type of artists who can participate in the field. As a result, there exists a tension between the artistic community and this new advertising community, which in many ways has changed the way that we think of the industry.


Visual aesthetics are certainly fundamental for Daniel A. Citron ’16. A student who has done extensive work in the realms of both design and filmmaking, Citron does not believe that there is a necessary division between advertising and art.

Citron’s background in design is considerable. Last year, he worked as a front-end designer for the team behind the redesign of Citron has also done design work for Google, where he was employed as a film and design intern. Citron’s background in film is equally impressive. His films have been screened and won accolades at multiple film festivals, including the Los Angeles Film Festival, the] San Francisco International Film Festival, and the Seattle International Film Festival.

Though Citron is committed to continuing to produce work that is not connected to advertising, he said he would not consider working in advertising to be selling out. As someone who has worked in multiple fields of art production, Citron believes whether an advertisement is a commercial or a web-based design, it is the quality of the content rather than the particular medium utilized that determines whether the advertisement is also a work of art. “Advertising is essentially storytelling, no matter what medium you use” Citron says.

Citron also disagrees with the notion that artists working in advertisements are washed up. Asked for his opinion about former artists working in advertising, Citron is adamant that the artistic talents of these individuals should not be shortchanged. “I wouldn’t call them ‘former artists,’” he says. “They’re still artists.”

Citron grants that working in advertising may not provide the same amount of freedom as working on a personal creative project. But he believes that the particular art of advertising requires just as much artistic ability for success as personal artistic ventures, and also presents exciting challenges of its own. “For me, film has its own draw and design has its own draw. And I think advertising is its own medium that has a lot that’s very intriguing about it,” he says. “If you’re an artist that wants to go into advertising, it’s an interesting field because you’re constantly presented with creative problems to solve through your art.”

Sierra L. Katow ’16, a cartoonist whose work has appeared in a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine, is more skeptical about the prospect of making a career in advertising. “Working in advertising is a less enticing option,” she says. “I would feel like it was not quite as true to what I want to be making as an artist.”

But Katow believes that the answer to the question of whether an artist who goes into advertising is selling out is dependent on the particular feelings of the artist. She states that if advertising represents a true interest for the artist, then pursuing a career in advertising is not selling out. However, “If you’re giving up what you want to do in order to do [advertising] then it might be.” One question with no room for doubt is the financial advantages of working in advertising. “It does seem like a practical option for getting a salary,” Katow says.


While student artists debate whether or not a career in advertising is a viable path, one student group at Harvard works to promote the interests of students eager to work in advertising. The Harvard Advertising and Marketing Club aims to teach and inform its members about careers in advertising and marketing, connecting them with professionals and experts in order to foster creativity and the exchange of knowledge. The club frequently acts a liaison between Harvard student artists and advertising companies, providing students with opportunities to intern or work at these companies. A student-run organization, HAMC focuses specifically on the undergraduate population. In recent years HAMC has received a number of awards. Most notably, a team of students representing HAMC placed in the top three teams at the 2011 FutureM marketing conference.

The outgoing co-president of HAMC, Kate A. Abraham ’14, says she firmly believes that advertisements have the potential to be works of art. Although primarily interested in the analytical aspect of the marketing at first, Abraham found herself increasingly drawn to the artistic side of the club, as more and more student artists were joining up to help do advertising for local organizations, such as the homeless shelter.

Abraham acknowledges that the fact that advertisements exist to make companies money complicates the view that they can be credible as works of art. “From my experience, there is this idea that art...should be almost pure in a sense—that it shouldn’t necessarily be just for profit or to persuade people to do something.”

But Abraham stresses that, for decades now, artists have been drawn to the advertising world. Whether for practical monetary reasons, or for the challenge that it presents, artists increasingly find themselves working in advertising. In Abraham’s opinion, working in advertising provides artists with a unique set of challenges that can be conducive to creativity. “The thing that I love about advertising and marketing is that it requires me to go a step beyond what I would do in my own creative projects because you are trying to encourage some sort of action,” says Abraham. “It’s very action-oriented, and I’m drawn to that. For me, it’s more complex and that’s why it’s interesting.”

As intertwined as art and advertisements are in marketing strategies, there have been some controversies and discord between the two worlds, something that speakers invited to lecture to HAMC have addressed before.

“There’s a lot of merit in just having art for art’s sake,” Abraham says. “I think there is a lot of pushback in the art community towards getting involved in advertising because you can’t just make the art you want to make you have to make the art that will be persuasive and engaging for an audience. So in that sense you’re limited in what it’s doing for you personally, but I think you can find a lot of enjoyment in your work.”

In discussing how the marriage of art and advertising can be construed as undermining the purity of a work of art, Abraham cited a well-known anecdote. “One thing that’s always stood out to me is Nike [using] the Beatles’ song ‘Revolution,’ and [the Beatles] ultimately suing Nike and saying, ‘We don’t write jingles; that this is a part of who we are, and we’re not going to put a value on it and just sell things.’”

But Abraham thinks that there is a difference between artists not wanting previously existing work to be used in advertisements and artists creating work expressly for the purpose of advertising a product. “I do believe there is tension [between art and advertising],” Abraham says. “But that doesn’t mean that advertisements don’t require artistic skills.”

Abraham believes that the advent of new media has had a positive impact on the relationship between advertisements and art, pushing advertisements further into the art world. In Abraham’s opinion, the transformation of the landscape of advertising in response to business demands, advances in technology, and cultural changes has bolstered the capacity of the advertising industry to attract artistic talent. “Advertising has become more artistic because there are so many more avenues,” Abraham says. “Now you have social media, and so many more outlets to connect with people.”


While there are obvious downsides to advertising in the internet age (pop-ups, anyone?), it seems that the advertising industry is not entirely divorced from the artistic community in which it originated. The issue remains divisive for students who are less invested in the structure of the advertising world, but this tension serves as a critique of the way consumers process information about products—and not necessarily an indictment of the industry itself.

—Staff writers Charlotte D. Smith and Natalia Wojcik can be reached at and

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