A Hard Sell: The Boundaries between Art and Ads

“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.


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