A Hard Sell: The Boundaries between Art and Ads

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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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