Six degrees of separation: The gap between advertising and art.

Is data-driven marketing taking away our creative freedom?  

By: Alfie,   3 minutes

It’s half eleven in the morning and I’m standing in the Plymouth University Art & Design Degree Show staring at a huge pile of dirt. There’s nobody around to explain why it’s there or what its point is. There is a plaque on the wall, presumably for this purpose. But it’s inaccessible. Due to careful positioning behind a huge pile of dirt.

There’s only one explanation. I don’t understand art.

Advertising, I understand. It has a logical process. See this, buy that.

Art on the other hand has always baffled and fascinated me.

I pass a series of magazine glamour shots pinned to a wall. Each one has been scrunched up and loosely unfolded and I imagine them as posters for anti-wrinkle cream, but I’m pretty sure it’s been done.

Screwed up art

This is my problem. I see art as unfinished advertising. Which it isn’t, I know. The process is abstract, open to interpretation. Defined by the absence of definition.

In this way, advertising and art could not be more different. And yet there’s always been such an overlap between the two. Ad agencies are a constant battle between those wanting to make art and those wanting to make adverts.

As I enter the illustration section I feel slightly more at home. These pictures have words. Scribbled phrases or quotes that add to the story. They fit in with the classic first-step advertising model of image and text. I look at graphic versions of famous novels and illustrations decorated with prose.

Wuthering Heights as a graphic novel. A lovely way to reach a new audience.In my experience this is as close as advertising and art ever seem to come. When artists are commissioned to produce adverts. And even then they’re adhering to a pre-approved template.

But this isn’t even the direction advertising is going in.

This is what worries me. Looking around the displays from the six degrees I visit, it’s obvious the students are really passionate about their subjects.

The illustrations are illustrious, the art finer than fine.

But we live in the age of Google Analytics. Of pay-per-click links and search engine optimisation. There’s nothing abstract about search engine optimisation.

In the Graphic Communication and Typography section there are countless examples of good advertising. Great ideas, striking layouts and original typography. I wish I’d been able to create work like this at uni. Or now for that matter. The artistic influence is obvious. This is the work of students guided by inspiration, not results.

A VisionAid campaign. A solid idea that could work across all sorts of media.

I get why things like SEO and PPC are important. But if I’m honest, I think people put far too much emphasis on them. Everyone wants their marketing to be measured and success rates recorded. We want to see the fruits of our labour before they’ve had a chance to ripen.

Too few people want to take a leap of faith. To just put their message out there because they believe in it.

If advertising ever was appreciated as an art form, we’re dangerously close to that time ending.

In the Photography department there’s one piece that catches my eye. It couldn’t be simpler. It’s a letter from the 1940s, from a woman called Bessie to her friend Lily. Bessie is unwell and receiving regular visits from the doctor. She talks about how she hopes one day she and Lily can go for a walk in the garden. Either side of the letter is a photograph. One of Bessie, one of Lily.

My heart breaks.

This is how advertising should be done. Real stories, real connections, honest intentions. New technology doesn’t have to mean a reliance on numbers. It also means anything can be a promotion. Developments in mobile technology mean you don’t have to slap a logo and call to action on your advert. You just need to provoke a reaction. The technology will do the rest.


The letter would make the perfect advert for a National Trust garden. And it wouldn’t take away from the beauty of the piece. It would still be a real story. Just one that’s been turned into an access point. A way for you to become a part of it.

It’s easy to say SEO and the rest are necessary to bring marketing to people’s attention. But if your message is right for your audience this should happen organically.

After all, the internet is just people.

And while I might not understand art, artists understand people.

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