Walker Art Center

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The Art of Advertising
Two British experts discuss trends, tactics, and the pop appeal of TV commercials

Paul Silburn has seen the best of British television advertising from both sides of the judging table. A former board member of the British Television Advertising Awards (BTAA), he worked for Leo Burnett London, where he received numerous honors, including BTAA’s the ITV Award for Best Television Commercial of the Year. His projects included a spot for John West Salmon that featured fisticuffs between a fisherman and a grizzly bear. Last year Silburn became executive creative director at Fallon Worldwide in Minneapolis. To commemorate the Walker’s 21st year of presenting the awards, Silburn joins BTAA’s administrator Peter Bigg for an e-mail interview with the Walker’s Paul Schmelzer on the funny business of advertising, trends in the field, and what it means to have the British Television Advertising Awards screening alongside an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s art.

Every year, humor—or humour—seems to be a huge part of the show, punctuated only by the inevitable sobering PSA where someone gets flung through a windshield by a drunk driver. Why is humor so effective, and how does its use in European advertising differ from its use here?

Paul Silburn:

Humour is a universal language so it travels well, especially visual humour. It’s probably the most common style of advertising and, because it is, the best work needs to be really outstanding to cut through. The biggest differences in the use of humour between Europe and the U.S. are probably sex and violence. European ads can be much more risqué, whereas American ads can contain more gratuitous scenes of people getting hurt. Both sides of the Atlantic seem to look enviously at what the other can get away with.

Peter Bigg:

We have a history of wariness to the skills of the salesman, which means that a hard sell doesn’t often work. Humour is a way of interesting us for long enough to listen. It’s very clever, though—much more ironic than slapstick and increasingly bordering on the cruel.

So humor is alive and well, but how about the 30-second TV spot? In this age of viral media, the Internet, and buzz marketing, some have declared the death of the 30-second TV spot. What’s your prognosis for its health?

PB:

There’s an element of confusion as to whether the 30-second spot is declining or whether everything else is catching it up. It’s probably a mixture of both but, for now, broadcast TV still has the edge. Last year my introduction to the Walker show majored on virals [Internet-based campaigns spread by viewers forwarding the commercials to others] becoming the largest single category for entries. It hasn’t been repeated, and I haven’t seen a decent viral for weeks now. Brave and innovative ideas that have been wonderfully made still stick out on TV, especially when the quality of a lot of programming plumbs new depths of content.

PS:

For many advertisers, TV is probably still the most effective way to reach millions of consumers, but things are changing. We’re constantly looking for new ways to engage with people, and the Internet is the biggest single newmedia opportunity. The BTAA has recognised this by introducing a viral film section. I don’t think it was particularly big on awards this year, but it will be in the future.

The Walker has been hosting the awards since 1984. While advertising is sometimes considered low art compared to museum-variety high art, more people view—and discuss and blog about and respond to—advertising. What is the interplay between art and advertising? And what do you think about the fact that the Walker program will coincide with a show of Andy Warhol silkscreens?

PB:

Before we began screenings at the Walker, we showed the awards at MoMA. At that time, people like the Scott brothers, Hugh Hudson, Adrian Lyne, and Alan Parker were still making commercials, so there was an artistic crossover between hotshot Hollywood movie directors and UK commercial directors. Since then, the show is much more advertising than artistic. I don’t follow the reasoning that advertising is less than art; it is completely different. The sole purpose of advertising is to sell a product or service. If it doesn’t, it has failed completely. In seeking to realise its goal of selling, an advertisement may use a variety of artistic talent that may deliver a pretty billboard or a marvelous piece of film, but without a sale it remains just that.

PS:

I’ve no desire to enter into an advertising-as-art debate, but I’m amazed at how many thousands of people come to the Walker each year to look at British TV advertising. I’m not sure if it’s because there’s not much else to do in Minnesota in the winter or because people really do think there’s some artistic merit to advertising. It’s weird and also flattering to think that my work will be exhibited alongside Andy Warhol’s. I hope a few people can tear themselves away from ads for jeans, cars, computer games, and beer to check out Andy’s Marilyns. ;-)