Times Square in New York City is the unquestionable capital of awe-inspiring advertising. Its large, backlit billboards have become some of the most sought after canvases for brands from around the globe. A recent “bureaucratic hiccup,” however, made most of these advertisements technically illegal. Several months ago, a piece of federal legislation known as MAP-21 added a number of key roads, including those that run through Times Square, to the national highway registry.
While this legislative action did provide useful federal funds to help cover road maintenance, it also subjected those roads to the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. This law was meant to eliminate billboards on national highways that, in President Johnson’s words, “placed a wall of civilization between us and between the beauty of our land.”
To be clear, President Johnson was mostly right. The vast majority of billboards are uninspiring, inartistic mediocrities that could never be classified as beautiful. In certain geographies, such advertisements do indeed place a barrier of visual and cognitive distraction between travelers and the beauty of the countryside. That doesn’t mean, however, that billboards can never provide visual value. Indeed, officials quickly recognized that they had been too broad in their legislation, failing to account for places like Times Square. As one report concluded, “In the case of Times Square’s highways, the beauty is in the billboard.”
Advertising Can Be Art
While politicians and bureaucrats are just now coming to the conclusion that advertising can sometimes be artistic and beautiful, the best marketers have always understood the important connection between ads and art. In his famous guide to creating great advertising, Luke Sullivan admonished marketers in this way: “I want to impress upon you here the importance of doing work that is insanely great, of employing these crafts to the best of your ability. Because in the end they are all you have at your command to get a reader or viewer to lean in. And this leaning in is the ultimate goal of any artist, especially us advertising artists.”
So, where did we go wrong? How did such a talented industry find itself producing work so poor that it became the subject of legislative bans? While the answer to this question is complex, several explanations seem particularly relevant today.
Early Mediums Made Adverting Too Easy
In the early days of American mass media, advertisers enjoyed a captive audience. Generally speaking, there were only a handful of TV networks, a few radio stations, and a newspaper in each town. Consumers were not overwhelmed by entertainment and informational options, nor were they faced with constant technological distraction. Unfortunately, these conditions did not require advertisers to create alluring and attractive work. As copywriter Teressa Iezzi has stated, “During the TV years, the best copywriters made 30-second spots into art, or something that looked an awful lot like it. But, lest we risk over-romanticizing, we should remember that those memorable hall-of-fame ads were and are the exception. The ratio of good to bad ads… is probably immutable. … TV was a blunt instrument… that guaranteed a mass audience.” In other words, advertisers got lazy with their art.
Over-emphasis on Metrics
A second problem began to occur with the shift toward digital advertising mediums. Somewhere in today’s corporate culture of direct response and measurability, the connection between advertising and art was broken. Pragmatic, results-driven marketers began slandering design-centric shops as too focused on creative and not focused enough on strategy. In many cases, creative shops have willfully conformed to the stereotype.
Strict data-driven views of marketing fail to understand that today’s consumers are being bombarded with information and, unless the work is strikingly beautiful, few people will ever see it. In other words, modern metric crusaders may be surprised to find that the connection between art and advertising isn’t driven merely by a concern for aesthetic beauty. Good-looking advertising also works better. Great creative lends credibility and gets noticed. And, in today’s culture of social sharing and organic growth, creating materials that people actually want to be associated with can greatly increase the reach of a campaign.
Retaining the Connection Between Advertising and Art
The elements necessary to create artistic advertising are still in place. The industry is filled with impressive talent and new mediums present possibilities for imaginative solutions. But to create great work, companies and their creative partners need to understand the valuable place of artistic beauty in advertising. A commitment creating beautiful work will ensure that advertising becomes the beauty rather than a barrier to it.