Culture’s Place in Advertising

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A work of art is a gift, but an ad is not, says Glenn O’Brien in his book Like Art1. There are, however, some overlaps between art, culture, education, and advertising. The overlap acts as a “demilitarized zone” (DMZ) that opens endless possibilities to strike the imagination, stimulate desire, resonate in memory, make a change, and, eventually, gain a profit.

Some brands, ranging from luxury jewelers to energy drink companies, have been navigating this DMZ successfully by leading cultural endeavors as a new form of advertising. Fendi helped to renovate the Trevi Fountain; Red Bull started the Red Bull Music Academy. Levi’s partnered with multimedia artist Doug Aitken on a site specific journey (“A Nomadic Happening”) from New York to San Francisco bringing together figures from the art, music, food, literary and film worlds. Van Cleef & Arpels runs L’Ecole, an internationally renowned school of jewelry arts. The list goes on. But what do they achieve exactly? Is their gain monetary or is it something else entirely?

Cartier understood very early on that their best communication tool would be their cultural capital. They have been using their archives to promote their craft worldwide through exhibitions. In 2015, the 168-year-old Parisian jewelry house held an historic exhibition with its Etourdissant Collection at la Pinacothèque de Paris, inspired by figures like Picasso, Chagall, and Matisse. The exhibit later traveled worldwide. They also know how to activate their products in modern ways, pairing digital with live experiential. For example, this year, they revived the Panthère watch with memorable parties in Los Angeles and elsewhere, interacting with A-list influencers and artists, in addition to a dreamy film by Sofia Coppola paying homage to the disco feel of the watch. They continue to use their culture – history, craftsmanship, story telling and fantasy – to adapt and eventually lead the marketing context with great success.

Another brand that prioritizes cultural integration in their advertising is Patagonia. A designer of outdoor clothing and sport gear, Patagonia is committed to bringing its resources and connections to address and combat threats to the natural world. Last year on Black Friday, the brand promised to giveaway its profits to grassroots green organizations while racking up a record $10m in sales – an example of producing work that references and resonates within culture, while driving commerce for the brand.

Through, Google has continually been advocating for humanitarian causes around the world, namely Crisis Response. Through Crisis Response, the organization supports data platforms that track diseases and launch matching campaigns, collecting millions for NGOs and UNICEF. Recently, five Kenyan women were flown to Google HQ after inventing an app to abolish Female Genital Mutilation. Google demonstrates technology’s limitless power outside of a consumer market, for a better world.

Value is generally measured on a fiscal scale, but culture opens the possibility for value to be determined outside of those constraints. Cultural endeavors may not produce a direct ROI for brands. However, we find value in returns beyond the monetary, whether it be brand awareness, societal relevancy, entertainment, or an effort to better the world. Encapsulating cultural relevancy into advertising is not required by all brands to succeed or stand out. Though for some, like Cartier, Patagonia and Google, it has been paramount to their recent success.

With Generation Z aware of culture shifts before anyone else, updating culture relevance is key for brands. But it is becoming more difficult to innovate in an oversaturated market. This is probably why we’ve seen marketing take up the former causes of art, like philosophy, beauty, mystery, empire1, even government, as well as preservation, education, philanthropy, care, and crisis response. Through partnerships, patronage, philanthropy, and sponsorships, recent marketing strategies have aimed to create culture, or at least actively participate in it.

We want to broaden the scope of our understanding of these industries, cross-pollinate ideas between culture and advertising, meet new visionaries, invest in new realms, and eventually give our clients and community a glimpse into tomorrow’s opportunities, today.

1 Like Art: Glenn O’Brien on Advertising, by Glenn O’Brien, Karma, 2017, edited by the author.

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