Working at the Intersection of Art and Advertising

How an Advertising Creative might confront the ethical conflict in client briefs.

6 min readNov 30, 2022

Having branched out from being a creative practitioner in the artistic sphere to advertising, I have my share of ethical conflict. Where, or to what cause, should I be dedicating my time and energy towards? How do I make sense of the value of the things I create? Previously when the fundamental context of my projects was within ‘Art’, I was always troubled by the actual impact these projects had on the real world beyond gallery walls. But it was a ‘safe space’ to follow my moral compass wholeheartedly, and create things accordingly. In ‘Advertising’, the compass I need to follow is ultimately that of the client’s, and more often that not, it points to a different direction than my moral compass.

Chatting to colleagues this seems to be a fairly common predicament. Many of us don’t fundamentally believe the world will be a better place if people bought more stuff. But — we’re first and foremost a business. We’re not saving the world. We need to make money.

Fortunately, there are groups and initiatives working to address this tension, such as the Purpose Disruptors (check out their report on ‘Advertised Emissions’ — this aims to bring about an awareness shift around the environmental impact of the advertising industry generated through uplift in sales), and the Inside Job campaign by the Glimpse Collective. I wanted to share an approach for individuals that I myself am still experimenting with and continually developing, but that may potentially be useful for fellow creatives when tackling (ethically-questionable) briefs. This approach exists at the intersection of Art and Advertising, where I’ve found myself after trying to reconcile the distinct creative approaches in the two fields. To unravel the rationale I first want to speak to the two in isolation.

(Disclaimer: there is a lot of generalisation in this article for the sake of clarity, but I realise the concepts and examples discussed in this article are much more varied and nuanced in real-life contexts.)

What’s so great about Advertising?

Takuma Takasaki, a creative director at Dentsu known for creating multiple hit TV commercials in Japan, notes in his book “Hyogen-no-Gijutsu (The Art of Expression)”:

The one purpose of expression is to bring about change, even a single millimetre worth, in the person who has encountered the expression, before and after the encounter.

You could say that advertising is one of the most accessible forms of ‘expression’: it is ubiquitous, free for us to consume, and often designed to appeal to the widest of audiences. In order for the ‘expression’ to convey a certain message in this context, advertising has to be great at storytelling. When adverts have a truly compelling story, it can even move us like books and films do. And while it won’t be the case for the vast majority of adverts we come across, there will be at least one or two that do bring about a small, albeit lasting change; many of us will remember the odd TV commercial from our childhood that we somehow still end up referencing, decades later.

So for the purposes of this article, let’s say the creatives that work in Advertising have superpowers to craft a story, that once it is out in the world is seen, experienced by, and potentially influences, a huge number of people. But creating those stories the way we have been — encouraging people to buy more stuff — seems only to aggravate our not-so-ideal world. How can we, then, craft those stories in alternative ways?

What is it about Art?

One approach in Art that seems to set it apart from adjacent disciplines is the importance of critical thinking over reaching solutions; what drives the practice, and is often embodied in the output, is a question, as opposed to an answer. This in turn enables the work of art to pose alternative perspectives, provoke questions, and engage the audience emotively and/or cognitively. Powerful works of Art continue to influence our thoughts and perceptions long after the encounter.

But the obvious limitation with Art, especially when set against Advertising, is that it’s not as accessible (you could say it’s on the other end of the expression accessibility spectrum to Advertising). The artists’ motivation to create won’t be to appeal to an audience, not to mention artwork often existing only within gallery walls, and are not always free to view. We all have experiences of going to an exhibition or seeing a piece of artwork and thinking, “What on Earth did I just see??” (one could even argue that the point of Art is to not be fathomed). It just isn’t designed as a story in the way adverts are, because the context of Art allows it to be esoteric.

But here’s the thing. I don’t think there’s a necessity for Art to be inaccessible for it to have the power to provoke, and bring about change. There are transferable approaches in Art that we can bring into other disciplines that are more accessible, potentially generating significant value; take Design, for example. While they don’t explicitly refer to themselves as Speculative or Critical Designers, design studio Superflux have been operating fluidly not quite in any single discipline but across art, design, science, foresight, etc. The recognition and impact of their work extends beyond the realm of art or design: working with clients like Google and the UK government to imagine futures and challenge preconceptions, sometimes even directly informing national policy. I see one of the reasons for their impact to be how they take an artistic approach to design; as a result, their works are imbued with a certain power to provoke change that is unique to their practice.

So what are the transferable approaches in Art we can adopt in Advertising?

The first approach is to think about creating stories that are open to interpretation. While you might love or hate works of fiction with an ambiguous ending, they certainly leave you with questions. Questions are powerful because they can trigger curiosity, enquiry, and empathy, and thus have the potential to facilitate a more profound experience than simply being given the answer. Instead of trying to plant the message “this phone is great!” in the audience’s brains, you could dig deeper into why the phone might be great, and extrapolate this into a question — for example, if we want to talk about the enhanced privacy and security features, could we pose questions around autonomy and our relationship to digital devices?

A very memorable PlayStation 2 advert by David Lynch. A bit bonkers, but it certainly did make me think about what ‘The Third Place’ could mean to me.

How do we create experiences that are more open to interpretation? This leads me onto the second approach: to be informative without being didactic. If we’re telling a story, there will be a ‘point’ we need to get across — but the way we make that point doesn’t have to be didactically telling people as if they know any less than we do. We can still lay out all the ‘materials’ and ‘tools’ through the story, but ultimately allow the audience to come to their own conclusions. An example might be this project by design studio Formafantasma, in which they present a substantial investigation into e-waste through a non-linear story, a combination of documentaries, animations, and poetic objects.

Example application: stealthily dodging greenwashing

To illustrate how these approaches might be applied in the wild, I’d like to give an example of a brief I worked on for an electronic device company. They wanted to create a physical installation that celebrated their sustainability efforts in using recycled plastics. Looking more closely at the figures however, I discovered that this was a rather prime example of greenwashing.

Instead of focusing on showcasing how ‘sustainable’ they are (i.e. giving people the ‘answer’), I came up with an idea that shed light on the problem. I wanted to give people the ingredients through the experience that may lead to questions and their own enquiries for an answer. The hope was for the installation to non-didactically convey the grave nature of the issue alongside the details of the recycling process, and potentially pose questions around whether the company’s efforts are good enough.

(Naturally, we cannot let the client know that this is the intent, especially the latter half of the last sentence. An important part to making sure this approach is viable is to present to the client in a way that frames it as effectively promoting their message (“Focusing on the severity of the issue will emphasise your sustainability efforts”).)

Final note: what do you think?

Since so much of the article was about asking questions, it seemed fitting to end on a question as well. I have intended this article not as an instruction, but a provocation for us to share our thoughts and approaches we take to confront the inherent ethical conflict working in Advertising (or any other creative contexts). I’d love to hear about your experiences and what you thought reading this article!




Just another creative working at an advertising agency in London.