Warhol Was Wrong About Advertising & Art

Our Vulgar, Meaningful, Synthetic Culture


“Huh, so you make lies for a living?” That was the first question he asked me. It was also the first time I’d told anyone I worked in advertising. I thumbed the glass of whiskey in front of me. Having landed my first internship earlier that day, at just 21 years old it was a bigger question than I realized at the time. It was a question about culture.

Commercial messages and manufactured iconography swirl with, around, between us. Thousands of brands occupy the collective consciousness and command a piece of the cultural pie. This is a story about how, and why.

The advertiser, the artist shape culture.

Our world is made of symbols. Theorist and philosopher Kenneth Burke described human beings as “symbol-using animals.” Or, as he later expounds, perhaps more accurately we should add “symbol-making, and symbol-misusing,” as well. Symbols are intrinsic to our nature and necessary devices for communication — substitution, abbreviation, and the construction of meaning (feel free to hit that joint tucked away in your sock drawer about now).

And what is a symbol but a unit of culture? When Andy Warhol created his Campbell’s Soup series it was said that he elevated “vulgar” pop culture to art. Yet, of this series, Warhol himself said, “I wanted to paint nothing… and the soup can was it.” The Campbell brand is a corporate construction used to sell a product and therefore without any “real” meaning behind it — soup is pretty much soup. And yet, it’s not.

One shudders to think how “Open Happiness” may have equal symbolic footing with “Starry Night,” yet it’s almost undeniable. But this is relatively new. Only since the 1980s has branding stood at the center of the marketing approach and ethos. Not until after the Mad Men epoch did the raison d’être of advertising become as much about constructing brand images as selling products. And the result? There are now as many associations in your head with Golden Arches as the Crucifixion of Christ.

An illusion of constantly being in motion.

Allow this observation, if you will: When it comes to using symbols and making sense of the world, seldom are we — the public, the audience, the consumer — willing to bear the burden of finding or deriving meaning. Rather, we often prefer (consciously or not) being told. The advertiser, like the artist, serves that preference.

With Campbell’s, some feel Warhol sought to tell us these deliberately constructed brands, these synthetic symbols, were meaningless. However, for many, the image of Campbell’s does not represent “nothing,” but something very real, and with very real emotions attached to it, experiences evoked.

Campaigns focused on knowledge building (or “corporate propaganda” if you’re playing for the Ad Buster’s crowd) have infused brands with meaning, and we in turn have assimilated them into our cognitive lexicon. We have adopted a language of brands, and we speak it fluently.

Like any language, we use it to make sense of the world around us. One need only walk into the supermarket of a foreign country to immediately recognize the extent to which we rely on our brand knowledge to decode and make decisions.

It’s not bread, it’s brioche, Ça Va?

Are we drowning in a soup of manufactured culture that is at its core meaningless — as Esquire’s famous cover might suggest — or can we see the soup as something of value because, regardless, it means something to us?

Successful advertising in the 21st century can be difficult to recognize because you can’t stand back far enough to see the edges of the page. You can’t look close enough to see the memetic DNA. Today, my industry (when it does its job correctly) focuses on creating culture — moving your world to the product, not the other way around. This is not subliminal advertising (which I can tell you in all truth simply does not exist). These are not secrets. This is our world today: constructed, tested, optimized. And I’m here to talk about how and why from the POV of an advertising analyst.

So, each week — here in the I Love Charts collection on Medium — I’ll be using the local set of symbols (charts) to explore the synthetic side of culture.

Ideograms represent ideas or concepts rather than words.

When asked to name which of his works was most special to him, Warhol said it was his Campbell’s Soup can. “I love it,” he said, “I just paint things I always thought were beautiful, things you use every day and never think about…. I just do it because I like it.” Perhaps he didn’t get it wrong after all.

Next Article in series: “Advertising doesn't have to suck. It just usually does.”

More on advertising and culture at languageofbrands.tumblr.com