November 29, 2005

Innovators of advertising come out for 84th Annual Art Directors Awards

I hope I’m not the only one who falls for the public service announcement at the movie theater every time. I’ll be watching the previews, and think, “Oh wow! I really want to see that movie about Japanese warriors fighting over a beautiful pond.” In my defense, it is a gorgeous scene. Then I hear a cell phone ring. I’ve definitely turned around, looking for the culprit, on more than one occasion. I feel like such a sucker for turning around, and worse yet, for reaching into my pocket to do as I’m told.

Visiting an exhibition of works honored by the Art Directors Club at the A+D Gallery this weekend, I was reminded of the effort that goes into making powerful visual communication (even an announcement at the movie theater). Every year, the Art Directors Club recognizes the best works in advertising, graphic design, and interactive media. The works at the A+D Gallery are from all over the world, ranging from books and magazines to advertisements and public service announcements displayed on television, in print, and even on the sides of buses.

In contrast to a work of fine art, a piece of visual communication must be accessible to its audience. Its creators are motivated by the necessity to catch the viewer’s attention quickly and communicate a message clearly. An advertisement designed by the Japanese firm Hakuhodo, Inc., shows how——even without understanding the language—a simple image can carry the point. The advertisement consists of five white panels. The first shows the head and front legs of a pig, while the last shows its back and hind legs. The middle panels depict cross-sections of the pig’s stomach, revealing not bones and internal organs, but identical slices of cooked ham. Words aren’t necessary. The ad refuses to let its viewer ignore the fact that every savory bite of ham was once a pig as cute as the movie star Babe.

What struck me most about the works was the way they mobilize emotion so quickly. The most effective works use humor or sorrow to force a reaction out of their viewer. An advertisement for Bic permanent markers shows an old woman from the waist up, her wrinkled skin contrasting with her orange dyed hair and flashy green earrings. She wears only a bra, and Jimi Hendrix’s signature is scrawled on her sagging left breast. The caption reads: “When you choose to use a Bic permanent marker, be sure it’s because you want something to last for a long long time.” It’s both hilarious and horrifying, and also intensely personal. Whether or not I’m going to go out and buy myself a Bic permanent marker now, I won’t forget that advertisement.

The “Kids and Cars Golden Books,” designed by Team One, employ a twisted sense of humor similar to that of the Bic ad, but with a very different end in mind. The creators of the books intend to lobby politicians and automobile-makers to consider safety when creating cars. The books are designed to look like old Dick and Jane readers, with simple sentences and pictures of adorable, innocent-looking children. One is titled “Playing in Daddy’s Car is Fun,” and shows a cute little boy sitting in the driver’s seat. I opened it and read, “Little Bobby presses many buttons. He pretends to drive. It’s lots of fun. Then the car begins to roll down the hill. The end.” My first reaction was to be appalled. The mixture of nostalgia and violent death is funny but in an incredibly sickening way. Like the Bic ad, it’s unforgettable, and even more so because its subject is so serious.

Taking these advertisements as art, rather than staring at them absentmindedly on buses, in magazines, or on television, allows one to consider what really makes them work. Their purpose is to make the viewer do something, whether it is to buy a product or to vote for a certain candidate. This is what makes these pieces so powerful and so accessible.

At the same time, nobody likes being told what to do. Ultimately, I like to think that we have some free choice in how we respond to a message. Standing alone in the gallery, absorbed in one of the magazines, I found I couldn’t concentrate because of the sounds of the Bud Light “Real Men of Genius” commercial playing over and over again in the background. Finally, I strode over to the other end of the room and turned the volume all the way down. Sometimes it just feels good to be independent.