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Mr. Rogers Meets Mao Zedong

By Will Novosedlik

When art eats brands for lunch, the result is almost always sublime. The other way around sometimes gives you indigestion


When brands appropriate art, the decontextualized result is generally meaningless. But when art eats brands for lunch, the result is almost always sublime.


For example, while surfing the web recently for some heavy-duty cleaning products (don’t ask), I came across an ad for Downy Unstopables “in-wash scent boosters (left).” I was immediately struck by a highly recognizable dot pattern in the background – it was a dead lift from a Damien Hirst spot painting (right), 331 of which are now showing simultaneously in eight galleries around the world.


dots image


Intrigued by what would motivate an art director to co-opt Hirst’s signature pattern and use it to shill laundry products, I clicked on the banner and was linked to a microsite, where this time the dot pattern appeared as a superimposition across the bottom of the screen, like an army of polka dots marching in perfect formation.


The use of the, uh, borrowed polka dots has no semantic link to the product being sold or the messages used to sell it. It’s just there, like background music, or wallpaper. The only possible semiotic purpose for its existence is to let the viewer know that the art director knows about Damien Hirst’s spot paintings.


Not surprisingly, the original paintings are not even wildly about sweet-smelling laundry. Some critics see them as a contemplative take on colour, in league with such similar explorations as can be found in the work of Josef Albers and Victor Vasarely. In other words, as art it has much deeper and richer meanings, while as advertising, it’s just a kitschy piece of eye candy.


When brands are the subject matter of art, however, the reverse happens: the brand, its meanings, and our understanding of those meanings, become infused with new meaning. A great example is a piece created by The Propeller Group, an artists’ collective operating out of L.A. and Ho Chi Minh City. They gave a brief to TBWA’s Vietnam office: rebrand communism.


I’m not certain whether this was a Sacha Baron Cohen-style "ambush" of TBWA by The Propeller Group, or whether TBWA knew that it was meant as a sendup of the branding process. Either way, the results are revealing.


If you watch the video below, you can see an animatic of the spot they proposed and an edited video recording of the creative sessions that led to a television commercial about “New Communism.” While the animatic is hopelessly hackneyed, the creative conversation that leads up to it is absolutely, terrifyingly hilarious. Unfolding like a Christopher Guest movie, you watch this team of millenials discuss communism with the same detachment as they would were it a brand of fabric softener. In other words, as if they’d never seen nor heard of it before.



They start rather inauspiciously by having to look up the word “communism” in Wikipedia. Intellectually, it goes downhill from there. At one point the senior AD, in a moment of frustration after reviewing early concepts, sums up the main message as “this is not your father’s communism.” Seriously.


There’s so much irony in this that even the irony is ironic. In their efforts to give communism a new and different face, it’s utterly fascinating to watch them eventually produce a cliché-ridden piece of textbook communist propaganda that would have made the late Kim Jong Il proud: “Live as one and speak the language of smiles … This is the new communism. Everyone’s welcome.” It’s like Mr. Rogers meets Mao Zedong. (Watch for the logo’s replacement of sickles with smiles.)


All of this is on exhibit in a show called The Ungovernables, now on display at NYC’s New Museum Triennial. The show focuses on politically themed and inspired art from around the globe. Worth a look.


 Will Novosedlik has worked on brands both as a consultant and as a client in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. These brands include Nestlé Canada, Corby Distilleries, Swiss Chalet, Harvey’s, RSA Security, Bata International, Deutsche Telecom, Butterfield and Robinson, Telus Business Solutions, Vodafone and The Reitman Group. Recently, Will led the brand communications and customer experience teams that launched the WIND Mobile brand in Canada. He currently works as the VP Design Thinking & Brand at Idea Couture.


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