Trying to expound on any large body of advertising work is always dangerous. Since Cro-Magnon man scratched an image onto a cave wall for others to see, the business of mass communication has been evolving. Advertising is a fluid, ever-changing craft. I hesitate to label it as art only because doing so tends to raise howls of indignation from those in the field of so-called serious art—playwrights, filmmakers, musicians, painters, sculptors, and such. I could build a strong case, however, that any well-conceived, beautifully executed ad, in any medium, differs from traditional art in only one sense: its purpose, either directly or indirectly, is to evoke a mercantile response. Regular art has merely to evoke an emotional response so that, by comparison, it gets off easy.
For the purposes of this encyclopedia, let us say that advertising falls closer to fashion. Like fashion, it is an art form with decidedly commercial ends. As with fashion, there are trendy, fleeting styles of advertising that come on strong, cause a stir, and then fade away with the next hot "ad couture." And there are sturdy classics, ads that wear well with age and that look fine and still touch people after 10, 20, or even 30 or more years. These are creations that rest upon timeless human emotions or truths rather than on a passing currency. An ad headlined "Lemon" and featuring, say, a new Lexus would be no less compelling today than it was for Volkswagen 40 years ago.
In any given year we see ads of both kinds—splashy, contemporary messages of the moment (such as iPod's "Silhouette" campaign and countless print ads flaunting jagged, beat-up typefaces) and durable works that rest on less ephemeral trends (such as John Hancock's "Insurance for the Unexpected"). Is one form "better" than the other? Not inherently. Both work or fail for other reasons, for their freshness, relevance, involvement of the viewer, execution, or memorability.
Like Hollywood, advertising is often criticized for shaping, if not lowering, cultural and social standards. The usual response from studio executives is that they merely reflect, not cause, what is already happening in our collective midst. Consider Clark Gable's 1934 appearance sans undershirt in It Happened One Night, which reputedly prompted the sales of men's undershirts to drop by 75 percent. (Hollywood made up for this later, in 1951, when Marlon Brando appeared in a T-shirt and jeans in the film A Streetcar Named Desire and the sales of T-shirts spiked to new heights.) Did Gable cause this to happen, or was he reflecting changes then under way? Was he initiating a trend or...