If the purpose of advertising is to shape the public mind, then institutional religions are among the world’s most effective and well-established advertisers. Architects, painters and sculptors were commissioned to create great cathedrals that imparted the majesty and eternal nature of God to the masses. Cathedrals featured stained-glass windows to draw people in for the sermons. Art was intended to grab the attention of consumers—just like today.
Frescoes were like primitive televisions showing the mostly illiterate masses stories from the bible. If frescoes were one-hour dramas, then the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was a major nine-part mini-series. “Now we look at it as great art,” says David Schwartz, president of Praxis advertising and design, “but in its day it was propaganda, which is essentially advertising.”
Of course the Catholic Church has a goal somewhat loftier than selling Star Wars action figures. It’s in the business of saving souls and doing the work of God. But the art and culture that became intertwined with the Church’s mission can stand on its own—indeed the works of Botticelli, DiVinci and Michelangelo, to name a few, have become anchor tenants in the Pantheon of Western aesthetics
The famous Renaissance artists were indeed that—famous. While they were sponsored by the Church and publicly credited, modern artists anonymously create commercials and advertising for corporate patrons. Does that mean the work of Ogilvy and Bernbach is less important than the work of Bellini and Titan? Many people would argue that modern advertising is not art at all—instead just banal and crass attempts to persuade the masses to buy a product.
But wasn’t that exactly the reason for Michelangelo’s commission?
The patrons have changed. Corporate capitalism has usurped Roman Catholicism as the major underwriter of art du jour. But, nonetheless, it is art. It pervades our culture and invades our thoughts. It is the velvet glove that sometimes cloaks the iron fist of propaganda. We, as consumers of both products and information, have learned to filter out the blatant misstatements and flat-out lies.
And the creators of modern corporate art know this as well. That’s why so much of the advertising we love doesn’t even mention the product specs. Advertisers build brands for us to worship—replacement icons of our secular consumerist society.