Rich Kushel sits in a dimly lit film studio, studying the video flickering on a screen above him. It's still early in his creative process, and the images he's watching are part of his "animatic," an animated rough draft of a commercial he's developing.
In an earlier time, Mr. Kushel, with his background in fine arts, might have been a painter or a sculptor. Instead, he hones his craft for companies like The Olive Garden.
And in fact, while Kushel toyed with painting, he says advertising was always his dream. "I just loved to watch TV," he says.
He and thousands of other creative artists are choosing to bring their skills to the pale blue of an electronic screen rather than the white of a canvas - and in the process, they are blurring the lines between advertising and art.
Part of it is that commercialism is no longer considered slightly distasteful. And then there are agencies' large creative budgets, fueled by dotcoms that are willing to pay millions of dollars for 30 seconds of on-the-edge wit. And then there's the growing sophistication of the medium: Instead of a catchy jingle or fading sports hero, today's commercials employ the technical expertise of a big-budget Hollywood film.
Indeed, the styles and techniques of advertising are becoming virtually indistinguishable from the visual arts.
In fact, one commercial made Time Magazine's Top 10 TV Moments for 1999: Monster.com's ironic "When I grow up" spots. When ads are seen as art in their own right - rather than filler or a reason to dive for the mute button - something in the culture has changed.
"Our era has made the distinction completely muddled," says Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. "What delineates art from advertising once Mona Lisa is caught holding a soda?"
With commercial television such a ubiquitous medium, some commentators say it was inevitable that the visual arts began to merge with commerce. And some see plenty of precedent in companies paying for "art."
"Let's face it, someone paid Mozart, commissioned him to write most of his music," says John Phelan, creative director of Cornerstone, a Baltimore-based agency. "The idea of commissioning is old; and it is, in a sense, commercial art."
Instead of the Medicis, advertisers argue, today's patrons are multimillionaire dotcoms.
But other experts find that argument a tad simplistic. "You could say that Michelangelo is just painting billboards for Jesus," says Kathi Georges, a playwright who teaches graphic design at The Art Institute International in San Francisco. But "there's a sense in my mind that he was not doing it as advertising, but was feeling the actual emotions of the human being."
Computers have been a force behind this creative explosion - going back to MacIntosh's seminal "1984" ad, which launched the sport of Super Bowl ad-watching (to say nothing of the technology that has made more sophisticated advertising possible). In the past two years, dot-coms burst onto the scene, demanding cutting-edge advertising to go with their high-tech products. Humor, or at least a sense of whimsy, is de rigueur. Take a recent ad Kushel's company, Grey Advertising, did for Uproar.com, a Web site where people can play games online. Two groups of business-clad commuters stand on opposite train platforms holding red rubber balls. After trains rush past, someone yells, "Bombardment" and a full-out game of dodgeball begins. A voiceover asks: "What if all the fun people in the world got together?"
Not too long ago, TV commercials were just a training ground for the young and inexperienced, dues they had to pay on their way to becoming serious artists. But today, established film directors and actors move back and forth from film to TV ads.
Oscar nominees directing ads
Spike Jonze, for example, the eccentric young filmmaker nominated for a Best Director Oscar for his movie "Being John Malkovich," might just as soon make a commercial for Nike as an avant-garde film. And while Cher was excoriated in the 1980s for being the pitchwoman for Equal, today actors sell everything from SUVs to face wash.
For Kushel, bringing his artistic talents to advertising - sketching out ideas and developing them into a commercial spot - was all he really wanted to do.
He works as a creative director for Grey, one of the largest agencies in the country. Most of the 260 people who work with him in Grey's creative division also have experience and training in the fine arts rather than business.
"I'm looking for people who immerse themselves in the culture they are helping to create," says Stephen Novick, chief creative officer for Grey.
Part of his job is "to nurture the artistic side of commerce. I urge people to go out into the culture of this city, to go off-Broadway and to independent films, and see what the young, hipper artists and filmmakers are doing," says Mr. Novick, who also studied theater and music, getting an MFA from Syracuse before going into advertising.
Yet, in the midst of this new explosion of creativity, Novick and others caution that advertising cannot lose sight of the fact that its primary purpose is to sell. Many artists also say this is a crucial distinction separating advertising from art - no matter how beautiful or creative its techniques have become.
Still selling a product
"The high production quality and strong narratives have made advertising a lot better," says Mr. Phelan. "But where it has hurt advertising, is that many have forgotten that you are beholden to a certain set of criteria, that you need to create an outcome. That's what advertising is for: It's to change behavior, to get you to buy something."
However, others point out, theater and feature films are also commercial enterprises. In the one instance you're selling tickets, in the other, toothpaste.
Regardless, the relationship between art and commerce is a complex moral issue, one that advertisers say they are well aware of. "How much art can you invest in advertising without compromising the commerce?" says Novick. "And vice versa, how much commerce can you wrap around art, without perverting the enterprise, or making it trite and meaningless?"
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society