So why is art used in a campaign like this? “Art is a sign of affluence; it belongs to the good life,” Berger wrote. “It is part of the furnishing which the world gives to the rich and the beautiful.” Berger also noted the “cultural authority” art brings to the product being advertised, with canonical works from history treated as floating with ethereal levity above capitalist materiality. Even as advertisements endeavor to sell you something, art provides “a form of dignity, even of wisdom, which is superior to any vulgar material interest.”
But beyond the “dignity” of individual artwork, Ogilvy also leveraged the stature of museums themselves in the campaign. The “completed” portraits were exhibited publicly, receiving all the trappings of an actual work of art, from wall text (the artist is listed as Kiwi) to audio guides. Those guides are laced with humor, as is the entire campaign, though it never intentionally satirizes itself. Of the Mona Lisa, the guide narrator asks “Why is she smiling? What is she thinking? Who is she looking at? And what style of shoes is she wearing? Probably Italian shoes,” before adding, “If she were alive today, the best way to polish and protect those shoes would have been KIWI products.”
In one of the audio guides discussing the Girl With the Pearl Earring
the narrator notes the piece is sometimes called the Mona Lisa
of the north, which, he continues, “comes as a bit of a surprise to Mona Lisa McMurray of Fairbanks Alaska, who is the actual northernmost Mona Lisa.”
On a more basic level, imagining art history’s greatest icons buying shoe polish is funny precisely because it gives them the commercial life one generally doesn’t associate with artworks by Vermeer or da Vinci, whose art is seen as being above commerce, as Berger noted. Wouldn’t you want to use the same shoe polish as the Mona Lisa? It’s an almost absurd question, but it’s one to which the advertisers certainly want the answer to be yes.