Why the Mona Lisa Is Selling Shoe Polish

  • Kiwi Advertisements courtesy of SC Johnson.

Art and advertising have long enjoyed a cozy, if sometimes antagonistic, relationship. While working at Time and Life magazines, artist Richard Prince became obsessed with the ads that crossed his desk, later appropriating images of cigarette advertisements stripped of their text for his work. The television show Mad Men both glorified and satirized the ad-man as an artist, with Don Draper joking that his firm has “more failed artists and intellectuals than the Third Reich.” But the current flows both ways, and advertisers have long turned to images of fine art to sell just about anything. Advertisements that looked like still lifes have been used to sell plates, while Hokusai’s Great Wave has been superimposed behind a lounging model to sell beach-care products.

These and other adverts/artworks can be found in the 1972 treatise Ways of Seeing, in which the late art historian John Berger analyzed the relationship between art and advertisements. He primarily looked at how and why advertisements adopted the still imagery of oil paintings through photography. But while Berger’s underlying analysis remains true, how art is being used in advertisements has changed over the decades, with advertisers adopting the larger structures and framework of visual art and art history to sell everything from Cheetos to shoe polish.

Just look to this year’s 64th International Festival of Creativity, an annual advertising ceremony held in June. Several of the campaigns awarded a prestigious Gold Lion (not to be confused with the Venice Biennale’s top art prize of a similar name) used fine art as the basis for their product campaigns. In one award-winning campaign for Australian shoe polish company Kiwi, the ad firm Ogilvy Chicago took history’s famous portraits by Leonardo da Vinci, Henri Matisse, and others and “completed” them by painting, with period accuracy, the shoes the subjects might have worn. “Portraits Completed” picked up a Gold Lion for print advertising, along with a host of lesser awards, and earned the praise of publications like AdWeek with its “playful, irresistible” messaging.

  • Photo by Tham Khai Meng, via Twitter.

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 by Johannes Vermeer, 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.

Video via YouTube.

Abandoning any pretense of seriousness, Cheetos also spoke with the language of museums to sell its delicious cheesy snack, with firm Ketchum picking up two Gold Lions for the parallel art world of the “Cheetos Museum.” The concept is simple: Customers submit individual Cheetos that happen to resemble other things—hearts, animals, even Pokémon—for display in the hallowed digital halls of the institution. There was also a pop-up “museum” in Ripley’s Believe It or Not in New York City where the Cheetos were mounted on pedestals and given the full statue treatment.

The campaign imagined an art world feud between the regular cheesy Cheetos, represented in the ad by a British curator, and the more avant-garde “Flamin’ Hot” variety. Online, Cheetos submitted by the public are displayed inside of golden frames. In advertisements posted on Youtube, the Cheetos get wall text and are placed on pedestals. Rather than mobilize the cachet of any one work of art, the Cheetos museum is a play on the cultural authority of the institution itself.

But the advertisement that dominated the festival was completely serious: the controversial statue Fearless Girl. Though created by an artist, the piece was originally commissioned by the State Street Global Advisors and dreamt up by the firm McCann. The statue was installed on New York City’s Wall Street, where it stares down the famous Charging Bull, to promote a stock index primarily of women-run companies. Today, some see Fearless Girl as simply a work of art, others as an advertisement, some as a blurb between the two.

  • Photo by Anthony Quintano, via Flickr.  

The advertisement cleaned up at Cannes, winning 18 total Lions, including four “Grand Prix” awards, as well as the most coveted Titanium Grand Prix, which recognizes campaigns that are difficult to lump into the festival’s normal categories. Part of Fearless Girl’s popularity is the result of erasing this commercial history (a plaque advertising the State Street Global Advisors, the firm which sponsored the work, was quickly removed). But thinking about why a painting was commissioned is a fundamental element of Berger’s analysis, and it is undeniable that Fearless Girl simply would never had existed unless a Wall Street firm wanted to sell something.

Does this corporate sponsorship alienate Fearlesss Girl from the tradition of fine art, as some have argued, or does that actually mean the statue is just a modern manifestation of private patronage? Siding with the latter, writer Jeff Fecke joked in a tweet, “guys, I’ve got bad news. It’s about the entire history of art.” The argument here is that all art is the product of patronage, and Fearless Girl is just a modern manifestation.

Berger would agree that art is a product of commerce, but not with the notion that once something is elevated to art it exists above critique. While some in the art world wish they could divorce art from commercial transaction, Berger was clear-eyed about the relationship between the two. He argued that post-Renaissance oil painting, in particular, was meant to speak to the wealth of its patrons.

But crucially, he separated the intended effect of oil painting and modern advertising. The former captured the real material wealth held by the person who owned the work. In contrast, advertisements are aimed at buyers in the hope they can be convinced to purchase something they don’t already have—what Berger saw as capitalism manipulating and alienating people through false hope. In some ways, it doesn’t matter if you think Fearless Girl is an advertisement, not an artwork (or vice versa). What matters, as Ways of Seeing so forcefully demonstrates, is understanding the material and commercial forces driving the production of an object—whether it appears in a museum or on a billboard.


—Isaac Kaplan

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