Originally published in the Vancouver Review, Spring, 1995.

The New Icons? 
The Art of Television Advertising

by Paul Rutherford

University of Toronto Press, 1994
Reviewed by: Michael Brockington
Is advertising Art?

The question arises because ad content is determined by outside agencies. Still, we are willing to recognize art in propaganda like Triumph of the Will, or Soviet Socialist Realism where content is externally determined. Commercials could be called the flipside of Socialist Realism -- capitalist propaganda. And abstract art manages to flourish while repudiating content altogether.

Common to these forms is the fetishization of technique. With content fixed, artistic expression is redirected into style. Which is perfect for a pop-auteur era where no film can be released without a documentary on "The Making Of..." Emphasis on technique resonates with an audience fascinated by production process over content.

Advertising executives might disagree, but Rutherford insists ads are Art (postmodern, naturally), and unleashes art theory on 30 years of TV advertising. He loads the dice by focusing on "commercials of distinction" recognized by industry awards. The afterword offers a reality check, surveying commercials actually broadcast in three European cities.

The book is pleasantly international in scope. Sources for outstanding commercials include the Clio Awards (American), the Bessies (Canadian), and the Cannes Lions (International).

While containing intriguing morsels, the book too often degenerates into taxonomy, grouping long lists of ads into theoretical categories. Predictably, transcribing visual artifacts into print is unsatisfying, although readers may be surprised at how easily long-forgotten commercials are recalled. 

The theory proves more interesting than its application. Less research and more analysis would make a better read. Bonus points for a generously annotated bibliography, though.

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