Advertising goes high-art with aesthetic, polemical vision

Advertising campaigns like Burger King’s Super Bowl commercial “#EATLIKEANDY,” which borrows from an art piece in which Andy Warhol eats a hamburger, demonstrate a trend toward increasingly challenging, artistic marketing techniques. Courtesy of Filmoteca de Catalunya via Flickr.

I was in Lower Manhattan last weekend facing the likeness of Andy Warhol about to eat a burger. The burger was half-wrapped in aluminum, and the iconic artist rested his elbows on a table. Next to him was a crumpled Burger King to-go bag and a bottle of ketchup. His expression was blank, as if the meal was a somber ritual. In 1982, Danish experimental documentarian Jørgen Leth released “66 scener fra Amerika” (“66 Scenes from America”), a series of tableaus forming its own picture of the U.S. (Internet Movie Database, “66 scener fra Amerika” 2019). One of these is a hypnotizing four-and-a-half-minute-long shot of Warhol chowing down: he slowly unwraps a Whopper, struggles to shake ketchup out of the bottle, taps his burger on the ketchup, chews, fiddles with a napkin and, when done, declares to the camera, “My name is Andy Warhol, and I just finished eating a hamburger.” The agency David Miami, which boasts clients like Burger King, Coca-Cola and Heinz, used 45 seconds of the footage for the fast food chain’s Super Bowl ad campaign this year. It seems an odd choice—even the clipped-down version, with its fashionable order to “#EATLIKEANDY,” differs from Super Bowl commercials of the past decade, which tend to be funny, sappy or sporty. At this point, the ads have become a spectacle of their own, as anticipated as the game itself. Thanks to the limitations of a medium intended to sell products as efficiently as possible, the public has been fed many quippy, saturated, easily consumable commercials over the years. So the Warhol ad surprised me.

In 2016, David Miami released another ad with a culinary motif: “Wiener Stampede,” which advertised Heinz. Dachshunds in hot dog costumes run in slow motion to a group of people, also dressed as condiments. To think up such a concept requires great inventiveness, but it is still an easily-likeable, cute dog video. Although it is customary for advertisers to recruit celebrities (alongside Warhol at the Super Bowl this year were Harrison Ford and Forest Whitaker for Amazon and Serena Williams for Bumble), Leth’s esoteric work doesn’t have the same universal appeal as cute, funny dogs (It’s Nice That, “Burger King recruits a Whopper-chomping Andy Warhol for weirdest Super Bowl ad of 2019,” 02.04.19). Right now “66 Scenes” is in the Whitney Museum of Art’s Warhol exhibit. As the film remains largely unknown outside of art circles, much of the target demographic for #EATLIKEANDY—SuperBowl watchers—might not respond to the weird burger video or recognize the reference.

Another example of high-brow advertising came last June, when Chicago-based photographer Ashley Armitage directed a video for Billie, a self-described “female-first” shaving company. “Project Body Hair,” her directorial debut, surpassed the conventions of beauty-brand marketing, featuring women both hairy and hairless, as well as an unusual specificity of design. A group of girls get ready in colorful bathrooms, lounge in bed and celebrate their beauty. They paint their toes orange and comb or shave their underarm hair and smile satisfactorily. Armitage said, “We wanted our campaign to be different. We wanted to show a variety of bodies with a variety of hair. Some girls we cast liked to shave, some didn’t, and we wanted to represent this choice” (It’s Nice That, “Photographer Ashley Armitage directs the first-ever shaving advert to feature female body hair,” 06.29.18). Not only did Armitage succeed in capturing a range of approaches to beauty and celebrating women’s autonomy, but she also created a commercial with the same playful, hazy, dreamlike quality as her photographs. When I see brands seeking the artistic direction of people like her, those with a decided aesthetic and polemical vision, I get excited for the future of advertising and commercial art.

“We knew that the best thing we could do would be to keep the film as intact as we could,” said Marcelo Pascoa, Burger King’s global head of brand marketing, of the Warhol ad—that is, preserve the video’s original intent. Leth meant to capture the equalizing effect of the fast food and consumer culture—how in America, a beggar eats the same Whopper as Andy Warhol. Warhol, an enthusiast of consumer products, would’ve enjoyed Burger King’s rendition of the video, I think (“Why Burger King Showed Andy Warhol Eating a Burger it its Super Bowl Commercial,” 02.03.19). Leth’s idea about Whoppers and egalitarianism also relates to the importance of ads today, as the social equalizer of art: commercials are delivered to the masses the same way all of America can eat burgers.

Burger King took a gamble at the Super Bowl this year, but I appreciate the message behind the ideo, and it publicized a film largely unknown outside of art circles. We’re barraged with ads every day, so inevitably we start to pick up their values and appreciate their artistic qualities. I welcome a new age of artsy commercials.

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