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TRUTH, ART AND ADVERTISING:

THE CREATIVE PRACTITIONER’S PERSPECTIVE

Abstract:

Creativity is at the heart of the advertising industry and scholars have written extensively

on the subject for the last twenty years. But, in reviewing the literature, one word is never

mentioned, a word award-winning advertising creatives feel is essential to creativity, a

word as simple as truth. In this essay, the concept of truth will be explored from the

perspective of the arts as well as advertising. This discourse will help illustrate how truth

in marketing promotion, whether about a product, a consumer, or a way of life, is

fundamental to creating engaging and relevant communication.

“The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
Oscar Wilde (www.llywelyn.net/docs/quotes/wilde.html)

Scholars have found creativity to be among the most complex of human behaviors

to describe (Gross 1967; O’Connor, Williams, and MacLachilan 1996). In advertising,

both with academics and advertising agencies, these same complexities exist. As Reid,

King, and Delorme observed (1998), creativity is one of the least scientific aspects of

advertising and at the same time one of its most important criteria. The decision of what

“is good” and what “is not good” in marketing communication by agency and clients is

largely determined by context and criteria (Getzel and Csíkszentmihályi, 1975).


For many clients, “good” simply means delivering against “ROMI” (return on

marketing investment), while for some advertising agencies “good” is winning creative

awards (e.g., Cannes, Clio, One Show, etc.). For these agencies, recognition from

industry award shows is the currency of their success. [In trying to address these

conflicting views, Donald Gunn (1994) found that award-winning ads from the Cannes

International Film Festival did show a marked improvement in sales.

While clients and agencies may not agree on the meaning of “good,” there is still

a fundamental acceptance that creativity is important to a brand’s overall success.

However, there still remains a critical question to consider: before an

advertisement goes to an awards judge, or for that matter a client, what makes the creator

or creators think the work is good? When examining the writings and thoughts of

prominent agency practitioners, one word emerges time and time again, a word as simple

as “truth.” Jon Nelson, Executive Creative Director at Carmichael Lynch, states, “All the

best ads are based on truth” (Anderson, 2005). Or, as Scott Donaton, an advertising

executive on returning from the Cannes International Advertising Festival noted, “The

best advertising reveals truth and insights, and not just about brands but—as with music,

art, fiction— [but] about life” (Donaton, 2002). For these “creatives” (art directors,

copywriters, and creative directors), a creative solution begins with a truth: either about a

product, a consumer, or a way of life.

Unfortunately, when examining the scholarly literature in advertising and

marketing, there is no mention of truth and creativity. Advertising scholars have ignored

this connection. Therefore, this essay will explore literature from other fields where the

relationship between truth and creativity has undergone considerable discussion –the arts.

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By examining literature of 20th century art philosophers – including Collingwood,

Heidegger, Zuidervaart – this review will help establish the connection between truth and

creativity in painting as well as advertising.

Therefore by exploring truth, art and advertising, this essay will address the

following: 1) what is meant by truth in art; 2) how does truth in art relate to truth in

advertising; and 3) why agency practitioners feel truth, whether about a product, a

consumer, or a way of life, is fundamental to creating “good” marketing communication.

By beginning this discussion, scholars, students, and educators will hopefully gain a

better understanding of the advertising creative process. To help support this discourse,

examples of award-winning print advertisements will be included in this article to

illustrate key points.

Truth and Creativity in Advertising: The Literature

“Truth Well Told”


Founding philosophy of McCann Erickson
(www.mccann.com)

The value of creativity to advertising can be demonstrated by the scale and scope

of scholarship over the last twenty years. In the many articles published, creativity has

been examined with regard to role-based models (Hirschman 1989), factors of originality

(El-Murad and West, 2004), divergence and relevance factors (Smith and Yang 2004), as

well as varying client and agency perspectives (Koslow, Sasser, and Riordan, 2002).

What has not been considered or addressed is the relationship between truth and

creativity. A search of the topic in the leading journals of the field, Journal of Advertising

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and the Journal of Advertising Research (Zinkhan and Leigh, 1999), shows that not one

article has been published linking these two terms or concepts.

However, within the literature of advertising industry there is a somewhat

different view, one that establishes a strong relationship between truth, creativity, and

communication. The American Advertising Federation considers truth so critical in brand

communication that the organization lists it first among its governing ethics and

principles, “Advertising shall tell the truth, and shall reveal significant facts” (www.

aaf.org). The American Association of Advertising Agencies also confirms this belief by

stating, “We will not knowingly create advertising that contains: false or misleading

statements” (www.aaaa.org). Both these organizations know that truth is crucial to the

business of advertising. A brand success is built around messages that inform and

persuade the public. Therefore, if a message is deemed misleading or untruthful, there

will be a negative bias in the consumer’s mind. Hugh Mackey in The Good Listener puts

the concept this way, “It’s not what our message does to the reader, but what the reader

does with the message” (Aitchison, 1999, p. 25). Does the audience accept the truth; does

it live up to their expectations; does it pass their common sense test; and, most

importantly, does the message overcome the wariness of a buyer towards a seller?

Polly (1986), one of the first researchers to investigate this phenomenon of

mistrust among consumers, suggested that false or untruthful advertising “turns us into a

community of cynics [who] doubt advertisers, the media, and authority in all its forms”

(p. 29). Unfortunately, between 1997 and 2001, the number of complaints about

misleading or untruthful advertising increased twofold (Drake and Ritchie 2007).

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Art, Creativity, and Truth

“I owe you truth in painting and I will tell it to you.”


Paul Cezanne (Rockmore, 2004, p. 17)

It was the eminent advertising scholar White (1972), who first noted that many

artistic domains share a similar reality to advertising. He explained that creative people in

music, art, literature, and film have an aesthetic sense that allows them to recognize

problems and come up with creative solutions. Psychologists in studying creative people

describe this problem solving as a search for truth (Kay, 1996, p. 111).

A Western discussion about truth and art can be traced back to the early Greeks

and Romans. Plato denies the capacity of art to tell truth. Instead, as the philosopher

explains in The Republic, works of art, especially music and poetry, should be judged on

the basis of how they portray emotions. Creativity for Plato was meant for loftier

pursuits, e.g., poetry being inspired by the divine muse. As an example, he viewed

sculpture as the work of skilled craftsmen. The Latin definition of the verb “create”

supports this interpretation as to “inspire” and “breathe life into,” as a higher force

breathes life into man (Sawyer, 2006, p. 12).

On the other hand, Aristotle takes a somewhat contradictory view from that of his

teacher about truth and art. He suggests Greek tragedy (what he refers to as “imitative

arts”) can provide true insights into the events and characters of the day (Dorter, 1990).

This interpretation can be construed as a non-conceptual view of truth, one that is based

on what “rings true” for an audience. R.G. Collingwood in The Principles of Art (1958)

calls this truth an “emotional representation” (p. 53); how feelings an artist evokes are

based on an original experience.

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In the mid-20th century, several European philosophers began to suggest that this

aesthetic was really a way of “knowing”; gaining an understanding of the world around

us by capturing a truth. This knowledge offered a sense of confirmation, or orientation

between artist and audience. The philosopher Martin Heidegger (in what he described as

“high art”) referred to this orientation as “essential to the acquaintance, recognition,

understanding, and know-how that belong to ‘knowledge’ in a broader sense”

(Zuidervarrt, 2004, p. 3).

At this point, it is important to make a distinction between learning and

knowledge. For our purposes, learning is “the accumulation of facts, data, opinions, or

proposition, while knowing requires creative integration that goes beyond the given data”

(Zuo 1998, p. 311). Therefore, knowing is an understanding, appreciation, and personal

commitment to wisdom and beauty: essentially an “aesthetic activity” (Conklin, 1971, p.

540). Based on this understanding, science can be seen as learning, while art is about

knowing. And in both, there is the quest for the truth: albeit the approach taken by the

two disciplines is quite different. John Dewey confirms this distinction by stating,

“Science states meaning; art expresses them” (Wintermute, 2006, p. 41).

Heidegger further suggests that imagination in art is also linked to truth. He

maintained that aesthetic truth has three characteristics: process, originality, and historical

disclosure. To illustrate this concept, consider Picasso’s Guernica (figure 1on the

following page).

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Courtesy Spanish National Museum of Modern Art

The depiction in the painting is not an exact representation of the attack by German

forces against the small Spanish town of Guernica in 1937. Rather, the painting, which

was painted by Picasso in Paris after reading accounts in the daily newspaper, is an

interpretation of the battle. For any observer, the painting is not a reality. Rather, the

painted abstraction conveys the violence and unrest through Picasso’s imagination. And,

for the audience, this interpretation is accepted as authentic. Heidegger would suggest

that the painting has validity for an observer based on the historical knowledge of the

tragedy, that the painting captures a violent truth from the last century.

Lambert Zuidervaart (2004) in his first volume on truth and art takes a slightly

different perspective from that of Heidegger. His theory builds upon the earlier work of

Heidegger but makes a distinction in regard to authenticity and validity. Zuidervaart

called his approach “non-propositional and non-correspondence” (2004, p. 209). In his

construct, the purpose of all art (high or low, popular or esoteric, mass or folk) is to

provoke imaginative insight. Zuidervaart calls this a “creative interpretation of a life-

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giving disclosure” (2004, p. 77). He further postulates that truth in art is based on three

criteria: authenticity, significance, and integrity (a structure similar to Aristotle’s logos,

ethos, and pathos). For Zuidervaart, authenticity is how an artist and audience expect art

to arise from authentic situations; how the creator and audience believe the artistic work

is genuine when the work captures a truth about life.

Referring again to Guernica as an example, Zuidervaart would say that Picasso’s

work is authentic because the painting is true to the events that occurred in real life. For

the second condition of significance, does the public disclosure of the creative work have

significance within the broader social context; does the audience find it useful or worthy?

For Guernica, this is answered by the importance the painting has held over the last 75

years. And finally, for the stipulation of integrity, does the work serve a higher purpose;

does it reveal a greater meaning? In Guernica, this can be illustrated by Picasso’s use of

the horse and bull, a symbolic reference to earlier Spanish masters.

The criteria of authenticity, significance, and integrity by Zuidervaart can also

relate to the social cultural model of creativity developed by Csíkszentmihályi, a

framework built around domain, field, and creator. When this model is applied to

advertising (Earle, 2007), the creator (art director and copywriter in advertising) is the

source of the innovation; the field (the client and agency gatekeepers) is made up of

experts or intermediaries who pass judgment on the innovation; and the domain (previous

advertising), which provides information and stimuli to the creator, is the place where the

creative innovation resides after having been accepted by the field.

When you apply Zuidervaart’s theory with Csíkszentmihályi’s creative model,

authenticity is the personal experience of the creator, which in the case of advertising is

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derived from the educational background and professional experience of the creative

team (copywriters and art directors). For these creators, the advertisement is true as long

as it fits their interpretation of the world. And, for them, integrity is about novelty; does

the work go beyond the conventional; does it stand apart in the greater domain?

This concern with novelty is also found in the writings of many leading creativity

researchers (e.g., Amabile, 1983; Sternberg and Lubart, 1999; Sawyer, 2006). For these

scholars, creativity is “both novel and appropriate, useful, correct or valuable” only when

it is a response to a particular task (Amabile, 1983, p. 35). The art philosopher Hausman

also supports this concept of novelty (1984). He maintains, in what he calls “Novelty

Proper,” that new artwork must contribute to the traditions of the field; what

Csíkszentmihályi refers to as the domain.

To help illustrate this concept of novelty and appropriateness, consider how a

painting by a four-year-old can be seen as novel, unique, or unexpected. But, within the

domain of the art world, most intermediaries (gallery owners or museum curators) would

see no value in the painting. They would say the work is not appropriate (a view not

necessarily shared by the artist’s parents). However, what is true for both the young-

aspiring artist as well as any grand master, the process used in creating the work is

heuristic versus algorithmic.

Creativity in art, as it is in advertising, is a process of trial and error. And, for

both, the solution is based on a simple objective. Does this work have meaning within a

broader context? Does it have what Zuidervaart refers to as a life-giving disclosure?

Collingwood confirms this observation by saying the artist only succeeds when he or she

affects an audience (1958, p. 300): what Zuidervaart calls provoking.

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For the arts of literature, music, and painting, a creator(s) tries to predetermine

how an audience will react. As an example, a novelist is concerned if a new book will be

well received by a publisher; a musician wonders about a CD; a painter wants to know if

people will show up at an exhibition; a copywriter and art director wonder whether an

audience will pay attention to their work amidst the clutter of commercials. For all these

creative people, will the intended target be engaged; will the audience find it relevant;

will it be meaningful; will the creative truth be seen as having import? All these questions

go to support Zuidervaart’s view about the importance of significance, appropriateness,

and integrity.

For creative artisans, as well as advertising practitioners, there is a basic and

fundamental concern about how an intended audience will see their work. Will the

audience connect with it; will they find it relevant and worthwhile? Simply, will the

creativity be considered valuable, useful, or appropriate? Collingwood describes this

motive as “ex hypothesi” (1958, p. 301), or non-aesthetic. The philosopher John Dewey

reinforces this view by suggesting that the objective of any creator is to try and connect

with his audience based on a truth, one formed by the dynamic flow between self (the

creator) and environment (the audience). Dewey called this interaction the

correspondence between truth, meaning, and reality (Wintermute, 2006). He further

proposes that the creative process is not based on the creator sitting down and

consciously constructing a truthful insight from a personal experience. Rather, the artist

adds or subtracts from a work based on his own aesthetic imagination, sensing an internal

expression from his past. Collingwood calls this moment the “aha” (Anderson and

Hausman, 1992). Here, the creator, be it poet, painter, or agency practitioner, intrinsically

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identifies a feeling or emotion as the solution; a process of trial and error that

Collingwood characterized as, “Let us try it this way…and that way…[until]...there”

(Anderson and Hausman, 1992, p. 302).

Creativity in advertising, as in poetry and painting, is built on this same trial and

error, a search for meaningful and true perspectives on life (Meline 1996). However,

when you consider the creative work of advertising, there is a critical and distinct

difference. In the world of art, creativity is the end product. What is produced is simply a

creative expression; it serves no other purpose beyond a communication between artist

and audience. In advertising, creativity must also serve another master. A creative

message must promote a product or service. Here, creativity must serve a business

interest too

Truth and the Agency Practitioner

“I’ve got a great gimmick; let’s tell the truth”


Bill Bernbach (Sullivan, 2003, p. 23).

As noted earlier, many advertising practitioners have noted how that truth is

fundamental. But a question remains: why is truth so essential? One factor might be the

average consumer is bombarded with thousands and thousands of commercial messages,

yet only a few “fly under the radar,” as Jonathan Bond and Richard Kirshenbaum note in

Under the Radar: Talking to Today’s Cynical Consumer (1998). Amidst the clutter of

commercial messages, only a few actually break through and connect with the intended

target. In The Copy Book: How 32 of the Greatest Writers Write Their Advertising

(Abbott, Begins, Brignull, Cox, Durfee, Cooke, et al., 1995), Paul Silverman suggests, “A

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copywriter is like a lawyer building a case for clients by selecting truths” (p. 150); Jim

Durfee adds, “Every product has its own truth” (p. 46); and Steve Hayden points out,

“Make the truth as interesting as it can be” (p. 69). In another book on advertising, Kiss

and Sell (2004), Robert Sawyer advocates, “Writing and re-writing until the words tell

the truth” (p. 22). Mark Fenske an eminent instructor from the VCU BrandCenter

suggests, “A good ad tells truth. It is concerned with a fact. A bad ad promises. A

promise is a lie because it has not come true” (Markfenske.com)

From these examples, as well as earlier quotes from McCann Erickson and Bill

Bernbach, truth can be seen as sort of an enable right for these art directors and

copywriters. However, while reviewing these comments of award-winning creatives,

truth can also be seen in different lights: that truth can be about a product, a consumer, or

a way of life. This is how truth in advertising can be more fully explained.

True to the Product

When creative directors are asked about the value of audience research, one of the

few benefits they mention is the ability to find a truth about a product (Chang, 2006).

These creatives know they need something to base their message on, something to engage

their audience with. As the philosopher Dewey would suggest, they wanted a truth to

establish a connection between the creator, environment (the product), and the audience.

Luke Sullivan, an award-winning writer formerly with the Fallon and Martin Agencies,

suggests he is always “looking for a central truth and seeing how he could dramatize the

benefit” (Abbott, et. al., p. 82). It could be said Sullivan was looking to make the truth

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exciting, novel, and appropriate—a view that supports the theories of Heideggar and

Zuidervaart, where truth reveals an insight, an understanding of life.

In Brands and Branding, Clifton (2003) expands on this concept. “The brand

must be true to itself and keep the promises it makes” (p. 83). Much of the work from

Doyle Dane Bernbach during the 1960s exemplifies this approach, creative work that

illustrates Zuidervaart’s imaginative insight as creative interpretation. As an example,

while other auto print advertisements of the day were showing cars dashing down the

road, or sitting in driveways surrounded by happy admiring families, Doyle Dane showed

a Volkswagen against a stark white backdrop with a remarkably simple yet truthful

headline “Lemon.” The ad (figure 2 below) then went on to explain that the product “had

missed the boat” because it did not live up to quality standards of Volkswagen.

Figure 2 Courtesy Volkswagen Group of America

True to the Audience

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If the basic purpose of advertising is to persuade and not just communicate, then

an advertising message must connect emotionally with an intended target, hopefully in

the end creating a relationship. This emotional appeal can be more important than a

rational or functional benefit. This truth goes to what Heidegger refers to as aesthetic

validity, or what Collingwood calls an emotional representation; how people identify

with feelings based on personal experiences. Ernie Schenck, a creative director at Hill

Holiday, acknowledges this emotional truth as being insightful, intelligent, and

displaying an understanding of human nature (Pattero and Schenck, 1998).

There are many instances of this approach in product categories such as fashion,

athletic shoes, or automobiles. With these examples, a marketing appeal is based on

desire, delight, or aspiration. To illustrate this concept, consider this award-winning mall

display by Crispin Porter and Bogusky from Miami (figure 3 below). The work taps into

an experience from our childhood. The message is not to “buy the car because it is a

child’s toy.” Rather, the appeal is based on the creator knowing one of life’s celebrated

little emotional moments.

Figure 3, Courtesy Mini USA


© 2007 Mini, a division of BMW of North America, LLC

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The appeal in this display, or emotional representation, simply suggests that the Mini is

“child like fun,” or, as a One Show judge pointed out, “a perfectly contained little truism”

(One Show Annual, 2003, p. 151).

The Mini example also demonstrates what Heidegger and Zuidervaart call the

validation of truth, a process whereby the intended audience identifies an emotion, which

adds to the historical disclosure. As Zuidervaart would suggest, this work has the values

of authenticity (the childhood experience of the creator and the consumer) and

significance (the appropriateness of the message to the product).

In another example for Preparation H (figure 4 below), the truth here is built on

the creators knowing what it feels like for the audience not to have the product, the

emotional pain a person experiences with hemorrhoids.

Figure 4, Courtesy Wyeth Healthcare

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The advertisement shows a bicycle seat that looks like a saw. The image is not true in the

rational or empirical sense. But, for the consumer, the image is true in an emotional

sense, or as Collingwood would say, an emotional representation. Here the observer

identifies a true feeling based on an original experience.

True to Life

In the current realm of advertising today, truth can also relate to a lifestyle

(Leyden 2004). Marketing consultant David Altschul explains further, if a brand is to

have any emotional traction, it has to be based on some fundamental human truth of life

(“Love In” 1995). Former creative director Tony Cox echoes this sentiment by saying

advertising should always refer to something beyond the product (Abbott, et al. 1995).

Or, as Mark Fenske in Advertising Today (Berger, 2004) speculates, good advertising

“reinterprets life.” A truth makes the message more “relevant and powerful” (p. 10).

Again, this is a perspective that supports Zuidervaart’s view of truth in art. Nick Cohen,

of Mad Dogs and Englishmen, considers this truth about life the essence of all great

advertising (Aitchison, 1999). Here, in this ad for Harley Davidson (figure 5 on the

following page), truth is demonstrated in linking the brand essence to the rider.

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Figure 5, Courtesy of Harley-Davidson USA

Finally, in this ambient work for Amnesty International (figure 6 below), the

drama and truth of “life” is drawn out before the viewer’s eyes on this sidewalk message.

Figure 6, Courtesy of Amnesty International

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Implications for Future Research

Koslow, Sasser, and Riordan (2003) discuss in their research how there is a great

deal of frustration among scholars about creativity; how academics have tried to quantify

it, qualify it, or even ascribe a personality type to it. But, as with other arts, creativity in

advertising is in many ways still shrouded in mystery. Art directors and copywriters

know that when it comes to developing a creative message, it is not like the film Field of

Dreams: If you build (create) it, they (the audience) will come.

Today, it is difficult to get an audience’s attention, let alone have them remember

a message. While many clients worry about sales, many advertising creatives know that

in order to build a brand, you must have messages that stand out and break through the

clutter, ideas which are novel and appropriate. But another critical factor is finding an

important truth, one that is based on a product, a consumer, or a way of life. As the

founding fathers of America might say, these truths should be self-evident.

However, there needs to be much more discussion and discourse in understanding

how truth and advertising work together. To that end, further areas to consider include:

• Who knows what? Do clients consider “truth” in the same ways as agency

creatives?

• What is right? Does truth in creativity have a direct correlation to more

effective advertisements in terms of audience response?

• How do culture, society, and history relate to framing truth in advertising?

How do they influence an understanding of truth in various mediums?

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These questions are just a start. The idea of truth in advertising is one that will

take extensive examination and thought. And, as with philosophy, it is a pursuit that will

be rich in discussion and debate for many other scholars to consider.

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