On Art, Truth and Advertising: Bill Hicks and Banana Splits

by Philippa Bateman


Over the weekend, a friend of mine, and an innocent (she has nothing to do with making media) asked me a question: Is advertising ‘creative’? As is my irritating way, I couldn’t give a straight answer because I wanted to respond with an agenda-laden motive and re-model the question.
Here I go.

Ask me if advertising is art, because creativity cuts in all directions: planting trees, working out complex mathematical problems, cooking a cake. Art is not that. Art doesn’t have much to do with being better than, or more important than, what is not art. Art doesn’t have to be good either, it is often mediocre or bad but it’s still art. Nor must art have a purpose or serve a greater good, although sometimes it does. Advertising is not art, not ever. For starters, truth is not a priority in advertising and advertising serves a specific purpose: to sell products to us as consumers and deliver profits to those who sell. That is the only reason advertising exists and every ‘creative’ decision made is about seducing us to buy, buy, buy. It is not for us to reason why, except to know it makes us feel better, until it doesn’t.

Whatever form art takes, it mostly speaks to or about the human condition, and at its most successful—in unpredictable and original ways.

Making art is not a business (although Andy Warhol would disagree). Most artists would struggle to justify its existence fiscally and it’s not why they do it. I’m sure there’s a couple of successful artists with Swiss Bank accounts but artists who commit their lives to making art are not the type to run hedge funds and commercial television networks, build art collections on the back of real estate deals, or launder money via casinos. It’s just not the same game. And, if occasionally they work in Adverting it's usually to pay their rent. Other people make money out of art before artists make money because making money is a full time occupation—as working stiffs know.

In film, commerce and art co-exist uneasily, whatever the deal, but there’s a whopping difference between films aiming for art and movies made to make bank vaults of cash. Way back in the 80s, Hollywood figured out they could employ young ad directors without feature film experience for tentpole and franchise movies because they were not only eager to get a foot in the door (and comparatively cheap), they understood decision-making by committee, the importance of merchandising and how a movie is conceived to sell a product (which is what popcorn movies unashamedly are). Art didn't come into it.

When Dawn Steel, the second woman to end up running a studio in Hollywood (there’s only been 3 in total), rocked into town, she’d come from a job marketing Penthouse sex toys and had set up her own company selling designer logo toilet paper (I think that meant wiping your ass on the Gucci logo which was a commercial and subversive act all at the same time, especially as she was sued). At the time she was appointed Head of Columbia Pictures, she knew a thing or two about what mattered (Coca Cola owned the studio) and I’m not being facetious.

The flipside to such brazen celebration of the gathering of the buck, and using creative talent to sell commodities, is ad directors wanting to be taken seriously when they branch out into making independent films. Fair enough, after all that aspirational fakery and working with subjects like ice cream and dog food it’s understandable that one could mistake stories about miserable people in dysfunctional marriages as art. Too much phoniness can give ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ rather dour and rigid guidelines.

Then there’s advertising that is arty and entertaining—no wonder my friend was confused. But even when advertising looks like art, doesn’t mean it is. Take, for example, the delicious new Prada ads for a new perfume, Candy L’Eau.


The front-end credits, tell us it’s a production (paid for) by Prada, the perfume is the star and it’s “A Film by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola starring Léa Seydoux.” The inspiration (read: template) is Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, made in 1962. It’s not an ad, but a “film” in 3 episodes. Righteo.

A classic of New Wave cinema that captures youth and love in that formidable French way, Jules et Jim was based on a novel written by a 75-year-old man Henri Pierre Roché. The heroine of the story is a young woman, Catherine, loved by Jules and Jim. (A psychoanalyst of the time said it was a film about two boys in love with their mother, which might explain her absence from the title). Catherine jumps in the Seine, runs through the Louvre without a sideways glance at the Mona Lisa and creates havoc in the lives of the eponymous friends.

Truffaut’s film, along with Godard’s Breathless, defined a new cinematic future when it was released, and made most of what had gone before look stuffy and stilted. A (sometimes savage) critic before he was a director, Truffaut wanted to make films that showed more ‘sincerity’ to life but half a century later, Jules et Jim has been re-imagined and re-packaged to sell perfume-sincerely and beautifully but doesn’t a classic film deserve to be left alone? As much as I enjoy the ads, I’m conflicted because I’m enjoying the ads. Have I been had?

Where’s Bill Hicks when I need him?

Bill (not joking). “You can print this in stone and don’t ever forget it: Any, any performer who sells a product on television is for now and all eternity, removed from the artistic world. I don’t care if you shit Mona Lisa’s out your ass on cue—you’ve made your fucking choice.”

Thanks Bill, for clearing up that grey area.

It is about choice. And yet, some of us like, and try, to have it all ways, which blurs those tricksy epistemological, ethical and metaphysical boundaries… But why let all that shit get in the way when you can buy a big house or a private jet? If anything can be bought, anything can be commodified and where does that leaves us: blind, vacant and willingly so.

An American stand-up comedian, Bill Hicks died of pancreatic cancer aged thirty-two in 1994. You might be tempted to extemporize in a new agey way on the perils of rage (also drugs, alcohol and cigarettes) but don’t even start. Like a select few of the finely tuned angry and misunderstood purists who have trouble being taken seriously, he was a pussycat and ahead of his time.

Hicks appeared on Letterman several times but in 1993, his set, which included references to Jesus and targeted the pro-life movement, was cut. Letterman and his CBS producers got nervous and caved to fear about offending advertisers. Hicks was dumb-founded. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t always pissed people off, torn apart consumerism, superficiality and evangelical Christianity.

He wrote a 39-page letter to John Lahr at the New Yorker. Lahr ran a piece that generated more heat than any of Hicks’ previous television appearances in the US.

Three months later Bill Hicks was dead.

Sixteen years on, in 2009, David Letterman played the segment on The Late Show and apologized to Mary Hicks, his mother, explaining, sort of, that he didn’t know why he dropped it, that it was an “error of judgement”.

I don’t know if that is a sanitized and polite way of saying, I fucked up by making a choice to keep my bosses happy...

Why no mention of the pro-life commercial that followed the cut segment in 1993? And why apologise to Hick’s mother, Mary, on television all these years later? Could it have anything to do with a documentary being released in 2009 about the life of her son and Letterman not wanting to go down, historically speaking, as a frighty, censoring type?

Letterman was applauded as a ‘big man’ for making an apology and taking responsibility but did he? It’s not exactly a full disclosure and what is an apology if what you’ve done isn’t in contemporary parlance, ‘owned’? But then who can blame him? He had a job to keep, a legacy to look after, and it was all so long ago.

Let’s be clear here, there’s nothing that dictates the priorities of corporations more powerfully than the bottom line. The disingenuousness about the relationship between the network and its advertisers is what’s wrong. One doesn’t exist without the other and offending people who pay the bills is just not on.

Come on then, come out and say that. You can entertain but not if you make fun, question or challenge the advertisers and sponsors.

Bill Hicks was an artist, and his rage had a purpose. He wasn’t paid well for making people uncomfortable, nor famous in his own country at the time he uncompromisingly critiqued what went on. His jokes still work, not only because they were good to begin with, but because society hasn’t changed that much. The truth still makes us squirm.

And the truth still matters.