It is widely acknowledged that famous artworks carry profound cultural significance, transcending individual encounters with art. This may be why, when it comes to commercial purposes, advertising agencies utilize iconic artworks to sell a product, service, or experience. However, using famous paintings in advertising campaigns can also be controversial. The commodification of artwork can often diminish its integrity and trivialize the artist’s vision. Therefore, artwork in advertising campaigns can be a hit or miss when it comes to public reception.
In 2022, the Italian government spent €9 million euros on tourism in an attempt to recover the economy from the effects of COVID-19 on travel. In April 2023, the Armando Testa Group created the “Open to Meraviglia” campaign. The name of the ad campaign itself sparked controversy, as the combination of English words and the Italian word for “wonder” baffled Italian politicians. The previous month, prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s party, the Brothers of Italy, proposed legislation that would impose fines for Italian entities who used foreign words in official communication. However, the campaign infuriated other Italians, who criticized the advertisement’s usage of Sandro Botticelli’s iconic Renaissance painting The Birth of Venus. The campaign reimagined Botticelli’s Venus, who has become one of the most famous female art subjects in history, as a virtual influencer. In the computerized images, Venus travels across Italy, iPhone in hand, visiting Venice’s St. Mark’s Square and the Colosseum in Rome. The images became prominent memes on social media, as they perpetuated stereotypes about Italian culture, such as eating pizza, riding bicycles, and dressing in elegant streetwear. Additionally, the winery used as a backdrop in the video campaign is not a historic Italian vineyard, but a smaller winery in Slovenia. Thus, the agency was criticized for its bland curation of a “Barbie Venus,” taking one of the most iconic symbols of rebirth in Italian art and transforming it into a commercialized archetype of millennial culture. Alexandra Lawrence, a cultural enthusiast of Italian art and history, took to Twitter to condemn the campaign, writing:
"Every single day I (and many like-minded colleagues) fight against this kind of vapid take on Italy’s art and culture only to get hit with this €9 million ad campaign by the Italian government encouraging it outright."
So, what exactly went wrong with “Open to Meraviglia”? Greek tourism advertisements have used the country’s rich art and architecture destinations as selling points since 1929 when the first Greek tourism ad utilized an image of the Parthenon bathed in sunlight. These advertisements worked, as tourists in the 20th century primarily visited Greece to see cultural monuments and art. “Open to Meraviglia,” on the other hand, appropriated Italian art in a shabby stereotype of Italian culture, failing to incorporate Botticelli’s style and message into the advertisement.
How can advertisements appropriately utilize art history in their campaigns, then? Selling a product or experience with images from famous works of art can be successful by tapping into existing emotional connections that an audience has with famous artwork, creating deeper resonance and elevating the public’s perception of a brand.
In Germany in 2017, a student ad campaign from the Miami Ad School became viral on social media. The campaign served as a testament to the restorative powers of Vaseline®, a petroleum-based skin protectant. Utilizing images from famous artworks such as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Petrus Christus’s Portrait of a Young Girl, the campaign virtually applied Vaseline® to heal the paintings’ cracks. The result is a stunning and captivating ad that does not need words or flashy edits.
In March 2023, Coca-Cola released a global ad campaign titled “Masterpiece.” In the two-minute video, an art student sits in a museum with his sketchbook, searching for a muse. As the student searches the gallery, the ad opens with a nod to Andy Warhol’s critique of mass consumerism as the subject from Aket’s 2022 work Divine Idyll emerges from its canvas to grab a bottle of Coke from Warhol’s silkscreen print. The bottle is transformed into Aket’s cubist abstract style. As the bottle passes across the gallery, each subject transforms the bottle into their own style, from Edvard Much’s The Scream to Utagawa Hiroshige’s Drum Bridge and Setting Sun Hill. The ad ends as Vermeer’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring passes the Coke and winks to the camera. In line with respecting the artists’ styles, the campaign includes a master page where audiences can read about each highlighted artwork, including interviews with contemporary artists. Coca-Cola’s ad is a prime example of bringing artwork into advertisement respectfully and skillfully.
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