Absolutely for Sale

Dear jaded consumer: These two Houston artists are now competing for your attention. They sell ads, they're making a vodka billboard, and their client list includes Budweiser and Target. They call it art, but what advertisers want to know is, will it work

The ad said to just do it, so the Art Guys did.
According to Advertising Age, "consumers are living inside a perpetual marketing event." The Art Guys, going those consumers one better, are becoming a perpetual marketing event. Like any number of neo-celebrities, these two longtime Houston artists are building their own mini-multimedia empire. There's going to be a book. There's going to be a movie. There's going to be an "Absolut Art Guys" billboard.

Even as the actual Art Guys -- Jack Massing and Michael Galbreth -- relax near the wood-burning stove in the former Heights mattress factory that now serves as their World Headquarters, they're promoting the Art-Guys-as-advertising-vehicle. After all, advertisements can be found on the produce stickers on your oranges, or on the educational television in your child's classroom, or on an art museum sponsor wall. So why not on artists?

"The notion of selling out is not necessarily appropriate here," says Massing, as the two Houston artists discuss their plans to conquer commerce, marketing and fashion. The centerpiece of their attack, called SUITS: The Clothes Make the Man, is purely transactional: Companies buy ad space from the Art Guys. Then, for one year, the Guys wear gray business suits, specially created by designer Todd Oldham and "handsomely embroidered" with the logos of their "clients" -- among them Budweiser, Target, Philip Morris and possibly Reebok.

"We're not selling out," Galbreth adds. "We're selling."
As the Art Guys, the pair has long explored the intersection of money, art and everyday behavior; these latest projects are simply their most ambitious. The two have been partners since 1983, a couple of years after they met as art students at the University of Houston. They live together, work together and frequently socialize together. Their public identities have blended so seamlessly that the most salient difference between the two is that Jack is the short, blond one and Mike is the tall brunet. Other than that, the contrast is more nuance than substance -- Jack is given to deadpan one-liners, Mike to naive philosophizing.

They employ both tactics while talking about the SUITS project, a mixture of humor and philosophy. The Art Guys will wear the suits, they say, at the Cannes Film Festival, at fashion and sporting events and on TV talk shows. An appearance on Late Night with David Letterman is a "definite potential reality." Though the wearing of the suits was supposed to begin in January, the Guys have found that selling is harder than they thought. The SUITS project has come to mean hours of time on the phone -- in fact, it's a nine-to-five job.

"What we deliver with the suits is extremely high-end marketing," Galbreth says, practicing his soft-sell soft-shoe. Appearances before the "youth market" on college campuses (in April, the Art Guys will lecture at the University of Texas at San Antonio and Harvard University) is one of the most valuable exposures their advertisers can hope to receive, he adds.

Clients who purchase an ad on one Art Guy's jacket will receive, absolutely free, a spot on the other Art Guy's pants. They'll get "added value elements": web-site links, a mention in the forthcoming book about the project by art book publisher Harry N. Abrams and an appearance in the documentary of the project by local production company Cool Films. Furthermore, clients' logos "will live on indefinitely, because the SUITS are special art objects and they will appear in museums and galleries throughout the world." You've heard of wearable art? Conceptual art? Commercial art? The SUITS are all of the above.

Though the unsewn, unembroidered pieces of the suits are squirreled away in the Art Guys' office awaiting their debut, already the media has seized on the project. The idea landed the Art Guys on the cover of a national magazine, Art News. The New Yorker has done a short take on SUITS, and two shows at CBS, Sunday Morning and Public Eye, argued over who would get to cover the project. But most interesting, perhaps, is the interest the country's cutting-edge marketing wizards are showing in SUITS. Some of them are taking it very seriously -- and why shouldn't they? Michael Jordan once estimated that a single appearance on Letterman promoting his new cologne was worth $2 million. To the ad men, the Art Guys' project is likely to pay off -- or, as a LaForce & Stevens agency rep said in toothsome appreciation, "They're very bullish."

For a project like SUITS, where the ability to garner publicity is a major selling point, there is probably nothing more valuable than having a camera crew accompany you to a crucial meeting. In fact, LaForce & Stevens, the public relations firm that handles Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, immediately saw the advantage in it. When the Art Guys, with CBS cameras in tow, showed up in January to talk strategy at the firm's New York office, a box of fresh, hot Krispy Kremes materialized on the meeting table, in full view of the camera.

Despite its staidly kitschy name and retro-style logo, Krispy Kreme is a master of what's called "under the radar" marketing -- nontraditional marketing that slips past the "radar" that tells consumers when they're being advertised to. Krispy Kreme never buys print or television ads. Instead, they insinuate their calorie-laden product into the world of fashion and popular culture, placing it on prime-time TV shows like E.R., giving it away backstage at runway shows (yes, the PR man insists, models do eat doughnuts), and persuading publications like the New York Times Magazine, GQ and Allure to proclaim its virtues.

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