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 SUITS project, of course, is both under-the-radar and what business schools call "outside the box," which is why Krispy Kreme CEO Mike Cecil jumped on it right away. It's an idea that could generate a good deal of editorial copy (like what you're reading now). Since editorial copy, in theory at least, can't be bought, consumers are more likely to let it slip under their radar. And that makes it worth an awful lot -- though it costs very little. For example, GSD&M, the Austin advertising agency that handles Southwest Airlines and the Houston Rockets, painted an airplane to look like a whale for the grand opening of SeaWorld. Shamu One, as it was called, generated an estimated $12 million in unpaid publicity. (Value is calculated according to a formula whose variables could include, say, the placement and size of an article, or a report's duration on the evening news.)

GSD&M was urged to participate by former governor Ann Richards, a friend of the Art Guys who also serves as an adviser to the SUITS project, and who helped sell ads to Budweiser and Philip Morris as well. GSD&M purchased a spot on Mike's lapel. Companies can choose between quite reasonable "above-the-belt" and "below-the-belt" price structures, ranging from $1,500 to $6,000 by size. (Clients often want to know which hand the Guys use, or how tall they are, when picking their spots.) By comparison, a full-page, four-color ad in Vogue costs $68,786. A full-page ad in the Houston Press costs $2,869. And a company would pay an average product-placement agency about $50,000 a year to land choice roles in film and TV for its brand.

Though the Art Guys' prices are low, Alicia Smith Kriese, GSD&M's director of business development, says the investment is risky. Publicity resulting from such a scheme could be "less valuable," she says, if it makes the company look like a "bunch of nuts." In other words, not all publicity is good publicity, even if it's practically free.

But Kriese thinks the company's support for the project is worth more as an inspiration to GSD&M employees than as a marketing tool. The project is in step with GSD&M's company line. "We're in the business of creating visionary ideas," Kriese says.

Which is exactly what the Art Guys say they're in the business of doing. "Art is ideas," Galbreth says. "Artists don't have to present their ideas in a museum."

So if art is ideas, and advertising is ideas, and the Art Guys are selling advertising on the strength of one of their ideas, then what, exactly, makes their project art?

"That's a good question," says Galbreth.

Even corporate neophytes know the power of celebrity in clinching a deal. That's why the Art Guys asked Ann Richards to sit on their "advisory board" and their buddy Todd Oldham (whom they met through a Dallas art dealer) to make the suits.

But the Art Guys also recognized the fact that their own "brand equity" as artists would help sell them as people who could promote other brands. In that regard, their long track record, evidenced in the lavish catalog from their 1995 show at the Contemporary Arts Museum, is a plus. Indeed, the SUITS project flows naturally out of the Art Guys' work up to now: They've always recognized that documentation -- preferably broadcast or printed -- was as much a part of their work as the work itself.

Never strangers to shameless self-promotion, the Guys have made their own bumper stickers, post cards and a wide variety of business cards since the mid-'80s. Their behavioral performances -- spending 24 hours in a Denny's on the winter solstice, working for 24 hours in a local convenience store, mowing the lawn of the Contemporary Arts Museum -- easily double as publicity stunts, attracting ink from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Texas Monthly, and thus increasing their brand equity.

The Art Guys have also always made a point of making art accessible to a broader audience -- mostly through humor. They've made minimalist sculptures out of American cheese slices, Tylenol capsules and Pringles. They've encouraged people to chew gum and stick it on a chair; they've donned lipstick and kissed every member of an audience at some of their performances. Recently, their fascination with commerce has led them to do one piece, Credit Where Credit Is Due, in which they applied to every credit card company that solicited them (can you see an American Express ad in their future?). For another piece, Hello Yes, they changed long-distance companies every time someone asked them to.

The Art Guys' use of everyday experience, and their democratic approach to art -- or their "knack for tapping into a large sector of the public," as the "fashion creative director" of Target put it -- makes them an appealing ad buy for major companies that are willing to take risks. (Target works with Kirschenbaum & Bond, the agency that literally wrote the book -- Under the Radar -- on outside-the-box marketing.)

The Art Guys are not the first to turn commercial tricks as art. Because Houston is such a business-oriented city, perhaps it's not surprising that one direct precursor to the Art Guys' project happened right here in town. In 1989, artist Mark Flood organized a group show of silk-screen art called "Primal Screen." To fund the exhibit, he sold ad space on the paintings themselves, charging $100 to $500. For a second exhibit, he even hired an ad salesperson to do the job for him. Ultimately, the Museum of Fine Arts purchased one of the works, which read simply "Your Ad Here" and included a phone number.

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