“If you do an advert then you are off the artistic register forever,” claimed American comedian Bill Hicks. Sadly, Bill Hicks never lived to see Johnny Rotten touting Country Life Butter, nor was he able to witness Iggy Pop promoting Swift Cover Insurance, but it goes without saying that I would have loved to have seen his reaction to either of those recent adverts. No matter how funny you might find it that two of punk’s hugest stars have appeared in adverts (side note: Marky Ramone also has his own range of pasta sauces), you’ve got to admit that corporate cocksucking doesn’t have quite the same stigma attached to it that it used to. Of course, there are still people who get upset about oil companies pumping money into art foundations, but in 2012, if someone calls you a “sell out”, you can probably keep your credibility intact by responding with, “Fuck off, you smug lefty wanker!”
There are a plethora of reasons why creatives and people within the arts are now willing to cosy up to big name brands and accept corporate handouts. The most glaringly obvious reason is actually because creative people like money. I know, I know – you thought we were all struggling, rolly-smoking thrifties, who sleep in a perpetual draft during the winter months, right? Well, yes, maybe some of us are, but it’s not usually a lifestyle we have chosen for ourselves. Mostly we’re up to our eyeballs in debt, and work two waitressing jobs to cover the rent. If FoxConn offered me a crisp fifty to write a glowing report of their labour practices, I’d probably bite their hand off. But enough about my own lack of integrity; the point is that there are individuals out there who are too desperate to even factor in pride, and would happily write a jingle for Nando’s if it meant that they could afford to eat real chicken again, as opposed to Ridley Road Rat.
Another reason for this shift in attitude is because corporate cash makes up for the lack of government funding. Those who are cynical about this kind of arrangement might say, “Ah, but if those corporations didn’t dodge their taxes, we’d have more government funding!” Is that really true, though? We’ve all seen those MP expenses forms, and I think we know full well that when the government have spare money to spend, they much prefer to spend it on bath plugs, biros, moats and parcel string. And crack…probably.
All joking aside though, in 2011 the Arts Council had its budget cut by nearly a third, and as a result this meant that some 206 organisations lost their funding altogether. Naturally, in order for these organisations to survive, they have had to look for other sources of funding. Sometimes this comes from generous individuals, but usually the really big cash injections are administered by corporations and brands, eager to spend some of their marketing budget on reputation management. Is this a bad thing? Meh, not necessarily. Usually, brands and companies select organisations to support based on their existing image anyway, so there’s no need for curatorial intervention – I doubt we’ll ever see a punk band playing a pop-up show in Marks & Spencer’s, but I can understand why people got angry when the Olympics were sponsored by McDonalds and Coca-Cola.
Finally, sponsored creativity has become more acceptable because brands have got a lot more sophisticated when it comes to courting the arts. Unlike in Bill Hicks’ day, it’s fairly unlikely that a musician will be asked outright to be in an advertisement. It’s more likely that they’ll be playing the Ray-Bans stage at a festival, or be invited to a Sailor Jerry’s event, or cover their favourite song for a Doctor Marten’s session.
Brands have become so slick at pulling these stunts, that no one even bats an eyelid when an arte povera installation is being sponsored by Bloomberg!