Commentary by Randall Rothenberg


An Old Hand Struggles to Make a Comeback

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Is there room in advertising for art? Real art, the kind of art that engages the senses as it stimulates the mind?

This query -- which is dead serious, and relates in no small way to the viability of advertising in an image-soaked, communications-weary culture -- is prompted by the return to the fold of Jeff Vilinsky.

One of the ad industry's top composers from the '80s to the mid-'90s, he abandoned the business as his interests evolved toward more complex and multicultural works. In this, he was following his father, the late Jack Vilinsky, a highly regarded art director at McCann-Erickson in the 1960s who fled advertising for sculpture and painting. Jack, however, never returned. Jeff, after several years abroad, wants to combine his past and his present.

"I don't want to go back, even as I come back," Mr. Vilinsky says.

Tension, not synergy
Artists have been engaged in advertising as long as the craft has required words and pictures. Toulouse-Lautrec was an ad designer; F. Scott Fitzgerald spent time writing copy. But the relationship between art and advertising has been defined for generations by the tensions between them, not the synergies. Not for

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nothing do we smile at the cliche of the frustrated copywriter with the novel in his desk. Bill Bernbach famously loosened the chains. Advertising, he said, is persuasion, and persuasion is not a science but an art. But neither he nor the Creative Revolution he fomented could fully emancipate the artists in advertising. Only recently, as postmodernism erased boundaries between art and commentary, has advertising begun to attract artists who see it as a viable medium of expression.

Mr. Vilinsky is not a postmodernist, even if he has, in the postmodern vein, taken inspiration from across the cultural spectrum. His legendary launch spots for Saturn cars, with Hal Riney & Partners, are a virtual tour of all-American musical idioms, from Dixieland to Liberace. For his witty, memorable IBM spot, "French Guys," with Ogilvy & Mather, violin and piano evoke "La Vie en Rose."

"With the Saturn launch, they didn't know what they wanted. We were writing almost up to the point it was going on the air," Mr. Vilinsky recalled. "It just made sense to take inspiration from Louis Armstrong, but make it original."

Borrowed music
Original music has commanded less of a premium in advertising recently. Young creatives increasingly prefer to borrow interest from existing music, eschewing inventive tunes even as they move toward more innovative cinematography. That has made Mr. Vilinsky's return to advertising more arduous, but he shrugs off the obstacle.

"Artists were considered difficult because they fought the confines of 30 seconds," he says. "But bending yourself to meet the needs of the form is no less artistic."

These days, Mr. Vilinsky's art is encapsulated in "Back to the Endless," a five-part orchestral work he has been finishing, using singers and musicians from his earlier time in advertising's trenches. Pulsating with themes and rhythms from across Europe, Africa and the Middle East, it is as removed from advertising as an independent film is from Hollywood schlock.

Unless, that is, advertising can admit art, and not keep it locked away. "The truth is," Mr. Vilinsky says, citing the microscopic appropriations and colloquial jingles that adorn his pre-21st century resume, "I'm a terrible copier. This" -- he points at speakers throbbing with African harmonies -- "has a place. I believe it's got a place in advertising."

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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