Back in 1924, Italian artist Fortunato Depero launched a 13-year-long partnership with Campari, the drink manufacturer. During the course of the company’s patronage, Depero designed labels, advertisements and even a bottle for them. He argued—in a 1931 treatise called “Campari Futurist Single Edition”—that advertising did not need to directly show a product to attract consumers. Rather, by associating a product with great art, a company could draw consumers to their brand.
Which, of course, brings us to Meghan Trainor. The 20-year-old pop singer’s first video, “All About the Bass,” has been viewed nearly 300 million times since it was posted on YouTube on June 11 and made it to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Trainor released a new video on Nov. 19 for “Lips are Movin,” which drew 2.5-million views in less than two days. It shares the same girl group-influenced harmonies, wry lyrics and candy palette of her breakout hit—and it was paid for by a computer company. The video is part of a $20-million campaign by Hewlett Packard to promote their new Pavilion PC.
(HP has, somewhat bafflingly, turned off YouTube embedding, so you can’t watch the video here. Click here to watch it.)
The corporate sponsorship is so minimal, you likely wouldn’t be able to spot it without searching. The Pavilion does make a brief appearance in the initial frames of the video (masquerading as a film set Clapperboard) and pops up as supporting player throughout. But mostly, the video is all about Trainor. That said, ad agency 180LA, which created the video, did make some savvy marketing decisions. They recruited a bundle of “influencers”—dancers, set designers and actors with large social media followings—to appear in or work on the clip, guaranteeing they would share it with their audiences. This has only boosted Trainor’s own online presence; Billboard reports she’s seen a 11% bump in Twitter followers and 16% hike in Facebook fans. As for HP, they’re hoping the association with an up-and-coming artist will add a little shine on their brand. As creative director Adam Groves told Ad Age: “She’s . . . a young, socially active creator herself who we knew would inspire our influencers and their fans.” Cynics will view this as a decidedly stodgy brand trying to make itself hip by hanging out with cool kids. But a less-jaded eye might call it something else—arts patronage for the 21st century.
Long before the notion of “branding” was commonplace, tycoons and corporations commissioned work from artists, motivated by a varying mix of benevolence and concern for their public image. Nelson Rockefeller had wanted Henri Matisse or Pablo Picasso to create a mural for his New York office tower. When they proved unavailable, he commissioned Diego Rivera (The mural was later torn down, half finished, when the artist’s insisted on including an image of Lenin). Daimler had Andy Warhol create a series of paintings to celebrate the 100th anniversary of their automobile. And one of the few positive outcomes of the launch of the BlackBerry 10 was the company’s “Keep it Moving” campaign, which saw it partner with filmmaker Robert Rodriguez and writer Neil Gaiman. For his part, Gaiman asked his social media followers to share their feelings about each month of the year, which in turn inspired a series of short stories. Those works were then illustrated by a string of artists. Gaiman explained to his fans: “They gave me a very open brief (“What would you like to do on social media?”) and let me go off and do it. They gave me a BlackBerry, and I promised I’d use it for a year. They made short films which I loved, about writing and inspiration and creation.” He said he “loved” the project, “mostly because it felt like they were a patron of the arts.” Indeed, while BlackBerry fans were disappointed by the new device, it at least meant there was one more Gaiman book out in the world.
But while other artists flirt with corporate patronage, the rock band OK GO have built an entire oeuvre around it. In 2011, insurance company State Farm paid for the band’s “This Too Shall Pass” video, which featured a Rube Goldberg machine and took two months, a team of engineers and $150,000 to complete. What State Farm wanted out of the relationship was to associate their brand with something that was cool,” singer Damian Kulash told Canadian Business at the time. “And we made it very clear up front that we weren’t making an advertisement, we were making a music video.”
Since that video, OK GO has worked with other brands—from Cisco to Range Rover to Jose Cuevro—to underwrite other projects. The companies get to associate with innovative artists, the band gets money to try new things and the public gets new works of art. In a way, each of these projects fulfills Depero’s new vision for advertising. They fulfill a desire for a new OK GO video or Megan Trainor song or Neil Gaiman short story. They sell their products by giving people something that they want. As Kulash said: “Everything we make is part of our business model, which is to make cool shit and hope somebody out there is willing to pay you for it.”