Absoloot Sponsorship

April 04, 2003

The other day I was flipping through a “lifestyle” magazine when an Absolut Vodka ad caught my eye. This particular ad was basically a verbatim reproduction of the classic “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” cover with the sole modification to the original Jamie Reid art being a cut paper style Absolut bottle silhouette behind the Sex Pistols type instead of the usual simple rectangle. The type at the bottom of the page read “Absolut Pistols” in the typestyle they have branded for years. At first I had my typical Pavlovian response of jubilation seeing a Sex Pistols graphic. The Sex Pistols are close to my heart as an important step in the evolution of who I’ve become today. As what I was seeing really started to sink in, my emotions became more mixed. In a sense, an Absolut ad is a definitive statement of someone or something’s pop culture significance. In this regard I was pleased that the Pistols had finally reached a certain level of mainstream critical mass. Yet, it was for this exact same reason that the ad made me uneasy. The Sex Pistols used to be very “outsider” and “dangerous”, the very album cover being endorsed had been banned 25 years prior. An ad for a very established company is not too punk. I thought to myself, “Would I have looked at the Pistols differently if their Anarchy tour had been the Absolut Anarchy tour?” Maybe not, because the Pistols were the originators of the “Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle”, but who knows? Historical note: The Sex Pistols were paid advances by both A/M and EMI records and promptly dropped for being too controversial, before finally settling at Virgin records. Whether or not it was intentional, the Pistols made a decent chunk of money without doing much work until they reached Virgin. To my pointä this essay is about “Sponsorship”, so let me be more specific about how sponsorship relates to the Pistols. The Sex Pistols certainly knew how to work the press, but by keeping chaos high in the mix, sponsorship by a corporation was not even an option. As the Absolut Pistols ad demonstrates, things have changed since those days.

On the surface, Sponsorship is a fairly simple relationship; however, the true outcome of sponsorship is determined by an often-unpredictable web of social constructs and perpetually shifting variables. Culture is constantly shifting, not always in the ways one might prefer, but evolving/devolving nonetheless. Would Absolut have taken the chance to endorse the Sex Pistols 25 years ago at the height of their controversy? Maybe not, but today corporations have learned the marketing value of aligning themselves with things that are cutting edge, rebellious, and even controversial. Bands, actors, athletes, artists, and anyone else that has the potential to influence popular culture, will be presented with corporate sponsorship opportunities. It is a calculated risk to sponsor someone or something controversial and corporations sometimes withdraw from a sponsorship if they feel an artist’s negative publicity could be damaging to their brand. Even with an album at the top of the charts, R. Kelly will be lucky to find a sponsor, due to his recent indiscretions. Ludacris lost his Pepsi sponsorship for behavior that fell wide of the “family values” target. Today’s sponsorship game is high stakes. Though controversy may sell rap records, it still may not offset the financial rewards Ludacris was offered by Pepsi.

Webster’s dictionary defines a sponsor as “A business that finances a program in return for advertising” and “A godparent”.

These are two different definitions, but in some instances sponsorship can provide both. Ideally, sponsorship benefits both parties and compromises neither. However, sponsorship often connotes backroom dealings, hidden agendas, and an overall loss of credibility for the sponsorship recipient. Some partnerships are more logical than others. Sporting goods companies sponsoring athletes makes sense and is very accepted. When it comes to companies sponsoring art shows, the art crowd seems to have greater reservations no matter how genuinely altruistic the company’s motives are. My theory on the hyper-scrutiny of sponsorship within the art community has to do with the idea that true art has no master but the artist. With art, the viewer wants purity, free of compromise, which is difficult to find anywhere else in society. Since the introduction of Pop Art, and the entrance into the Post-Modern era, the only distinction between “fine” and “commercial” art is not style but intent. The idea that art is the artist’s personal vision in no way tainted by a corporate agenda is central to the definition of “fine” art. Most artists would probably prefer to avoid sponsorship and the related issues it raises. Some artists have no choice but to use sponsorship to facilitate a project that could not happen otherwise. Artists are compelled to produce their work by any means necessary. Sometimes this solution is as simple and earnest as “This art show was made possible by a generous contribution from Company X”. Sometimes the solution requires an artist to negotiate shark-infested waters. The artist’s methods and agenda can be as covert as the corporations. A great example is L.L. Cool J’s Gap commercial. In the ad he dropped the name of a competing clothing line with which he was affiliated. In the ad, his words “for us, by us” referenced FUBU clothing but Gap didnÏ€t figure out the coup until it was too late. Self-deprecating humor and honesty can also improve the publicÏ€s perception of a sponsorship. For an art show I did in Philadelphia, which Urban Outfitters wanted to sponsor, I actually designed the flyer to make the sponsorship aspect a conceptual asset. Paying homage to the Sex Pistols, the masters of the “Swindle”, I complemented the Urban Outfitters logo on the flyer with the text “Cash for chaos provided by Urban Outfitters”. Urban had paid for my trip to Philly where I would, of course, post my images in the street illegally. Willingly or unwillingly, Urban were my facilitators and accomplices. Sponsorship can be a compromise for an artist due purely to the public’s opinion and not to actual pressure from the sponsor to cater to their agenda. A perfect example of this phenomenon involves a poster I did for a show, which DC Shoes sponsored. DC is a very respected “core” company, but the poster from my show, which included a half-inch DC logo, sold less briskly, even at a lower price, than an identical poster I released later. Some people obviously aren’t comfortable with, or at least prefer not to see, the mix of art and corporation.

Ryan McGinness “Sponsorship”

When Ryan McGinness brought BLK/MRKT his proposal for “Sponsorship”, I thought it was brilliant because it was so simple. Ryan’s idea reduced sponsorship to a purely reflexive equation with the artist removed entirely except as “project director”. There were no smoke and mirrors, or art for that matter, just a display of logos and product whose hierarchy was determined by their associated sponsor’s level of contribution. The sponsors were given a description of what the show entailed, upfront. To their credit, most wanted to be part of this self-parodying idea without knowing how it might be received by the public. As unconventional an art show as this was, facets of the companyÏ€s sponsorship goals would still be served. The logos received prominent placement and the hip tastemaker crowd was treated with a euphoric evening, complete with free booze and multiple free products, with which to associate the logos present. If that weren’t enough to satisfy the sponsors, Keanu Reaves was allegedly staggering around in a drunken stupor just before the evening’s notoriety was sealed by the intrusion of the fire marshal. The very book in which this essay appears was funded by the sponsors and continues to place them in front of people long after the “Sponsorship” art show has ended.

The “Sponsorship” art show succeeded because the sponsors themselves had no control over the show, except to participate or decline. The sponsors involved were not afraid to embrace a good coup, even at their own expense (or they weren’t paying attention to what the show was about). Ryan’s “Sponsorship” art show reminds us that the attraction to art and artists in the first place is often their freshness, passion, unpredictability, and ability to challenge the status quo. Sponsors who embrace this beautiful chaos head on are the likely leaders of the next commercial generation. The National Endowment for the Arts is basically dead, so sponsorship is likely to play an even more prominent role in the lives of exhibiting artists. Artists: give the companies credit for taking risks. Companies: give the artists money for taking risks. Everybody wins in this equation.

Shepard Fairey
April 4th, 2003