World’s biggest advertising merger proposed by unusual German philosopher

There’s been much talk, in the business world, of a planned but delayed $35 billion merger of two communications giants, Publicis and Omnicom. When the deal goes ahead, probably in a few months, it will create the biggest advertising agency the world has ever seen.

But there’s an even more important and desirable merger that needs urgent consideration at the very top of industry. It’s a merger between Art and Advertising.

Plans for this unusual merger were first sketched by the German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in a hastily written, rather confusing, but highly thought-provoking book titled The Phenomenology of Spirit, published in 1807.

Big plans for the ad industry

Hegel realised that sometimes big areas of human activity need to befriend and learn from one another. Each one is missing something important that the other knows about. Hegel wanted art and commerce to encourage and help one another, to the benefit of each.

It’s deep. But what does Francis Bacon want us to do?

Art knows all about touching our emotions, about moving us. But it’s usually shy about asking us to do anything. It’s not very confident about its ability to direct our lives. It likes to inhabit galleries that we go to only very occasionally – maybe never. It’s therefore prestigious, but – oddly – rather ineffective.

Just do it: the message is clear

Advertising for its part is really very keen to get us to change our lives, but only at the modest level of buying a new blender, or pair of shoes. It is keen on being seen everywhere, every day. It doesn’t wait to be asked; an advert will eagerly plead for your attention before you watch the news, or try to catch your eye when you’re in the car negotiating a roundabout.

Art tends to be noble in its outlook – it cares about things like beauty, love and social justice. But it is passive, sometimes fatally so, about making its concerns a reality. It holds itself back from daily life, appalled by its many compromises. It too often settles on ironic commentary, as if it didn’t dare to be frank about its own hopes. By contrast, advertising is ‘low’ – yet it is desperate to work a practical impact. In its own way, it wants to change the world. So we have ended up in a situation where the noblest force (art) is shy about doing much, and the most powerful but most humdrum force (advertising) wants to be in our heads all the time and alter everything.

That’s why the two need to merge. The high-mindedness of art needs to merge with the practical, life-changing spirit of advertising.

Of course, if one looks at art in the right way, one can see it actually already is a kind of advertising. It is just rather shy about this mission. Below is an ‘advert’ by the German artist Caspar David Friedrich. We wouldn’t normally use this language, but at heart, it is ‘selling’ us a lot of things: a vision of being patient, appreciating small moments and drawing satisfaction from what is already to hand – a far more ambitious programme than anything Nike or the Gap have ever taken on.

An advert for the patience industry

And here is an advert by Matisse for overcoming differences and taking pleasure in what we can agree on. It’s an encouragement for overcoming discord. We might look at it before coming home after work to rejoin family life.


An advert for community and cooperation

As we have said before, adverts know what we need; they just refuse to sell it to us. And they don’t sell it to us because the businesses that should exist to satisfy us aren’t yet there and in a position to pay for the ads. We don’t yet have corporations on the scale of Exxon Mobil or Apple delivering products and services that help us to be patient or to cope better with relationships, bring up our children well, face our mortality with greater courage and guide us to use our brief lives well. These tasks are even more important than the supply of oil or the provision of mobile phones. But as yet they haven’t got the co-ordinated brain power of tens of thousands of the brightest people on the planet beavering away to meet our needs and then being able to pay to advertise the solutions.

Works of art articulate our deepest concerns and hopes. That’s why we value them. But they’re not linked to big industries dedicated to turning their hints into reality. They hide in galleries, wishing the world were nicer, while outside, advertising hoardings tens of metres high take on the practical challenge of changing how we think.

The German philosopher with plans for the merger of art and business resorted to a useful – if unfamiliar – German word to explain what he was on about. Hegel called it Aufheben, which means ‘raising up’. Existing parts of society and culture need a bit of raising up, he thought. Their ambitions aren’t yet mature. Art tries to get at profound truths, but isn’t courageous enough to do anything about them. Commerce is keen to satisfy some of our needs, but it has an unambitious view of what needs it should be addressing. Once the Omnicom-Publicis merger is complete, we look forward to a yet bolder, bigger kind of union to reform capitalism.