When Advertising Becomes Art


Advertising can sneak up on you in the most unexpected ways.

Recently I visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art for the simple pleasure of discovering art. For hours, my family and I got lost in an exploration of well curated paintings, sculptures, and immersive rooms, such as a recreation of a reading room from Jane Austen’s time. On the third floor, tucked away in a corner near a Georgia O’Keeffe painting and a Frederic Remington sculpture, I noticed three oil paintings that captured a long-ago era of the western frontier: a bear pawing its way through an empty box discarded in the snow, a grizzled cowboy on horseback delivering mail to a makeshift mail box, and a bronco buster dressed in a bright red shirt, brown vest, and chaps trying to master a wild horse while spectators in cowboy hats cheer him on:


A “Bear” Chance, by Philip R. Goodwin


Rural Delivery, by N.C. Wyeth


Bronco Buster, by N.C. Wyeth

Like good art so often does, these paintings engaged me by telling stories. They also advertised the Cream of Wheat brand. As it turns out, from 1902 to 1926, Cream of Wheat commissioned artists to create more than 400 original works of art for an advertising campaign centered on the theme, “Cream of Wheat: As American as Apple Pie.” The paintings, depicting scenes of Americana, appeared as full-page ads in magazines such as Ladies Home Journal and Saturday Evening Post. Today, these paintings endure as works of art and advertising. Why are they effective advertising in addition to art?

The Paintings Are Engaging

Cream of Wheat commissioned highly regarded artists to create these images of frontier life. N.C. Wyeth, a renowned interpreter of the American West, painted Rural Delivery and Bronco Buster. Philip R. Goodwin, who painted A “Bear” Chance, had a reputation for painting wildlife scenes and illustrated Jack London’s Call of the Wild in 1903. The artists delivered memorable scenes that convey the loneliness of the prairie, a wild animal encountering the existence of humanity (through a discarded box), and a broncobuster fairly exploding off the canvas. These are works of art that stand alongside Remington and O’Keeffe.

The Branding Is Natural

The painters integrated the Cream of Wheat name organically into the art — a natural form of product placement. A bear paws through an empty Cream of Wheat box. The makeshift mailbox in Rural Delivery is fashioned out of a Cream of Wheat box, and the broncobuster bucks and twists in front of a grandstand wall covered with a Cream of Wheat ad, a natural element in any American sporting venue. These are not random product placements. The product is part of the story. Similarly, over the years, Absolut Vodka has emulated Cream of Wheat’s approach by commissioning artist Romero Britto to reinterpret the iconic Absolut Vodka bottle in his own colorful way:


And Prada teamed with director Wes Anderson to present the short film Castello Cavalcanti. The 7-minute movie stars Jason Schwartzman as the racecar driver who discovers the joys of slowing down after being stranded in a small Italian town.

The Prada branding in Castello Cavalcanti occurs as a subtle product placement. When the storyline takes hold, you have to look closely to catch the Prada name appear on the back of the uniform worn by the driver.

Prada and Absolut Vodka are just two examples of many brands that have collaborated with artists either to create advertising outright or to do more subtle forms of content co-creation. The more successful partnerships focus on creating great content, period. When people are immersed in engaging content, they don’t care whether they’re watching an advertisement. An ad only becomes annoying when it feels irrelevant.

The Art of the Brand

It seems fitting that you can find the Cream of Wheat paintings not only in a museum but also on the Cream of Wheat website, which contains a representative sample of artwork from the campaign (along with little tidbits of trivia, such as the fact that Cream of Wheat’s advertising budget in 1902 was $10,000). Today Cream of Wheat tells its story through the benefits of healthy living. The Cream of Wheat blog urges site visitors to integrate Cream of Wheat into a healthy diet for kids and describes the advantages of adults pumping up their daily iron intake with Cream of Wheat. All of the blog tips are well and good. I expect that kind of information from Cream of Wheat. I did not expect Cream of Wheat to enrich my understanding of art.

What are your favorite examples of advertising as art?