Ever the marketing geek, I noticed Norman Rockwell was sharing a ton of marketing and advertising lessons. Here’s what I saw — from captions and Rockwell quotes to the pieces themselves.
1. You don’t always get it right the first time.
Photos of how he used dozens of sketches and color studies to create “Art Critic” (where paintings’ subjects bemusedly peer back at a man inspecting their brushwork) show that creating a powerful piece isn’t a one-shot thing.
Even completing the job isn’t always perfection. A caption for “War News” — showing men in a 1944 diner clustered around a radio — mentioned Rockwell didn’t submit the painting to the Saturday Evening Post, because he wasn’t satisfied with his visual portrayal of people hearing audio information.
Marketing lesson? Test, test, test.
2. Advertising can be descriptive and/or prescriptive.
Rockwell said, “I was showing the America I knew and saw to others who may not have noticed” (that is, he was being descriptive). Another caption noted that his art created a vision of what kids looked like in the 1950s (that is, he was also being prescriptive).
Ads can show what is — or what can be.
3. Creativity is infinite, but deadlines are concrete and inevitable.
Rockwell said, “Ideas and deadlines are the scourge of an illustrator’s life.” As an Account Services guy at my agency, I’ve noticed that the creative team could, in theory, spend an infinite time on a design. But clients don’t have unlimited time or an unlimited budget.
Eventually, you need to get it done and get it out the door.
4. It’s really hard to describe a complex idea simply, but when you can, it’s really powerful.
After president Franklin Delano Roosevelt shared his vision of Four Freedoms (freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear) in 1941, Rockwell was inspired to create a single panel for each.
After being stumped for two years, he finally created four lithographs that backed a successful War Bond drive. The most iconic shows a man at a town meeting, standing alone to express an unpopular opinion. Others show a family enjoying a holiday dinner together, or parents putting their kids to bed.
Considering how Egypt’s government recently shut down its citizens’ internet access to suppress communications during public unrest, these are still a current issues, 70 years after FDR’s proclamation.
Successful ads convey complex ideas in a simple way.
5. Perspective makes a difference.
Rockwell used angles to raise or lower the stature of his subjects. In a painting of a young Abraham Lincoln, Rockwell painted his subject from a low angle, making Lincoln seem bigger than life. He did the same when he painted the man sharing an unpopular opinion in “Freedom of Expression.” If he wanted to poke fun at someone, he painted them from above, as if to make them smaller and less important.
In marketing and PR, a change in how you frame something can change how something looks.
6. Art and advertising are not mutually exclusive.
Rockwell said, “Telling stories with pictures: the first thing and the last thing.” Many of the pieces were ads, but without the headline and call-to-action (which typically didn’t appear in the museum exhibit, apart from the explanatory caption), you’d have never known they were advertising.
Good ads tell a story about the reader, not the product.
7. Images are important, but the copy gives the call to action.
A 1924 Rockwell painting shows a Civil War veteran telling war stories and imparting wisdom to his grandson. The museum caption noted that this was from an ad. The tagline (not visible in the framed piece at NCMA) was, “If your wisdom teeth could talk, they’d say, ‘Use Colgate’s.'”
The tagline is obviously dated and a little silly, but adding the copywriter’s tagline turns art into advertising.
8. Pursue your passions.
Rockwell said, “After I got to know myself, I couldn’t do anything but draw.” He was prolific — over 4,000 original works in his lifetime (1894-1978).
You can’t be prolific if you aren’t doing what you love. That’s true about marketing and most everything else in life.
If you saw the exhibit, what did you notice? Or if you missed the exhibit, what stands out here as the most important lesson for you?
Image credits: Various sources, used under Fair Use
Karl Sakas helps marketing clients navigate and launch complex website projects, something he’s enjoyed doing since 1997. Karl is a Web Project Manager at hesketh.com, a marketing agency in Raleigh, N.C. He likes marketing, history, coffee, technology, and writing about himself in the third person. Follow Karl on Twitter at @KarlSakas.