When Branding Is Art

Oct 14, 2007

WAITING for a flight at the Los Angeles airport, Australian artist Justine Cooper viewed her first direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertisement while watching the news on TV. Actually, she saw six ads, one after another, advertising drugs for allergies, insomnia, depression, and erectile dysfunction.

DTC advertising is not allowed in Australia, or indeed in any countries except the United States and New Zealand. And while the content of the ads didn't interest Cooper (she didn't have any of the diseases), she was seduced by their visual beauty. She was also amazed by the very concept of marketing medicines on television, the same way you would shill beer or automobiles, by appealing to a consumer's perceived need and desire.



Anyone else would have left it at that, caught her flight, and thought no more about it. But Cooper is an artist—and not just any artist: Her particular interest is the intersection between culture, science, and medicine. She investigates it using such interdisciplinary means as animation, video installation, and photography, as well as medical imaging technologies like MRI DNA sequencing and ultrasound.


Photographs on both pages: Cooper's promotional materials and advertisements for havidol designed for specific magazines.
"I've never been the kind of artist who sits in a studio and paints a canvas," says Cooper, whose work is internationally exhibited and held in private and public collections, including those at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Sydney's Powerhouse Museum, and the Australian Center for the Moving Image. Cooper was also awarded the first artist-in-residence at New York's Museum of Natural History. She spent a year exploring the museum's back passageways, storage rooms, and specimen cases, where the majority of the museum's curious collection is stored, documenting what she saw using a wooden 4-by-5 camera from 1910 that belonged to the museum.

Inspired by the DTC ads, Cooper set about creating her own fictional marketing campaign: The launch of a made-up lifestyle drug called HAVIDOL (sounds like: have it all) to treat a made-up disease—dysphoric social attention consumption deficit anxiety disorder (DSACDAD). The drug's tagline is "When More Is Not Enough."




Part parody, part fantasy, Cooper's piece is extensive, detailed, and disorientingly real. It represents every stage and element of a drug's marketing process, including: a pill and logo design; promotional and supporting materials; TV spots; and an interactive Web site ( http://www.havidol.com/) complete with a quiz, testimonials, videos, and an online store that sells branded T-shirts and jackets.

BUT WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

Art can be baffling, even maddening. Unlike advertising, its purpose is not to sell, provide answers, or tell us what to think. Viewers are left to create their own relationship to a given piece. It's not always an easy or comfortable place to be, especially with contemporary art.




Cooper's HAVIDOL piece can be especially unsettling. Given its uncanny resemblance to a real pharmaceutical marketing campaign for a lifestyle drug, it confounded some viewers at the show's opening last winter at the Daneyal Mahmood Gallery in New York City. The entire marketing campaign was displayed along with bowls filled with blue candy to look like HAVIDOL pills.