Hegarty on Advertising: Turning Intelligence into Magic

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This, of course, was good news for the artists. It meant lots of new and lucrative commissions. One example of refreshing a familiar theme is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. It's a powerful message of papal authority but, more importantly, Michelangelo's daring style ensured that the message was heard and talked about, and regenerated the passion and commitment in the concept of the origin of man. So, if we accept artists working for the Roman Catholic Church had the same issues to deal with as we do today in advertising, then, in my view, Michelangelo was the first great art director; original, passionate, committed, always fighting the client, over budget and late.

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But who remembers that now? There was room for wit and irreverence in Michelangelo's work, too.

Look down from the ceiling to the wall behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel, and you will see another masterpiece, "The Last Judgment". Michelangelo originally painted all of the figures in the fresco - Christ, the saints, angels, the lot - as nudes. Later popes and cardinals were so concerned about the nudity that they hired another artist, Daniele da Volterra, to paint drapery over the breasts and genitals.

Today, you will see that Jesus seems to be wearing a pink negligee. I'm not sure that the great master really saw Jesus wearing underwear in his original vision.


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So the next time that someone alters your work, you'll have something in common with Michelangelo. Caravaggio used a different type of shocking image to break with decorum, or what you might call the accepted way of portraying a subject. He showed Christian figures as members of the lower classes. In his painting "The Supper at Emmaus", Caravaggio showed Christ as a smooth-skinned young man, to be admired for his physical beauty rather than his holiness.

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Shocking as that was at the time, we now view the painting as a great work of art. It is thought, by some, that Caravaggio was gay, so perhaps that's why he deviated from the conventional depiction into what we now think of as homoeroticism. Who knows? One can see the stirrings of irreverence in Michelangelo's and Caravaggio's work, and sense the eventual impact those stirrings would have.

Sadly, for the artists of that period, being irreverent usually meant they died in penury. And I can assure you that's not a good place to die. By the 19th century, art acquired a relative independence and relied less on wealthy sponsors and patrons, from which grew a questioning of the major institutions: the church, the state and the monarchy. And as society developed, becoming better educated and more independent and questioning, the ability of these two massive power blocks, the church and the state, to retain their influence diminished.

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Fast-forward to the 20th century, and economic growth brought with it greater tensions and the need for greater freedom. Competing ideas were emerging within society. They were ideas that demanded attention and consideration. With that freedom grew the need to question and explain.

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What was the nature of society and authority? How did it work? Why was it changing?

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  • What was good about it? What was bad? What should be preserved and what rejected? The emergence of Dadaism as an art movement after the First World War was a reaction to the meaningless slaughter of millions by callous authorities who would brook no criticism or alternative views. It was this arrogance that drove writers and artists, not only those involved in Dadaism, but elsewhere too, to challenge all institutions and accepted forms of art. The Dadaists had no fixed beliefs as such, but were driven by the need to shock and attack the established order.

    Marcel Duchamp's defacing of the Mona Lisa, by putting a moustache on her, was one way of mocking authority and the establishment. It's amazing what a simple moustache can seem to represent. While less confrontational than the Dadaists, the artists and designers of the Bauhaus also dared to do things that broke down traditional attitudes and beliefs.

    In using industrial materials to design furniture, they challenged traditional crafts and, in graphic design and typography, they changed the way in which we viewed the printed word and absorbed information. The very essence of art had changed by this time - its function became to force us to think, to reconsider and to challenge. We learned to question, and in questioning, liberated our own minds. The most fundamental freedom we have is the right to ask why.

    We want to challenge. And, of course, have the choice to do so. This need to challenge didn't apply only to fine art.

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    Music was also affected - just look at the development of jazz, blues and rock 'n' roll. Jazz was the voice of oppressed black America and considered "the Devil's music" by some. The blues also had a powerful, challenging sentiment driving it. It laid the foundations for rock 'n' roll, turning Elvis Presley into an iconic figure of rebellion known the world over.

    Notoriously, Elvis was not allowed to be shown on American television screens below the waist because the way he gyrated his hips was considered lewd. Of course, to some extent, the censors were right - it was lewd - but that was the whole point. Elvis was the voice of a new generation of people that the authorities didn't, and couldn't, understand. The centre of gravity was changing within society. No longer did we look up to our elders, but down to a new liberated youth - a generation emboldened with wealth, a desire for change and who wanted to express themselves in their own terms with their own language.

    When irreverence touches design it creates opportunities for producing genuinely innovative and lasting work - you can find lateral solutions to design problems such as Alec Issigonis' revolutionary Mini. His brief: to make the car smaller, yet create more passenger space - a seemingly impossible task. But, by throwing out the rule book - being irreverent - and turning the engine sideways, the problem was solved in one stroke: there was more space for the passengers without increasing the overall size of the car.

    I would argue that Issigonis' attitude treated design convention with an irreverence that led to the creation of one of the most lasting and influential products of the industrial age. Today's practitioners of design and advertising are constantly trying to get people to make a choice - a choice between one product and another, between one design and another.

    Not only are we trying to get people to choose, we are also trying to get them to accept new concepts and to "reconsider". Irreverence is key here. A great example of this is Cramer Saatchi's "pregnant man" poster for the Health Education Council from It was trying to get men to reconsider their approach to contraception. As a piece of communication, I believe it is a lasting testament to the power of irreverence.

    The function of irreverence should be to help question and, in doing so, offer a possible solution. If irreverence becomes purely anarchic it will eventually turn in on itself and destroys its own purpose. It just shocks and alienates - a fate which ultimately befell the Dadaists. I would argue that this is what happened to punk in the 70s. In the end, it only opposed, it didn't also propose. It jolted conventional thinking.

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    • It didn't, in turn, put anything in its place - it created a void but failed to fill it. Elements of it remain in our culture, but as a philosophy it offered us only opposition, and history has taught us that if you're going to knock something down you have to put something in its place.

      Punk offered us no vision and, if your irreverence is to be constructive, you must not only get people to question, but you must also take them with you. The infamous Benetton advertising of some years ago falls into a similar trap.

      Hegarty on Advertising: Turning Intelligence Into Magic, by John Hegarty

      Newborn babies and a man dying of Aids - not the first things you'd think of when it comes to selling jumpers! Yes, the advertising shocked me, and it gained my attention. It was - and is - profoundly irreverent, but ultimately it leaves me feeling hollow. What effect will new technology have on advertising? The book is both an advertising credo and a brilliantly entertaining memoir, divided into two parts.

      Help Centre. My Wishlist Sign In Join. Be the first to write a review. Add to Wishlist. In Stock. Unable to Load Delivery Dates. Enter an Australian post code for delivery estimate. Link Either by signing into your account or linking your membership details before your order is placed. Review : Anyone interested in learning about advertising throughout the world will enjoy reading this book. About the Author : John Hegarty is one of the world's most famous advertising creatives. Buy New Learn more about this copy.

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