Face Making

Artist Gwenn Seemel’s bilingual blog about art, portraiture, free culture, and feminism.

My art in a Gap ad

2013 . 09 . 24 - Comments / Commentaires (16)

- -—[version française]—- -

Last February, I got an email from an art buyer at an advertising agency: the Gap wanted my art for an ad campaign. Specifically, the company was interested in the American flag work that I featured in this article.

My reaction to this query was layered and surprisingly fraught.

For one thing, I was going through the emotions that most artists would probably go through. I was wondering if I should to align myself with this corporation, and I was concerned about what doing so might say about my work. As it happened, the Gap made it easier for me to sign on with the campaign by asking to license a mail art piece. Had the company been interested in one of my portraits, I would have had more thinking to do—and not just because I would have had to contact the portrait’s subject.

But beyond these more typical responses to a licensing opportunity, I was also grappling with the query from a free culture advocacy perspective. Since I release all my work into the public domain, I had to ask myself: is it right for me to take the Gap’s money? After all, shouldn’t the company be able to use my work like anybody else, without asking my permission and without paying for the privilege?

Gap ad

Gap ad by Peterson Milla Hooks

In the end, I took the Gap’s money, and I did so for two reasons:

1) The company wanted a special format. Though all my work is freely accessible in certain formats, I already charge for other formats. For example, anyone who can get online can read Crime Against Nature without paying, but I don’t give PDFs of the book or print copies away for free. Similarly, the Gap could have used the image directly from the Web without paying, but a high resolution version of the image cost them some money.  (For more about this way of giving away and getting paid, check out this vlog.)

2) The Gap is not a person. If an individual wanted to use a special format of my work, I would consider sharing it with that person for free, and I have already done so on a number of occasions. I do it in order to form a connection, which may or may not lead anywhere tangible but which contributes to my social currency and flows with how believe the world should work. All that said, a company is not an individual. The Gap and I cannot connect as people, so money stands in for a relationship—that is, after all, part of why money was invented in the first place. (For more about social currency and why artists need to understand it better, check out this article.)

Altogether I had a very positive experience with the Gap and with their ad agency. Everything was handled professionally and promptly, and the final product is just what I’d been led to expect. I’m glad I did it, and, though I’m not ready to actively pursue licensing opportunities, I look forward to wrestling with these questions again the next time such a query lands in my inbox.

- -—UPDATE 2015 . 07 . 17—- -

I got to see the ad being used while I was in France for a conference!


photo by Claire

- Alternatives to the legal system in cases of copyright infringement
- The problem with permission / Le problème de la permission
- Austin Kleon: creativity, copyright, and superstition

CATEGORIES: - English - TOP POSTS - Business of art - Featuring artists - Uncopyright -

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(16) Comments / Commentaires: My art in a Gap ad

-- Milo -- 2013 . 09 . 24 --

Fascinating. And incredibly well thought out. I’m also curious about where in your thought process you considered the corporate practices of Gap (labor practices etc.) and do you think an artist should consider these things?

I’ve written copy for adidas and Nike before in the past, and I always did so without a clear conscience. But the need for money outweighed my need to morally hold accountable companies that truly have abhorrent labor practices.

The use of the American flag is also troubling as it misleads the viewer of the ad into an alignment of the Gap with some patriotic coziness, when the Gap is in fact a multinational corporation, its products aren’t actually created in the US, and it very likely doesn’t pay a lot of taxes to the US government.

Not to criticize you at all. I woulda sold the art, and asked for more. But these are things that I personally grapple with.

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-- Gwenn -- 2013 . 09 . 24 --

I was talking with someone who’s very interested in renewable energy and all things green the other day.  When he found out I am a vegetarian, he made all kinds of excuses about why he’s not.  And when he was finished, I (jokingly, lovingly) said: “whatever you have to tell yourself.”

And you could probably say the same thing to me about whatever reasons I put forward with regards to my decision to work with the Gap. smile  Ultimately, I was interested in how I would navigate the free culture aspect and I wanted to explore how that felt, so I did it.  I also fully admit to wanting the money.

What’s more, even though I’m an independent artist, none of the money I earn is “clean” of any bad corporate behavior.  Plenty of my clients earn their money from companies whose practices aren’t always great.  We all make compromises with ourselves, our ideals, and our values in order to live in society.  I’m just hoping we all do it as consciously as possible.

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-- Milo -- 2013 . 09 . 24 --

As always, well said, Gwenn. Being conscious of it is itself a tall order, and you do it well. smile

And I think the way you navigate the free culture aspect is spot on.

Thanks for sharing!

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-- cjy -- 2013 . 09 . 26 --

I would have gone for it too. I’m curious though - if they had used it without your permission because you release your work to the public domain, what would you have done?

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-- Gwenn -- 2013 . 09 . 26 --

@CJY: It sort of depends.  If you link through to the original image in this article, you can see that the text on the envelope was different.  I’m okay with using it on my site because both the Museum and I have since moved.  That said, if the image appeared on a national ad campaign it could cause problems.  If I’d even noticed the ad, I probably would have asked them to pull it because of that.  As it was, we negotiated the changes they made.

Barring that issue though, I might have blogged about their use of my work…or not.  Honestly, my mail art isn’t dear to me like my other work is, so I might have ignored it.

In the end, they could have spent the same amount of money to have another artist essentially replicate my work, but they didn’t.  Is that because copyright law exists or because it would have been more work for them?  I don’t know.

Funny side note: I wanted to blog about the whole experience (as I did above), but I felt it was more prudent to check in with them first since I wanted to use their ad image.  My contact at Peterson Milla Hooks wasn’t sure, so they checked with the Gap, and the Gap responded by enthusiastically encouraging me to write about it.  Social media is changing the way companies try to control their reputations…

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-- cjy -- 2013 . 09 . 27 --

Very interesting - Really has come full circle. Well congratulations - pretty fantastic. If opportunity ever comes knocking at my images I will likely check in with you for advice smile

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-- Kristina -- 2013 . 10 . 01 --

Wowowowowowiww to everything: bring singled out by a corporate giant, your thoughtfulness in deciding to work with them, and your candor are all really quite remarkable.  It is such a pleasure to watch all of this evolve. I’ll be buying another book (2nd edition!) because I very clumsily spilled a drink on the original copy I ordered which wouldnt have happened except for the fact that it’snprominently displayed on my living room coffee table smile

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-- Gwenn -- 2013 . 10 . 03 --

Thanks Kristina!  And I’m so pleased the book the book is such an integral part of your everyday!

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-- steve -- 2013 . 11 . 02 --

Very interesting.  I’m not an artist, but I do a bit as a hobby and was involved in a fashion editorial and a cover.  This is very different from my real field and the pay for such work is minimal - 75 euros for the editorial and less than that for the cover.

These low figures are common in fashion as, in theory, you are getting exposure.  If I was a real artist I would think long and hard about the offer and probably not proceed as I believe the work of professionals needs to be valued as such.  But it was just a hobby for me and gave me a story.

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-- Rich -- 2013 . 11 . 02 --

Loving you, your work, and every project I’ve seen you do since I learned of your existence, I am disappointed with this, because the end result is that you’re helping to sell clothes that are made in sweat shops. It’s one thing to debate working with a corporation based on their size, but I notice you didn’t mention anything into the very self-serving and downright cruel policies the Gap and it’s owners have enacted.

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-- Gwenn -- 2013 . 11 . 02 --

@Steve: I prefer not to think of things in terms of exposure, but instead to look at the problem in terms of relationships and what does or does not nurture me as a person.  In that way, I avoid the impossibility of predicting what will or will not result from an action and focus on today.

@Rich: I did address your concerns in another comment above, the second one from the top.  In order to write a coherent blog post about free culture—an issue that is both too little understood and vitally important to all kinds of freedoms—I chose not to talk about the Gap’s other business practices in the body of the post.

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-- Celia -- 2014 . 02 . 25 --

Awesome, Gwenn!
Love your thought processes about these things (specifically, hesitation about being associated with a corporation or brand), and also happy it ended up being a suitable exchange.

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-- Gwenn -- 2014 . 02 . 26 --

Thank you Celia!

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-- cjy -- 2014 . 02 . 26 --

Rich - it is interesting to me that you register your disappointment in Gwenn. She is very clear about how she gave much thought to the offer and she does address your criticism as she stated - in her comment at the top. Gwenn has a habit of being extremely honest and exposing her thoughts and feelings in public - a brave choice and true to her commitment in communication both through her art and in language. Whenever anyone voices a concern about someone else’s social/political choices when it comes to earning money I wonder what their job is, whether they make their own clothes and grow their own food, whether they drive a car etc/ etc. etc.? I know I am imperfect in a very complicated and tangled world. If I dissected everything I do and use on this planet I would be in a constant state of guilt and anxiety. Clearly Gwenn is a reflective, informed and caring person. She does the best she can to live lightly on the earth which is better than most folks - and she tells it like it is. i admire that.

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-- Gwenn -- 2014 . 02 . 27 --

I appreciate you, Cathie.  So much.

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-- cjy -- 2014 . 03 . 03 --

i appreciate you too Gwenn - keep it up smile

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