Form 212
Januar/Februar 2007


“smart, meaningful, fresh”

Among culturati in the Netherlands, advertising has traditionally had a bad reputation, not so much for reasons of content or quality, but on moral grounds. It reeks of propaganda, of falsity, of collaboration with the enemy, even. As well as being linked to the country’s Calvinistic character, this is also a heritage of the 1930’s and 1940s, when the Dutch scenes of graphic design and ‘reclame’ were deeply divided along ideological lines. In the 1960s and 1970s this rift deepened – young leftist avant-garde vs. capitalist old boys –, but at the same time there where changes. Dutch ad-guru and poet Martin Veltman revolutionized commercial copy writing, but also started a foundation that wanted to use advertising’s media power to support social causes. And some of the best copy writers and art-directors at the time, the early 1970s, were leftist activists who worded their slogans in an irresistible mix of irony and verbal punch, with matching iconic visuals.

A direct descendant of this ’68-inspired publicity approach is the Amsterdam advertising agency KesselsKramer, founded 1996 by Erik Kessels (39) and Johan Kramer (40). Almost ten years ago they provided a new Dutch mobile phone company its name, its market approach and its iconic presence. ‘Ben’ was a brand that completely focused on personality. If there was mention of mobile phones at all, it was about how they were used by real people, albeit in often rather surreal circumstances – picture an elephant trainer sitting on a park bench, phoning home, with his gigantean pet sitting next to him. Or they addressed controversial social issues connected to the product, such as the message that politely asked people to turn off their phones when going into the theatre. As KK write in their 2001 book ’96-01’: "It's good to recognize that every commercial message has a social meaning, and often has more influence than we realize.”

KesselsKramer’s visual approach is closely linked to the kind of ‘unglamorous’ photography that acquired world fame through the work of Rineke Dijkstra and Hans Aarsman. Especially Erik Kessel’s delight in ‘found photography’ – discarded photos, anonymous shots on the web, bland product photos – can be retraced in many carefully nonchalant portraits and scenes throughout KK’s campaigns, and in their home-published series of ‘useful photography’ books. Ben is a case in point, but also in the work for Diesel or Hans Brinkers youth hostels, a low budget hotel in Amsterdam. Here they exaggerated the worst clichés connected to the market: cheap, as in noisy, bug infested, dirty, and a total mess. Bottom line: ‘just like home’. Spot on for the target audience, who know it can’t get any worse than their own lairs. The photos of adolescents’ bedrooms prove the point. The over-the-top humor won’t escape the targeted audience, and that goes for any KK campaign. Which also means that they are not for everybody. A perfect match for Diesel, who’s absurd irony they take to the next level, but I’d hesitate to call them for, say, Lufthansa.

KesselsKramer’s work of the last ten years is now on view at a modest show which is carefully designed as an outlet, with racks of booklets, posters and catalogues, odd products connected to campaigns, the obligatory T-shirts and stands for viewing their commercials and website. The whole thing is an extension of an approach KK have by now perfected beyond parody: brand within brand within brand. Go to their website,, and get lost in a maze of horribly designed amateur sites for products like ‘KK quality trophies’, ‘K&K DIY advice’ and ‘Kessels Kramer Pools – building communication wet dreams since 1996’. The combination of irritation and fun is typical. And, for those with the slightest awareness of today’s commercial culture, it works.

max bruinsma