Next week sees the launch of the Olay Vision Award for Women Artists, the biggest (in cash terms) award for art in the UK. The handsome sum of pounds 23,000 (compared to pounds 20,000 for the Turner Prize) will go to one of five female artists working with digital media.
Despite sounding like the call of a bullfighter, Olay is in fact the new brand name for Oil of Ulay - and the Vision Award is only one of a number of projects currently being sponsored by cosmetics companies. According to a spokesperson, "Olay is seeking to associate itself with real women who have talent and flair, and wants to position itself as a contemporary woman's product." So it's goodbye to the "secret of younger looking skin" and the traditional image of wrinkle-free mothers looking barely older than their daughters, and hello to conceptual art.
Olay's association with the artistic world began as a marketing exercise for the launch of its cosmetic brand last year. Wanting to present the products to women in an different way, Olay invited five female artists to create a piece loosely based around the cosmetics. The results were broadcast to the nation on ITV in five nightly slots. The campaign, the first of its kind, was well received and consequently Olay decided to continue the theme and the Vision Award was born.
If you think the Turner Prize can be a bit barmy - elephant dung, etc - you won't be pleasantly surprised by the Olay. Shortlisted pieces include The Internal Organs of a Cyborg, a cartoon strip based on a CD-ROM (by Jane Prophet) and Safe Bet (by Nina Pope), a collaboration with Ladbrokes which allows the audience to gamble on the eventual winner. All very right- on, but it is unlikely that this type of exhibit is really going to appeal to Olay's target audience. In its desire to support one of the very latest art forms, Olay may well have missed a marketing opportunity. Or perhaps this just underlines the truly altruistic nature of the project.
More in keeping with what you would expect from a cosmetics company was Avon's sponsorship of the National Portrait Gallery last year - all those lovely parallels between portraiture and the cosmetic face. The company - ironically, one hopes - even bussed a whole load of Avon ladies down to hand out products at the event.
The same strong link between the product and the subject of the exhibition was fundamental to Elizabeth Arden's decision to support the much-hyped "Birth of the Cool" exhibition of David Bailey photographs at the Barbican under the banner of its Cerruti Image fragrance. According to PR Manager Jane McCorriston, "The Bailey exhibition is very modern and very cool and fits in exactly with the image of the Cerruti brand." L'Oreal has also recently got in on the act, albeit accidentally. Last week the faces of Andie MacDowell and Claudia Schiffer were splashed over the scaffolding hiding the building works at Berlin's Kaiser Wilhelm church. Although this was originally seen as an advertising opportunity, it's done L'Oreal no harm to be indirectly associated with church repairs.
But never mind all this subliminal advertising, Superdrug, the chemist, has gone for blatant targeting of its ideal audience. It is sponsoring the national tour of late-lunchers Mel and Sue. The promotion includes on-the-spot makeovers and everyone receives a goodie bag of Superdrug products. Superdrug chose Mel and Sue because they "epitomise down-to-earth fun and accessibility and are very real women, all of which are a close match with Superdrug's brand values," says Neil Jarvus, marketing controller at Superdrug. Hordes of teenage girls on a giggly night out sounds like a perfect marketing opportunity - no wonder Superdrug is delighted.
From the companies' perspective, the rationale behind sponsorship of the arts is clear: not only does sponsorship show the company in an altruistic light, but according to Elizabeth Arden's Jane McCorriston, "It allows us to reach customers we otherwise wouldn't have reached."
But the benefit works both ways. For struggling artists the availability of an alternative source of funds is something to be welcomed. "Women artists recognise that funding from the arts board is on the decrease," says Ceri Hands of make, the magazine of women's art. The availability of sponsorship ensures that less-than-mainstream art continues to be supported and publicised.
The next product to be associated with the arts is Dove soap, which will be launching its own exhibition soon. According to Colin Tweedy, chief executive of Arts & Business, "If done with style and verve, sponsorship of the arts is a cheap and effective way of associating a brand with an upmarket image." He does point out, though, that it needs to be handled carefully so that the foyer does not end up looking like a shop. So next time someone tells you you're shallow for spending too much on make-up, tell them you're moisturising your mind.
The 1999 Olay Vision Award is at the Lux Gallery, 2-4 Hoxton Square, London N1, from 21 May to 20 June (tel: 0171 684 0201).