A tube of paint, when squeezed, extrudes not pigment but a sinewy human leg. A man listens to headphones made out of two halves of his own screaming face. An elderly man kneels on all fours in his underwear as a stoic pianist opens up his back like a lid, revealing piano keys. When played, the man chants in a gravelly bass and emits inhuman noises.
If any of these images from the new nationwide ad campaign for Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity make you wonder what on earth you just saw, that's the point.
In its most expensive marketing campaign in years, the centre is attempting to build awareness of its role as a hub for arts and creativity. So part of the goal is to emulate art in the advertising itself: Depending on the viewer, it may be laughable, beautiful, baffling, or just plain weird. It may seem inscrutable. It will raise questions about its intentions.
"I'm not banking on just one emotion. Depending on where you're at, you can read into it," said Carlos Moreno, chief creative officer at ad agency Cossette, which created the campaign.
"It was important to me that the campaign itself look like something that an artist would create, versus having a commercial appeal," said Janice Price, president and CEO of Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. "Art should not feel like a barrier, or I couldn't possibly understand it. To me, it says, okay this could be kind of fun and quirky and makes me want to learn more."
The video, which will run on TV, in cinemas and online, was produced with Mexican director Rodrigo Garcia Saiz, and the still images for print, outdoor and digital ads were done by Alberta-based conceptual photographer Justin Poulsen.
The slogan, "Things you can't unthink," was taken from a contemporary art exhibit mounted last year by one of the centre's curators, Peta Rake.
The new advertising is the next step after a 2016 rebranding initiative, which changed the name from the Banff Centre to Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity (no "the"), and launched a new logo. The new name was intended to be less generic, and to clarify its brand identity.
That's not so easy to do, as it turns out.
"The unaided awareness of Banff Centre is quite low nationwide," Ms. Price said. "It's one thing to put our [new] identity out there and talk about specific events coming to Banff. That's a bit, speaking to the converted. What we need to do is get to the people who don't know who we are or what we do, with impactful, cultural creative."
Part of the issue is the scope of the arts hub: Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity offers learning opportunities for artists – spanning performing arts, dance, music, visual arts and other media arts, writers, and Indigenous arts – at its campus in the Rocky Mountains. But it is also a professional artists' space with workshops and studio spaces. It is also an event space, hosting more than 400 performances and other events each year. It is also a conference space and a place for leadership training and public outreach. That's hard to sum up with a slogan or a logo.
And it is attempting to expand its scope: encouraging people to come to the campus to visit gallery spaces and creating more festivals, conferences and event series to draw visitors. Efforts are under way to showcase more artists' work in other venues beyond the campus, and beyond Banff. It plans to spend money updating the buildings on its campus. And it is putting more emphasis on Indigenous programs.
The centre draws roughly one-third of its funds from the province of Alberta. The next largest source is revenue from conferences and hospitality (such as traffic to its restaurants or to events); followed by philanthropic donations.
So part of the idea behind the drive for awareness is to paint a clearer picture of the centre in the minds of people who plan conferences, travel to the national park in which the centre is located, or make decisions about individual or corporate donations.
In the past, Banff Centre's advertising has been largely focused on promoting events to sell tickets, largely within its own market. It has not had much visibility nationwide.
To have that, its ads had to stand out – even if they come across as intensely weird.
"We needed, in some ways, to treat advertising as an art form itself, and take the traditional rules of advertising and break them," said Jason Chaney, chief strategy officer at Cossette.
Across the country, the TV and cinema ad will run for the next four weeks, and the still ads will be released in May. While there is some pro bono support from media partners, it is a "significant" investment, Ms. Price said.
It comes amid a turnaround in the strategic vision for the centre. It underwent layoffs last year, and Ms. Price abandoned the previous organizational strategies, including a planned $900-million expansion championed by her predecessor, Jeff Melanson.
Ms. Price took over in 2015, after Mr. Melanson left the previous year, halfway through his term. The departure is a source of controversy: Mr. Melanson's estranged wife, Eleanor McCain, alleged in a court filing requesting annulment, that he had left the centre partly because of a sexual harassment allegation – which led to a financial settlement – and difficulty executing the expansion plan. None of Ms. McCain's allegations have been proved in court. In a filing, Mr. Melanson called the allegations "distorted and untruthful."
Asked whether the allegations are harmful for the brand, Ms. Price replied that it's hard to say.
"Obviously we don't go out specifically and try to measure that," she said. "We've really spoken about our enduring value as an institution. We're 83 years old and have impacted so many artists and people who have come across this campus. I feel like the brand really does speak for itself. My objective was more around extending it and expanding the understanding of it."