The Osborne Bull: Advertising As Art

El Mundo / el Dominical, Madrid, and The European  London, 1994 (2,300 words)
Versión en español  

When I was a child the Osborne bulls seemed to form part of the Spanish landscape. Their silhouettes, black against the deep blue sky, added drama and mystery to long hot journeys in the back of a car. In the mid-1990s, EU laws on advertising hoardings and road safety threatened the bulls' existence; El Mundo then commissioned this essay following a shorter piece I'd published in The European.


"Now it's famous," wrote Manolo Prieto of the Osborne bull in the 1980s, "a fame I foresaw, yet how hard I had to work to convince people of its value, which they're happy to claim for themselves today. Won't anyone lend me a hand and bear witness that the 'bull' had an author, even though he's an old man, or confirm the circumstances of its birth?"

Prieto, who died in 1991, would have enjoyed the public outcry provoked when the disappearance of the bulls was announced, although long before that he  may have guessed intuitively that their silent strength held the power of public art.

Prieto / "It's as if, just because someone painted a moustache on a portrait I painted, it's no longer mine." (on Keith Haring's bull).

"He always said the Osborne bull would be famous," says his daughter Margarita, who lives in Madrid. "All along he knew that and he'd refer to himself ironically as its 'author-creator'."


Today few of us question the idea of advertising as art when in the hands of named auteur figures. But in 1956, when Manolo Prieto came up with the bull's now familiar silhouette as a logo for a client of Azor, the advertising agency where he worked in Madrid, things were different. The client, Osborne wines, one of Jerez's premier bodegas, turned down the design at the first presentation in Azor's offices, saying it was more suitable for a bull-rearing ranch than as the logo they had commissioned for a brandy. But Prieto did not give up.

He travelled south to Osborne's head offices in El Puerto de Santa María, in Cádiz, where he defended his bull logo – and won.

Today 93 of the bulls survive around Spain in carefully sited spots close to national roads. Sited to stand out against the skyline, growing from distant specks to massive silhouettes as you drive closer, there were 500 by the end of the 1960s, when land rent was still cheap. Most of those that survive are the gigantic 40-metre high hoardings build in metal, with scaffolding supports. However, only six will be standing in a year's time, say, Osborne, if they do not win their appeal against new EU laws.

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