Every year the Mona Lisa is visited by around 10 million people. All clambering to get a look at that famous smile, walking past other great works of art that adorn the walls like they are strangers in the street. It's La Gioconda they want to see.
But this wasn’t always the case. The Mona Lisa wasn’t always the superstar it is today.
Painted between 1503 and 1506 by the polymath Leonardo Da Vinci, the painting travelled from wall to wall, from Italy to France, even sitting in Napoleon’s bedroom for a while, before finding a home in the Louvre in 1797.
While it was respected and reviewed in art circles as a great piece of work, it remained relatively unknown and un-revered to the wider world.
It was said that the Mona Lisa wasn’t even the most famous painting in its gallery room, never mind the entire Louvre.
That was until, in 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia decided to steal it.
Stealing La Gioconda
An Italian patriot working at the museum, he decided it belonged back in Italy, so hid it in a cupboard and then took it home.
Now, testament to how incidental the Mona Lisa was at the time, the theft wasn’t noticed for two days. But when it was noticed, and reported to the press, all hell broke loose.
For some reason it captured the Parisian public’s attention. Why, out of all the paintings in the Louvre, out of all the masterpieces, was this one taken? It must be a masterpiece too - it must be THE masterpiece.
All of a sudden France was outraged at the theft of what must be a masterpiece. 60 detectives were put on the case as the country cried for its return. People flocked to the Louvre to see the empty space where it sat- more people than ever saw it when it was there.
It became a matter of national pride to find the painting and people speculated on who could have taken it, even accusing a young Pablo Picasso of the crime at one point.
As the Mona Lisa’s reputation grew, Peruggia’s ability to sell the painting shrunk. No one would go near such a well-known art work now, so eventually, it was found, in his room where she had been hiding all this time.
When the painting was returned to the Louvre, it returned as its pride. The world’s most famous painting was born.
People came en masse to see it and haven’t stopped. It now sits behind bullet proof glass, laughing at us all as we try to get a snap on our phones.
Eating like a king
But for all their love of paintings, the French used to hate potatoes.
In the 18th Century, they called them hog feed and were convinced that they gave you leprosy - they were really terrified to go near the Pomme De Terre, with the government going as far as banning them in 1748.
Then came the French revolution, the bread riots and starvation. But the French would still rather starve than eat a spud.
Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was a Pharmacist who knew the potential of potatoes. Easy to cultivate, he knew they could fill the bellies of his restless nation.
His fear of the root vegetable had been extinguished when he was a prisoner of war, fed potatoes by his Prussian captors and he did his best to change the minds of his countrymen. He convinced Louis XVI to lift the ban, but also gave him two fields next to his palace to grow potatoes.
Around these fields he put armed guards to keep an eye on his crops - well, half an eye.
As soon as the surrounding villages saw the guards, they wondered what riches they were protecting. They wanted to get their hands on the treasure that Louis XVI as holding hostage.
Pretty soon they were stealing the potatoes, bribing the guards - all without too much trouble as Parmentier had told the guards to turn a blind eye to the burglars who had been tempted by the taters.
Everyone wanted to eat like the King and soon the potato was being served up on the tables of the everyman, excited to be putting their fork into the precious and show off to their peers with this coveted crop.
Parmentier knew he needed people to start talking about potatoes and his smart thinking made them part of the conversation. He changed perception by a knockout publicity stunt, perhaps the world's greatest.
Cocky young Clay
Cassius Clay knew he was the greatest.
Fresh on the back of his Gold medal win in the Olympics, he went pro. But as a young fighter he would have to work up the ladder to get a shot at the big fighters and then the title.
He was impatient and wanted to leap frog the lesser fighter and get to the top.
So he started to predict the round he would finish his opponent in, and then made sure his prediction came true. He knew most of the time he could beat the weaker boxers in one round if he wanted.
Every new match came with a prediction from the cocky young Clay.
Pretty soon everyone was talking about it. How could his predictions be so accurate? It even went as far as investigating him for fixing fights. He was making heavyweight headlines.
His spin got people talking, put his name of their lips. Greater fighters wanted to try and beat his, now famous, predictions and pretty soon, Cassius Clay (soon to be Muhammed Ali) was world heavyweight champion at the age of 22.
Ali was the master of spin, of the stunt, and knew the importance of being part of the conversation throughout his career.
If you are looking for creative heroes, look no further. He was the greatest.
He knew how to steal the Mona Lisa in everything he did.
In marketing, this is a lesson we need to learn from. In a world where the consumer or the viewer is drowned in messages, all trying to get their attention, it’s not enough to put a campaign out and hope for the best. You need to trip them up, pull the rug, stop them in their tracks. The traditional doesn’t work anymore. You need to be part of the conversation. If people are not talking about you, they won't remember you. And if you want your marketing to be knockout - think paintings, potatoes and predictions, and get people talking.
Steal the Mona Lisa in everything we do.