A TV ad read in super slo-motion

A Coty Wild Musk perfume ad represents the formula for style in women's advertising in the mid 1980s. Decomposing and analyzing this ad can reveal the reading rules of the commodity narrative and its partner, the advertising form. This style of advertising also relies on a taken-for-granted ideological frame that analysts call "the male gaze." There is nothing very distinctive about this ad. It is a cliché formula that draws on myths so pervasive that we scarcely take notice. But that makes it ideal for breaking down ideological narratives that have predominated in advertising. Whereas this ad narrative represents a stage of advertising discourse that repressed its own conditions of production, a more recent trend in ads purports to reveal their own conditions of production and thus embrace the voices of dialogic opposition.

The Coty television ad aimed at adolescents (circa 1985) permits us to look at how ads structure metamessages, and how the process of falsifying those metamessages provides the motor of many advertising narratives (cf. Bateson, 1972). As the ad opens, viewers see an attractive teenage couple walking toward the camera. Calliope music denotes a carnival and surrounding setting cues verify this. An attractive, young brunette clutches a white, cuddly teddy bear to her bosom. She walks towards us with a young sandy-blond male whose head is bowed and arm is around her shoulder. Cutely, she turns toward him with one hand raised palm up in a gesture of request, as she playfully asks, "Got change for a dollar?" He reacts with a grin and a gesture of puzzlement: 'Why?'

This 4-second scene establishes a social context, a situation in which their interaction will be carried out. A date at the amusement park connotes leisure fun. The scene also defines them psychologically as desirable male and female characters - he seems 'cute' and a bit shy; she is pretty and spirited. The scene gives viewers a motivational handle for making sense of the following narrative. And, it is also a simple functional scene to get us to the central narrative device - the photo booth/mirror.

The second scene turns the camera 90 degrees to the right so that their interaction has taken them to the front of a booth with a sign that reads "4 Photos - 50¢." After a second-long pause, she answers, "Cause, uh, I want to see what you see in me." She says this flirtatiously, rather than introspectively. As she speaks, she hands him the teddy bear to hold. She exudes confidence, looking directly into his face with a self-assured smile as she steps back and closes the red curtain of the photo booth. She is in control. He is left outside the booth holding her teddy bear and desirous of her.

Remember that this ad is directed at an audience segment of adolescent females. The photo-booth functions as a device that permits viewers to see closeup the person that he likes. It permits the advertiser to define what makes her attractive to him. This structural element of the narrative encourages the appellated female viewer to see herself in the photo booth camera qua mirror as she might be if she had used Coty Wild Musk.

The screen quickly cuts to a closeup of fingers inserting a quarter into a slot labeled "DEPOSIT." The red-button light over the slot turns green, and the photo machine starts with a decisive three beat drum and guitar introduction. The screen cuts to a head and shoulder shot of her posing for the camera, a soprano female lead sings, "Is it the way I smile?" In her first pose, she turns her back to the camera and cants her neck. Though we know she is posing for the camera, we are positioned to see these poses as reflections of herself in the booth's mirror. Posing for the pictures, she poses for herself, and poses as a means of defining self in the eyes of others. She exudes a playful attitude as she mugs for the camera. After several poses and flashes of light, the screen cuts back to her boyfriend standing outside the booth's red curtain, holding the teddybear. A chorus sings in response to the female lead's question, "Oh No!"

Though it is indeed her smile which is showcased, the chorus informs us that her pretty smile is not what makes her attractive. Outside, the boyfriend smiles to himself as he effortlessly flips the bear over in his hands, while he presumably muses over how much he likes her. This scene works in three directions: 1) it defines him as an 'attractive catch' for youthful female viewers, 2) it again demonstrates her effect on him, and thereby validates her as a role model for establishing self-identity, 3) for the young female audience it injects a note of humor that follows from his being handed the teddybear in the previous scene. Left holding the stuffed animal, he seems a bit flustered and caught offguard, connoting "cuteness" and vulnerability to her charms. Though he holds the teddy, she handles him, tames him, transforming him into an admiring, attentive playmate.

Even though he stands outside the booth, she is on his mind. Like the viewer he is a spectator of her. Back inside the booth, she is spectator to herself as an object of desire - as a sight. Again, the female lead singer vocalizes the consciousness of our young heroine (and, of course, for the spectator/potential consumer as well), as she peers into the mirror, "Is It In My Style?" Accompanying this, a series of closeup facial poses disclose her spirit as she pixyishly uses her fingers to frame her smile in a manner we usually associate with childishness. This scene of her modeling ends simultaneously with the high-pitched chorus answering the question about style, "No! No!"

A quick sharp cut presents viewers with a closeup image of what denotatively appears as fingers holding a black bottle top connected with something golden in color. The fingernails, covered with clear nail polish, pull the object from a leather pouch, revealing a golden-coloured bottle named:

Coty Wild Musk Cologne Spray

This cuts to a closeup of her face and neck arched to one side as she brings the spray bottle toward her. She turns to face the bottle 'face' and sprays herself with perfume, her head slightly raised and mouth open in a gratified smile. The spray of confidence and social power is also a provocative stimulus. As she sprays herself, a male singing voice calls out, "It's only when she puts on the Musk." Another sharp video cut takes viewers to a partial closeup of her male companion's face as he peeks around the red curtain he has pulled back at the corner. His eyes peering around a swatch of red fabric lead viewers to deduce that he is peeking in to watch her. As his face appears from behind the curtain, a flash goes off, the light splashed across his face. He watches her in captive admiration as she poses for her pictures. All of this occurs as an instantaneous reaction to her spraying herself. And, as the male singing voice has made clear, the source of her attractiveness is the Coty Wild Musk.

An instant later we see her beaming countenance again as she embraces him. His face is partially hidden as he kisses her neck - where she has sprayed the cologne. She turns back toward the camera, a wide grin plastered across her face, her blue eyes dancing, and her white teeth gleaming. He remains fixated on her neck as the flash of the photo booth goes off once more. During this scene, the male singing voice reiterates "Coty Wild Musk. It must be the Musk." The next video cut is made so that a rectangular frame materializes over her face. The frame is angled 30 degrees to the left and encompasses her eyes, nose and mouth, a portion of her left shoulder and a part of his cheek and chin as he nuzzles her. Her image fades, replaced by a product shot inside the rectangle. Side by side in the frame appear a bottle of cologne next to a packaged container with the words "Coty Wild Musk".

After the product image completely supplants her image on the screen, we see it on a strip of film. Immediately above this "photo" is the bottom of another photo - the bottom of the scene of him and her in the photo booth (visible is her hand on his shoulder, the fabric of their clothing, and the base of their necks). Placing the product image on the film strip with the photos from the photobooth is one last piece of confirmatory evidence that the answer to what makes her popular and attractive is the commodity "Wild Coty Musk." Note the redundancy of devices aimed at connecting the meaning of the product with the meaning of their relationship. The ad is assembled to maximize the possibility of making a connection between the image and style given off by the model and the results of using the perfume. In order to make that connection here, the advertiser has made use of a series of conflicting messages. These conflicting messages occur not just at the level of content, but also in the narrative form that steers interpretation. In fact, most viewers understand that the answer "No No" actually means "Yes Yes." "Is it the way she looks?" Though the choral muse answers "no," the camera whose eye we literally share, tells us otherwise. In this case, the conflicting messages actually provide the principal connecting device. The ad sets up one question. What is it about herself that he likes? Visually the viewer is shown that she possesses 'the look.' But the choral muse seems to deny this answer - to the extent that the traits of 'style' and 'smile' are reducible to Wild Coty.

The Coty ad offers a narrative about the pleasures of commodity narcissism. This commonplace narrative can be summarized quite simply: popularity and power - when a woman can take satisfaction in her own appearance, she will be empowered to have the man of her choice. This ideology of desire is turned to become part of the sign of the commodity in ads like this.

Bob Goldman