by DK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA)
The ad for Kenzo World perfume made waves when it was launched late August 2016 [it’s also just won an Epica Film Grand Prix, probably the first of many awards — ed-at-large]. The commercial featured Margaret Qualley — a known actress in certain circles but not known to the point where you would say ‘that lady from so and so’. Much like Gangnam Style, it feels like a random series of crazy acts and depictions that somehow comes together in a film that leaves us smiling and hitting repeat. But what is it about this piece of communication that leaves us this intrigued?
I don’t want to divert too much attention to a piece like Gangnam Style as I feel the point of intrigue is just about all these pieces have in common, but there is something to be said for how the two appeals to something beyond our cognitive and rational mind. No one understood a single word in Gangnam Style (or no-one I spoke to, at any rate) and yet the video broke the records. The package (Psy, the song, the video and where it sat in culture) resonated well with an audience that was, firstly, fed up with the ridiculous nature of consumer culture and secondly, bigger than Psy or anyone else imagined.
But what about Kenzo World? I’m not going to spend too much time in setting up tension between Gangnam Style and Kenzo World — at a superficial level, it’s obvious and, at a deeper level, there is no tension. What’s interesting is why it’s relevant at this deeper level and what truth it’s touching upon. While I might not be able to give a definitive truth, I will attempt to shed light on the matter. If I may quote an African archeologists on the matter: “Africa is vast and the researchers are few.” So I would submit that the subject matter here is vast and the contributors few. But let’s apply some cultural insight skills to see what Kenzo, or Spike Jonze, is tapping into.
The commercial starts in a very-expected way. A docile lady sitting at a formal table listening to the humdrum noise of establishment which in this case happens to be the icon of antagonism — an old male (we may assume straight white). Our heroine excuses herself from the table and saunters out into what looks like a deserted foyer — all the action gathered and focused on the inside. Here I find it interesting that we’ve touched on two dominant, if not residual, codes in the world of fragrance. One could even go one level up and look at a subservient territory. That is to say, a bigger holding concept in which ideas such as the subservient woman or the damsel in distress will live. If we were to map it, we would see subservient femininity as a province and, over the horizons, we’ll see other passive forms and, if we turn our gaze, we’ll see more active forms. Keep in mind, however, that this is not femininity in its totality and that militant feminism for instance (warriors and power women) are all separate parts of a similar ‘province’, if you would, and that other forms of power femininity exist.
But, in this subservient world, our hero kicks off. The narrative really only starts after a tear rolls down her face (once again a signifier that you’ll find in relatively residual codes of femininity). As the music picks up, her face changes and starts to shift rapidly through many expressions, ranging from happy through confused to fearful. There are so many interpretations of what this could mean but, whatever the interpretation, it always points to what South African politics refer to as a third force. There is an other-worldliness at work. It reminds us of possession or when a demon leaves someone. When something from the inside escapes. One could go one step further and start interpreting the actual expression in the context of femininity but I suspect this will be very culture-specific and become somewhat irrelevant as you start moving from market to market.
What does heavily reinforce the separation of ‘cultured person’, that is to say, the expected here and now, and ‘free person’, that is to say, who exists beyond what is expected and what happened when we were not looking, is what follows. The seemingly random explosion of movement, the separate hand and arched crawling up the mirror all remind us of separatedness of what has been internalised. It highlights the violent separation between what has been culturally enforced and what is trying to rip away.
This is also not necessarily feminist — consider Where the Wild Things are and how the same juxtaposition between enforced reality and desired reality resulted in a seemingly violent and offensive situation. For those who don’t recall, the film follows the life of a boy who, dissatisfied with his current predicament, escapes to a fantasy world where time and reality don’t completely collapse but are allowed to twist and warp just a bit, just to be weird enough to be surreal. This world, like the world we witness here, is also not a fairytale in the sense that one would expect and characters such as Carol turns out to be quite violent at heart, reminding us of the image of the Christian God we saw in Job (as Carl Jung put it, the beast that cannot see its own back).
Looking back to the category, we see that this ‘other-worldliness’ has been embraced. Aliens, angels and other blatantly fictive characters have been used, almost as a release valve in a building tension. Notice how they are all too far to be real but close enough to allow otherness. The idea of spiritual possession is, however, not too far and creates a point of tension. This happens especially on the back of Stranger Things (where Eleven is so well-versed with the upside down).
The Kenzo World piece moves fast. From here, we encounter a series of dominant codes in a caricaturised form. Right after crawling along the mirror in what is only really a repeat of The Exorcist, our hero makes her way to a statue where she entices and seduces the old cold stone, to no avail. This, once again, looks back at category-dominant codes, where femininity is often portrayed as youthful fertility in the face of economically powerful masculinity. It, of course, doesn’t go without a religious reference as she briefly touches her shoulders and her elbows before suggestively licking the statue across its forehead.
The running up the stairs is not an entirely unknown scene as the disappointed damsel lets go of all femininity and dashes for cover, like a Cinderella who is about to turn but, somehow and from a personal point of view, this doesn’t stand out on its own. The sudden turn and stare at the camera, however, digs deep into category generics in the form of the seductive stare, here once again turned to caricature by her fingers.
The rhythmic inside-out nature of it is somewhat reminiscent of the age-old hypnotising circles that we sometimes see in old movies or Black Sheep by Gin Wigmore. This, interestingly enough, is also a video which reclaimed some dominant tropes. Are women insane and too chatty? Wigmore sits down on a psychiatrist’s bed claiming a pistol for a mouth. It’s a good day’s work for a single line.
The camera struggles to keep up with our protagonist as she races up the stairs through some iconic gestures of combative moves before she is interrupted by a suave gentleman in a suit. She tiptoes around the back — almost to recall the tiddle-tiddle sound from tiptoeing cartoons. When she appears around his shoulder, we see another familiar yet stale picture — the successful suit-wearing gentleman with a lady dangling by his side. But not this one. Quickly she takes on another stereotype — the femme fatale, and puts him out of his misery. Notice how the ad makes its case in the world of symbolism. What I mean by that is that, because it’s only a symbol of violence and not actual violence, we can open a debate between femininity and masculinity instead of men and women, or black and white, and not that black guy and that white gal. It’s absolutely crucial if we are going to solve problems and it’s interesting to see that a commercial that seems to be grabbing stereotypes by the horns is not devolving into identity politics.
After a very feminine flexing of the muscles, she runs to fight another day into a hallway where she draws upon cues heavily established in the superhero world. Those who have read some of my older articles might know that I am a fan of superhero language. The idea of gods and goddesses is a big one in fragrance but these tend to tap into older sentiments of religion. That is to say, women are goddesses but the older religious types, the ones we don’t so much believe in anymore. Superheroes are the modern pop-culture version of gods and goddesses and there is no stronger a signifier of being a superhero than shooting lasers from your fingers. Also note how the floral vase becomes the victim of her laser skill. For those of you who have been paying attention, flowers are front and centre of the feminine fragrance category.
The film continues by putting her on a small stage; once again, note the floral background. Here we see a comical struggle between what she ought (category norms) and what she wants (cultural norms) to be — all against the all-too-floral backdrop. She finally hops off her stage and kind of stooges away, blatantly performing a silly dance (of category norms) to an expectant crowd (us).
The performance quickly transitions from this small stage to a bigger stage. Here we rapidly move from the aggressive movements to ballet, which has recently become an interesting form of art. Black Swan revealed it for being hard and unforgiving — a counter to the dainty perception that existed. Under Armour used it as a platform to highlight body shaming and then showing the ability to rise above and recently Libresse used the cracking and bleeding toes to say ‘no blood should hold us back’. Note how, in the Libresse commercial, only ballet is used as a sport dominated by women, while the rest are generally masculine sports. Under Armour also resorted to combat sports after its ballerina commercial, making ballet the only real masculine feminine sport in communication.
Back to Kenzo World, after the ballet scene, our protagonist “commits suicide” in something that reminds us of a crucifix. This in itself is interesting and something that I might discuss at length somewhere else. First, the impact that religion has had upon gender but then also the suicide-murder-sacrifice situation of Jesus and what it would imply for femininity in the context of a commercial already saturated in religion.
The end of the commercial is in sight as she bursts out of the building in leaps, bounds and summersaults towards a floral icon of the brand. With a religious, spiritual or other worldly tone already set, it’s difficult not to see our hero engaging in a spiritual activity. She then briefly stops in front of the eye before she leaps through it. Here some criticism has been that it seems blatantly fake in a commercial where so many things have been real. But look at it not in the context of ‘do we need CG or rigging’ but rather in the context of culture. The tone has been set as a commercial that leverages something from the beyond or something superhuman.
Here we had a protagonist who started out as a victim of her femininity, a femininity that was signified by being subservient and where flowers (icons of femininity) was quietly stacked in vases, standing on tables and along the walls. Her subservience and tears have gone through an exorcism of sorts, she’s shed even the modern icons of ‘tough femininity’ and has now landed up here, where she embraces a superhuman quality, leaping through the icon, sending these dainty icons flying everywhere, and landing in a fashion better associated with Neo (from The Matrix) or Superman himself, before pounding her chest in accordance with the most-basic masculine cue.
It would seem that, at this point, the commercial leverages the intuition of superheroes (strong enough to do anything) to undercut the deepest-set cultural norms in the category (that woman have to punch and skate and mountain bike and break their toes in ballet to be equal to men). “No,” it says, a woman may shed these femvertising norms and still pound their chests (claiming equality to masculinity).
Both Libresse and Always have made interesting points by attempting to recontextualise what is often seen as weak about women. Always stood on this side of taboo and just claimed #likeagirl, while Libresse went one step further by just saying “blood”. But what makes them somewhat disingenuous is that they ignore context. “Blood” is not just blood. There is a world of difference between stepping out of a boxing ring with blood coming from your nose, blood coming from your ear or blood in your urine. Yes, it tries to reassert this context but more has to be done. Always steps into the same trap by saying “like a girl” is not inferior. Well, in certain contexts, according to certain measures, it is. That is why we don’t have co-ed boxing divisions. At the height of their careers, no one would let Floyd Mayweather in the ring with Ronda Rousey (even though all the smart money would have been on Rousey) and even less so with Georges Saint Pierre. It’s what has had Fallon Fox banned from female fighting. The real argument is ‘the power of your punch says zero about who you are’. But that is difficult to land.
There are a few more codes that might be better left for another article but the Kenzo commercial does a great job at dumping the old tropes and allowing us to create new ones. It makes sense in the context of our times where gender is being reshaped, not only in what it means to be male or female but also in what masculinity and femininity could mean.
DK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA) is head of strategy at Cape Town ad agency, 140BBDO, and brings cultural context and long-term trend insights to brand communication through cultural insight and semiotics. He contributes the monthly “Brand Culture” column, exploring the value and meaning interaction between brands and society, to MarkLives.com.