America’s culture is distinctive because of its adolescent nature. From our usurpation against our mother country until now, our culture as a whole has retained distinctive qualities that are clearly adolescent. Clotaire Rapaille in his book The Culture Code explains this observation about American culture while also delving deeper into the exploration of human motivations within a culture. Rapaille claims that the culture in which we live out our early childhoods permanently influences the way we think and more specifically the way we act as adult consumers. Our reasons for choosing one marketing strategy over another are coded in the associations advertisements make with their products. His process into determining what he calls “on code” or “off code” for a specific culture includes looking into the emotional attachments that we form with particular objects and ideas from an early age. As most of us have experienced adolescence is a time where we go from being completely dependent on adults for our survival to a limbo where we’re trying to assert our independence and create an identity away from our parents. In short, adolescence is our rebellious stage, and the United States is stuck in it. As Rapaille would say, rebellion is “on code” in American culture, and the culture industry consciously capitalizes on our inclination towards items associated with rebellion by selling us on rebellion instead of the functionality of the actual product.
The commodification of rebellion can be clearly seen in the 2015 Miss Dior commercial starring Natalie Portman as a runaway bride. Because Dior is a French company that sells in the United States as well as in other countries around the world, my analysis of how it profits off of the American predilection for rebellion will be based off of what the average American consumer might have seen on their television set and not on the official director’s cut. The commercial versus the original short film have many similarities; however, the commercial version is very pointedly aimed at the American consumer while the official cut’s message is a little more obscure as it’s more than twice as long and aimed at a more global audience. All of the thought put into constructing this advertisement, was directed at associating the wearer of this perfume with someone who doesn’t follow social norms. Specifically the dialogue, the color choice, and background music all came together to sell the consumer on this rebellious perfume.
Throughout the commercial there is very little dialogue, but perhaps the most framing exchange occurs at the beginning between Portman and a bellhop. The scene starts with Portman in her wedding dress opening a hotel room door, and a bellhop offering her a bouquet while saying in a distinctly French accent, “Your flowers, Madam.” To which Portman quickly replies, “It’s Miss actually.” Portman’s response highlights her capacity for independence and shows her reluctance to allow her identity to be tied to a man, a clear feminist sentiment. This distinction between an unmarried and married woman underscores the existence of male dominance, so her correction can be seen as her taking back control. The commercial then plays out by cutting to Portman walking down the aisle, but then stopping right before her and her father reach the groom. Just before she spins around and runs away, she turns to her father and says, “I’m sorry Dad.” This moment clearly reinforces the rebellion that this company is trying to sell you. In this moment, Portman is the teenager not following what her parents want her to do, and in a more general sense a woman defying society’s expectations for her to marry.
The Color Choice
There is a distinctive shift in the filming that parallels Portman’s shift from a traditional female role, i.e. bride and wife, to a modern female in charge of her sexuality. This large shift is illustrated by switching from filming in black and white to filming in color. Inherently we associate black and white television with the mid-twentieth century, where women were still largely oppressed and not seen as equal to men. This can be exemplified in popular black and white television shows in the 1950s including I Love Lucy and The Donna Reed Show. When the camera shifts from black and white to color, the sense of liberation that the viewer feels as she empathizes with Portman, is emphasized by the return to modern, colorful television. This shift from oppression to liberation is subconsciously linked to the use of the perfume this commercial is selling even though the perfume isn’t mentioned until the last 3 seconds of the commercial.
In addition, Portman’s change in outfit is also significant. As soon as Portman reaches the end of the aisle she kicks off her heels, a symbol of her femininity that literally restricts her mobility, and takes off in a run. From this rejection of a typical standard of beauty, the viewer is again reminded of the rebellious nature of Portman. By removing her heels she is removing the control that men have over her life. I think that the fact she is running to another man though allows the commercial to be rebellious and feminist just enough that it’s not off-putting or “off-code”. Another symbolic moment is when she takes off her wedding dress to reveal a shorter black dress underneath. And while she still remains in a dress so as not to completely remove her femininity, the color shift from white to black is significant. White carries the connotations of pure, traditional, orderly and angelic, where black is related with dirty, edgy, chaotic and rebellious. And while we clearly see the feminist undertones in the coloring choices, we also see the reluctance to completely abandon gender norms.
Piece of My Heart- Janis Joplin
The background music in commercials is a key contributor in conveying what the advertiser is attempting to get across. The director of the commercial, Anton Corbijn, said in regards to the choice of a Piece of My Heart covered by Janis Joplin that plays throughout the entire commercial, “It took a long time to find the music, and this choice seemed to fit perfectly from all angles, including the song’s meaning.”(Monlos) Research shows that music is capable of eliciting all different iterations of human emotion (Ahtisaari and Karanam). Advertising exploits music’s direct connection to our emotions. As I said earlier, Rapaille’s argument about distinct culture codes is based in the claim that we form emotional attachments to objects and ideas. If music is the gateway to our emotions, than the choice of music is key in advertisements to tap into our emotional attachment to something and connect it with the product they’re attempting to sell us. Corbijn recognized how crucial the song choice was. He used the background music to set the mood for the commercial.
Joplin’s voice is strong and rough sounding, and it’s accompanied by a distinctly rock instrumental arrangement. The commercial also paired pivotal moments in the commercial with powerful vocal points. For example, as Portman turns her back on the wedding and begins running away the song begins to build through repetition. The lyrics read, “I want you to come on, come on, come on, and take it.” The commercial times the lyrics “take it” with the moment Portman throws her bouquet over her shoulder. This scene in the commercial is another play on rebelling against tradition and social norms. Conventionally, the bride throws her bouquet and the single women at the wedding attempt to catch it because whoever is lucky enough to catch it is superstitiously thought to be the next person to get married. This scene is mocking the tradition as the commercial makes sure the viewer gets a close up of the bouquet landing in the dirt. In a way, this symbolic visual of the bouquet landing in the dirt is a way of insinuating that the idea that women are all just waiting to be married is dead, and this point is furthered by the accompanying dramatic music.
All of these specific choices added together reinforce the idea that advertisements are selling something more than just a product. The Miss Dior perfume bottle isn’t at all present in the commercial until the last three seconds, so one would think that in terms of selling the product it does a poor job, but what the commercial does so successfully is elicit the emotional response of rebellion and then in the final three seconds while these emotions are still fresh leaves you with the perfume. We don’t consciously absorb the attachment made between Miss Dior and rebellion, but that’s what makes a good commercial. The culture industry has recognized the significance of rebellion in our culture and capitalized on this “on code” American ideal. This exploitation our adolescent culture is beyond ironic. Rebellion, what the United State’s mere existence holds up as the path to greatness, is now a commodity to be bought and sold by unthinking consumers.
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Monllos, Kristina. “Natalie Portman, a Runaway Bride, Gets a Helicopter Rescue in Miss
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