Friday, 23 October 2015

Semiotic Spritz Part 2: Dior Sauvage: Welcome to Marlboro Country

Dior’s Sauvage was launched in 2015. The perfume was created by François Demachy and the advertising campaign shot by director and photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino. For a review of the fragrance itself, see here.

‘If no medium has been in closer communion with the mass mind than advertising, then’ mused the aptly named Elliott West ‘no popular tradition is more deeply entrenched in American culture than the western’. Indeed, since the early 1900s, images of wild broncos and tumbleweeds have been used to sell everything from prunes to station wagons. Of all the symbols we associate with the Western myth however, none achieved such enduring commercial appeal as the Marlboro Man.
The Stetson-wearing, cigarette puffing cowboy was conceived by the Leo Burnett agency in 1954 in response to a challenging brief from Philip Morris Tobacco. The company wished to re-introduce their Marlboro cigarette to the American market. The problem was, the cigarette had previously been marketed to females (‘Mild as May’) and the new filter it was sporting, whilst reassuring a newly nervous smoking public, was considered effeminate. Burnett’s answer was the Marlboro Man, or rather, the Tattooed Man, as the campaign was originally called. The advert sought to align the product with the very epitome of White American masculinity and showed a weathered outdoorsman holding a Marlboro cigarette in his prominently inked hand. As a potent signifier, the latter remained a feature of the brand’s campaign for many years, even when the Marlboro Man himself changed.
In a piece of pure intertextuality, Johnny Depp reprises the Tattooed/Marlboro Man role for Sauvage, and like his predecessor, is charged with convincing his audience there’s nothing girly about the product he’s selling. How successful he is in this remains to be seen, but if advertising serves as any kind of mirror, it’s instructive to ponder what dusting off this image for Dior’s campaign reveals about our collective anxieties today.
The ideology of ‘rugged individualism’ which the Marlboro Man embodied was famously propounded by Herbert Hoover. Against a backdrop of the Great Depression, the then President repeated this phrase over and again, aiming to shore up faith in the American Dream which had never before seemed so elusive to so many. Fast forward to 2015, and in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, we are once more being told to right ourselves through toil and graft – this time by a wild (sauvage) looking Depp, whose rolled up shirtsleeves show him ready to ‘get to work’.
The text carries with it more than a suspicion of violence: consider, for example, Depp’s black and blue clothing which, beyond entering into syntagmatic relation with the flacon, reminds us of bruising. This being the Wild West though, we oughtn’t to be surprised, for out in these frontier spaces, urban codes do not adhere. And therein lies its deep attraction: the West represents a touchstone of authenticity for our variously alienated, fractured, disembedded selves.
Insofar as Dior’s Sauvage advert accurately captures the Zeitgeist, it is well designed and executed. Perhaps even more importantly though, it manages to create for the fragrance an identity quite distinct from Chanel’s Bleu (2010) whose scent is really not dissimilar.

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