Peter York On Ads: P Diddy getting down and dirty with Estée Lauder? That really is unforgivable
Sunday 14 October 2007
Every so often we have to return to the subject of beastliness of various kinds. Advertising doesn't often generate torrents of filth because advertisers are terribly careful. They don't want to upset anyone who might conceivably buy anything or the people who influence them.
And advertising agencies, despite their eagerness to get the Soho House Shore-ditch vibe, can't really live the full-on contemporary art life. The creative types soak up as much sensation as they can, watching cult videos that are blasphemous, explicit, unhygienic and – very occasionally – a bit political, knowing they'll have to reproduce the style without the content.
It took for ever for advertising to acknowledge some of life's basics. Women sometimes have periods. Men pee in rather careless ways. That a whole nameless world of secretions and discharges exists among otherwise perfectly nice people. Most of these bodily functions are handled with care by using basic computer animations to make the point, while sufferers from embarrassing illnesses are only ever shown fully dressed in cheerful woollens.
Advertising has also recently acknowledged, a) that women have urges too, b) that unnatural sex types exist too, and c) that people are sometimes cynical and a bit short-termist in their relationships. In other words, the real themes of the mildest stand-up from the late Eighties.
In the past, women's urges were dealt with by making them comic or cartoon-y. The unnatural sex thing was originally signposted by stereotypes that would have looked overdone in 'Kiss of the Spider Woman'. More recently it's become a boys-just-wanna-have-fun alternative lad thing. As for lesbians, they don't exist except in Sarah Waters dramas on the BBC. Flirting with shock effects happened in those public sector don'ts – don't drink, smoke, catch Aids, etc – not usually in the area of calculated offence and PR-led controversy.
In the past, if an expensive campaign was "banned" from TV there was nowhere else to go. Now with the web, it's a strategic option: launch a TV ad that's bound to be withdrawn swiftly and let the media coverage and the social network showings do the work for you without spending the media money.
Is that what Sean John – the brand currently used by rap artist P Diddy to sell celebrity merchandise – intended with its new Unforgivable Woman perfume ad? Launched in the US in September, the commercial is explicit in the way some MTV promos for US black music often are (not very and the words are very careful). But that's still surprising in TV adspace, where scent is mostly advertised in sexless romantic fashionista ways. Unforgivable Woman isn't like that. At all.
In this ad, it's clear that P Diddy and a model are about to get it on. They meet on the stairs and in a second he's hiking up her dress, cupping her breasts and pushing her against the wall. Sometimes she plays the game, sometimes she looks abused. She shows a lot more flesh than him. The precise flesh "tone", incidentally, is important in America, where the race line is even more of a tease than the misogyny theme. The girl is pale – a shade up from Halle Berry – but not actually white.
At Howard University – the proud, long-established black institution that he started but didn't finish – Diddy is reputed to have majored in marketing. Certainly, the sign-off voiceover is as regular 7th Avenue as they come. Not that surprising, given that Sean John Fragrances are part of Estée Lauder, the people who gave your mum Youth Dew and White Linen.
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