Thursday, 31 December 2015

Semiotic Spritz Part 6: Readers' Daughters: Marc Jacobs' Oh, Lola!

Continuing with the theme of banned perfume advertisements, in 2011 Marc Jacobs (Coty UK Ltd.) fell foul of the Advertising Standards Authority with their ad for Oh, Lola! featuring the then 17 year old Dakota Fanning. The ASA judged the image ‘irresponsible’ for ‘sexualis[ing] a child’. The authority explained that, in their view Fanning ‘looked under the age of 16’ and that ‘the length of her dress, her leg and the position of the perfume bottle drew attention to her sexuality’. On this basis, it was ruled the advert must not appear again in its current form.
Although the ASA only received four complaints in respect to the image (a far cry from the 900 complaints received in connection with YSL’s infamous Opium ad), its publication effectively coincided with the Bailey Review’s – a report commissioned by the government that sought to address the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood. A key recommendation of the review - and one that conceivably had a direct bearing on the ASA’s ruling - was that in all types of advertising regulation, a person under the age of 16 be defined as a child. That the ASA has shown itself less concerned with models’ actual ages than whether they appear to be under 16 displays a commitment to holding advertisers to the spirit of the code rather than the mere letter.
Addressing the ASA’s criticisms, Coty UK apparently conceded the placement of the oversized flacon between the model’s thighs was provoking. They did not however, believe the styling of the ad suggested the model was underage nor that it was inappropriately sexualising.
Coty, of course, needed only to respond to the points raised by the advertising authority and their account holds no surprises. What is unexpected however, is that in summing their case the ASA made no reference to the perfume’s name nor the advert’s overall aesthetic:
Oh, Lola! is, on the one hand a play on words, simultaneously punning eau and oh la la! On the other hand, it carries strong associations with Nabokov’s tale of Dolores Haze, AKA Lo, Lola, Lolita. Unlike Penhaligon’s who put themselves in the uncomfortable position of denying their perfume Tralala bore any connection with the identically named character in Hubert Selby Jr.’s controversial novel Last Exit to Brooklyn (thereby contradicting earlier claims made by Meadham Kirchhoff), Marc Jacobs was unambiguous on the literary inspiration for Oh, Lola! Speaking to the latter’s connection with its predecessor, Lola (Marc Jacobs, 2009), the designer explained ‘This Lola is more of a Lolita than a Lola, but we weren’t going to call the fragrance Lolita. Lola is more seductive; Oh, Lola is sensual, but she’s sweeter’ (Jacobs, quoted in WWD June 2011). In a discussion centered on the sexualisation of a minor in a perfume advert, it is surely germane that the perfume’s namegiver is virtually synonymous with paedophilia.
But beyond the model’s apparent age, her attire, the way she holds the bottle or even the fragrance’s name, it is the advert’s retro aesthetic that holds the real key to its unsettling power. Much like American Apparel’s 2012 ad that was banned on identical grounds, the image coopts the faux-laroid trend popularised on social media with its grainy texture, saturated colours, heavy shadow and solid white frame.

(Read the ASA's ruling here)

A good deal has been written about the popularity of vintage-style filters and we needn’t try too hard to guess what this desire to impose a false sense of history on photos through analogue simulation says about our relation to digital technology. The effect though of these temporally dislocated images is haunting; haunting in the Derridean sense that the ontology of the hic et nunc is challenged by the presence/absence of spectral figures that are out of time and out of place.
We’re invited to view the photo of Fanning as an authentic object, an objet trouvé even, such as might have lain undisturbed for decades in some dusty shoebox. Striving for candor, Juergen Teller’s photograph rejects the sort of amnesic nostalgia invoked by most faux-vintage snaps. Its problematic however, inheres in the fact that it uses this as a cover for sentimentality towards abuses of the worst kind.

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