Female Sexuality in a Clairol Ad and its Reception by its Hong Kong Audience
Amy Lai washes her hair
By Amy T.Y. Lai
Anyone who has spent some time abroad would agree with me that the television advertisements, local or foreign, aired on Hong Kong television channels are relatively conservative in their contents when compared with those aired in England, the United States and even Taiwan. This, however, has not stopped worrying Hong Kong viewers from filing complaints to the Hong Kong Broadcasting Authority about what they call “indecent” advertisements. Of all the complaints, however, I find the case of the Clairol herbal shampoo ad more interesting than the rest, and worthier of attention.
This advertisement, shot in the U.S. and featuring Caucasian actresses, begins by introducing its audience to the “strictest female dormitory in history”. After a brief shot of the exterior of the dormitory - dark and formidable at night – the camera moves into its interior, panning on a group of young women washing their hair with the advertised product in the shower room. They enjoy themselves so much that they make sounds of pleasure, which accordingly wake the warden from her sleep. Bespectacled and stern-looking, the old woman traces the source of the noises, and ends up getting very annoyed - not because of the noises the students make, but the fact that they are using her bottle of shampoo. At the end, she shouts: “Who dares use my Clairol!” before grapping the bottle and running away in anger.
It probably does not take a cultural studies scholar to sense that “something” is going on, besides the explicit message, which is that Clairol herbal essences gives its users an irresistible refreshing feeling. The cries of the women, apparently a result of enjoyable shampooing, resemble the frenzied songs of female orgasm. Such an association is fostered by the intimate relationship between sexuality and scent. These include the scientifically proven ability of the role of pheromones in the generation of sexual desires in both sexes, the injection of pheromonal ingredients in perfumes, colognes and even shampoos, as well as the exploitation of human sexuality by many perfume advertising campaigns.
In the light of the above interpretation, it is possible to further explore the visual images in the advertisement. The female dorm, more like a prison – perhaps in the Foucaultian sense – signifies all those institutions that have led to the repression of female desires (or in Foucaultian terminology – the “production” of female sexuality as it is). The warden is reminiscent of the typical old – probably jealous - spinster who keeps a strict eye on young women, or the worrying mother who keeps checking on her young daughters. Ironically enough, the advertisement also portrays her as the owner of the shampoo, the “license” to female sexuality, hence implicating her in something that she is too ready to condemn, and too shy to confess.
In her article ‘The Selling of the Female Orgasm’, Rachel Lehmann-Haupt readily describes the cries of the women in the Clairol shampoo campaign (of which the advertisement under discussion is only one example) as the noises of bedroom pleasure. She grounds the ad in an american culture where, with the advocacy of sexual rights and freedom, female sexuality has already emerged as a “chic” topic among “mainstream women”, to the extent that advertising companies have been selling back an empowered sexuality to them.
One might expect some indignant reactions from the more conventional audiences, one example being the devoutly religious members. A Catholic online site, for example, describes the shampoo campaign as “sexually provocative”. Using a Clairol print ad, they notice that its motto, “organic experience”, takes on the double entendre of an “orgasmic experience”. Coupled with what these Catholics regard as “lewd and softly pornographic scenes”, the ad campaign “contributes profoundly to the sexually charged culture that has come to think of sex in casual ways”. Hence they reprimand the ad company for being “utterly irresponsible in its duty to promote a healthy society”. On top of that, the campaign and its messages are contrary to their Christian worldview, which is to elevate sex to its “proper place as a sacramental experience of the marriage bed”.
According to my observation, the Clairol ad in discussion has initiated a set of responses among Hong Kong audiences that are quite different from those in the USA. I believe that such differences are partly accountable by the cultural make-up of our society. First, contrary to the accusation by the vehement Christians, this ad can hardly be categorised as pornographic, not only is it not so, it also gives little attention to the woman’s body in itself.
Banal it now sounds, but the woman’s body is constructed as the object of male desire in the mass media: newspapers, paparazzo magazines or pornographic cinema often sexualise the woman’s body and in so doing, objectify it. But what I find peculiar about the Hong Kong media is that such “sexualisation” and “objectification” occur regardless of the degree of body exposure. The compulsion to sexualise the woman’s body has had the impact of seeing it as “dangerous” in our culture. TV viewers are highly sensitive to the exposed female body, and readily see any degree of exposure as “indecent”. Accordingly, they complain about the indecency they find in some TV ads - even though this may only be a fleeting shot of the cleavage of a young woman decently clad in an open vest, as in the Kao Bio Wash ad, or a young woman decently clad in a bikini at the poolside, as in the Mr Juicy ad.
Being a contested site, the woman’s body can in fact be re-appropriated for the sake of fashioning identities that are alternative to those prescribed by our culture and society. Nonetheless, it would be too hard to make visual use of the woman’s body to articulate female desires in Hong Kong, without the risk of getting the images re-absorbed by the male gaze, or scoffed at as “indecent”, or both. The Clairol ad, however, by articulating female desires without really exposing their bodies, escapes moral criticism and being relegated to another form of “lewd exploitation”.
This leads to the other thing that empowers the advertisement in the Hong Kong context, which is the subtlety of its sexuality. Unlike in the USA, the sale of “empowered sexuality” has yet to become common in Hong Kong. Accordingly, the message about sexuality is only too “subtle” to legitimise any accusation by the worrying Hong Kong viewer. In fact, the message might sound too subtle indeed, for the average Hong Kong viewer to articulate it fully in the first place.
As far as things go, the reception of the advertisement in Hong Kong has been diverse. Some members of the older generation have asked me, “So what the hell is this about? A group of students washing their hair in midnight! So?” Not long after it was first aired in Hong Kong, some TV viewers apparently sensed something “wrong” in it, and one of them filed a complaint to the Broadcasting Authority, stating that it contained “a bad theme”. Nonetheless, he or she did not explain what exactly constituted the “badness” of it all. And as if to follow, or to play upon the spirit of “ambivalence”, the authority investigated the matter and came up with the conclusion that “no indecency was found”. Hence “The complaint was unsubstantiated”.
I am genuinely curious about how people who investigate the complaint personally interpret the advertisement, and I suspect that many people (my reader included) share my curisoity. The real picture, however, I may not possibly know. What makes matters more interesting is that after the airing of the TV ad, there appeared magazine advertisements that served to further promote the product. One of those featured photos of young Hong Kong models, all dressed as working professionals, who not only emphasise that they love the shampoo, but also describe the TV ad as “refreshing”, “delightful” and “stylish”. They even describe the behaviour of the women students in it as something they could readily identify with. These statements, nonetheless, are not pure inventions. I have heard many young women, my peers and students included, showing appreciation for the advertisement, and for similar reasons.
To be fair, despite my point about the “subtlety” of the Clairol ad, I do not deny the possibility that many who dislike the ad actually could decode the subliminal sexual message. But then, my question is why it is a “bad theme” after all.
Back in the early nineties, a series of advertisements on Club, a brand of wine, stirred some controversy: they were severely criticised by some viewers for their blatantly sexist message, which promoted women as playthings of men, occupying a more inferior position compared with the wine they sold. In recent years, some advertisements, apparently “healthy” in both visual contents and messages, arguably appealed to the traditional gender binary. One famous line from the Knife Brand peanut oil ad: “Ultimately, Mom is the best!” which apparently glorifies maternal love, yet confines the role of women to the domestic roles of the housekeeper and the mother, and hence is not without a sexist undertone.
Far from portraying young women as the playthings of men, the Clairol ad turns them into desiring subjects. By liberating the rebelliousness in these women (which leads them to steal the shampoo), it does not confine women to the sweet, obedient woman either, but instead subverts a mainstream good-woman model. I recall that some creative directors, in response to accusations of the sexist contents in their ads, retorted that the insistence on political correctness can be a death toll to creativity in the advertising industry. Nonetheless, the Clairol ad is a good example of how creativity does not have to be sexist, if at all.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 1 Oct 2003