Saturday, 20 June 2020

Ad capture (01) – E45 cream

This the first in a series of posts that are designed to take a detailed look at TV advertisements. I want to slow down the experience and pay attention to what is offered to view between programs on the small screen. This kind of content tends to be considered unimportant or ephemeral.

In what follows I focus mainly on the secondary messaging that operates in addition to the words used in the voiceover. Almost like subliminal or hidden messaging, in subtle ways video and audio content affects the conscious mind as it tries to make sense of adverts.

This 15-second ad – coming after a promotion for a Network Ten cooking show, and before an ad for an insurer and one for a non-dairy milk substitute – starts with a mix of low-key and dramatic elements. You see words rendered in 3D on a glossy background looking like a display window that you pass on a street in the retail district, or else a museum diorama – which are displays so beloved of children.

Prominent are the words, “What’s new?” They are set in a modern typeface, in red and white, looking like the masthead of a women’s magazine. This portmanteau brand has its own website and belongs to a company called Now Screen (based in the Sydney suburb of Woolloomooloo) which has been around for 16 years. "E45" is a brand of skin care products from Crookes Healthcare, a subsidiary of Reckitt Benckiser.

To grab your attention, in the ad the word “new” is red as is the question mark, and the words slowly rotate, as though on a turntable, spinning so that the right-hand side of the assemblage comes toward the viewer. Reassuringly, the words are placed in the bottom half of the screen, but not too close to the bottom: there is room for the phrase to stand comfortably in the available space. The placement and appearance of the words gives them realism, as though, instead of digitally enhanced imagery, you were looking at objects that, with perfect artifice, had been formed out of some ideal substance and put on a clever mechanism, a tribute to your own ingenuity.

A reflection of the letters is visible in the ground in front of the words, and a white light is set over the background, so as to give a feeling of depth to the field on the screen in front of you. You feel as though you are looking into a landscape, and within these confines sit the words you read, with their promise of something both reassuring and novel. You feel as though there will be no nasty surprises.

Then again, there’s the little matter of those three additional words, in smaller type: “In skin health.” Should you be worried? With this segment a soundtrack uses the same words (“what’s new?”) but, this time, sung by youthful female voices. The stress is on the end of the phrase, and the tone rises to finish the delivery, emphasising the feeling that the singing women are asking a question. The congruence of the written phrase and the audio track is reassuring, but the fact that the movement of the 3D phrase is from right to left tells you that you should pay attention; we are at the beginning of something, not at the end.

Along with the singers is a simple, unadorned instrumental accompaniment, as if someone were playing a piano. “If dry or flaky skin …” goes the voice of the narrator, “is causing you frustration or embarrassment, try E45 cream.” At the same time as these words are being beamed into your living room you see a brown-haired woman sitting down to have daytime refreshments with two friends (see image below). She’s wearing a yellow sweater and as she gets comfortable in her seat – not really though, as we shall see – she turns her right shoulder toward the woman who is talking (and who wears a disturbing, red T-shirt). Behind the woman with glossy, long, brown hair are three windows filled with light – reassuringly, the same light we saw in the opening sequence – and the curtains covering them are translucent, like the white glow behind the letters we saw at the outset. The colour white is a trigger for positive feelings, and is used in several of the segments.

The Asian woman, on the right-hand side of the table, also has short sleeves on her garment. On the table in front of the women are clean glasses and a plate, possibly containing salad. There is also a flat plate that looks as though it contains biscuits but none of the food is very noticeable. The pale arms of the two flanking women are prominent, however, and are bent at the wrists as they reach in, one after the other, to nab food. Contrarywise, the woman in the yellow sweater, who is in front of the viewer, has her arms crossed. She’s covering up her arms, which are anyway invisible because of the sleeves of her sweater, and she is looking downward, shamefaced as the segment ends.

The next frame shows the E45 cream – sitting in an artificial field like the one used for the opening sequence – in place of the words and the question mark we had seen before. The shot of the cream is quickly replaced by video showing a woman putting cream in a thick, white impasto on her left arm, and then smoothing it in with her right hand, presumably in order to make the cream disappear (see screenshot below). We are looking over her shoulder, in a way similar to how, in a daytime soap opera, one character can be shown talking to another. The face of this unidentified woman is hidden outside the edge of the frame, though we can see her jaw and neck. Because of the white straps over her shoulders we can also see part of a singlet or some other form of undergarment; both shoulders are visible in this carefully crafted shot.

In the background are what look like louvres, wooden shields set in a rotating mechanism. By manipulating a control you can swivel them horizontal to open them, or vertical to close them; here they are set at an angle of about 10 degrees off plumb, so that light seeps in modestly from outside, flushing the space with a glow. You normally see louvres covering windows in standalone houses (apartments don’t usually have them) and the feeling of this shot is light, but secluded, as though privacy were important for the woman applying cream to her arm. She might be the woman in the yellow sweater, but there’s no way to know by viewing this segment. White is also the dominant colour in this scene. 

Lengthy warnings are set in small print at the bottom of the screen but it is unlikely that you will have time to read them, unless you make a screenshot. Though over the top of this segment of the ad are easily visible other words: “Relieves dry skin in eczema & dermatitis.” They give the company making the cream and promoting it on our televisions leeway to use images and sound inventively while not, in a narrow sense, claiming that its product will overcome such conditions. The feint lies in the use of the preposition “in”. If a different word had been used – say, “from” or “of” – a dissatisfied customer, one who had used the product and had not had their dermatitis eliminated, might have grounds for complaint. 

Next we get an animation showing blue bubbles rising to hit a wavy barrier – meant to represent the surface of the dermis – and bouncing dramatically off, heading back into the (putative) interior of the arm (see screenshot below). The bubbles, which represent moisture, bounce around lazily, as though relieved of the need to exit the body, glad to stay within the woman’s arm, in safety (like in a museum diorama). 

In the top-left of this shot is the name of the product, in a capsule-shaped field. The product name looks like marketing material that is routinely made by pharmaceutical companies in order to promote their products. Providing continuity, in the bottom-right corner of the frame are the words “What’s new?” 

The repetition of the phrase is reassuring, and so is the fact that the critical top-right zone of the screen is left empty. This indicates that there is nothing in what is being shown that prevents a viewer from reaching a happy future. This segment of the ad underscores the implication that it can be dryness, and not a genetic trait or an allergy, that is the problem, though dermatologists will, in some cases, get people with a skin condition to use a moisturiser.

Approximately 10 percent of the population is atopic – meaning they are more liable to eczema, hay fever, and asthma – so this cohort (and people who are worried they might belong to it) is being targeted by the ad, which preys on viewers’ insecurities. 

Before the end of the ad – which will feature a stack of jars, much like what you see in a pharmacy’s display window or in a department store – you see three women walking on a street talking and laughing (see screenshot below). It’s possible that they are the same women we saw before though the only one I was sure about is the Asian woman. The woman on the left might be the same brown-haired woman as the one with the yellow sweater in the earlier segment but here, instead of looking unsure of herself, she is laughing animatedly and she is wearing a loose, pink, patterned print dress with short sleeves. 

She’s a different woman, but the street – with its pavement, vegetation, and its fences – looks like a regular suburban street; there is nothing unusual about the scene. The glamour of the opening shot, with its magazine-style letters, has happily disappeared and now everything is quite normal. 

“Feel comfortable in your skin. Switch to E45,” goes the narrator as the women are replaced by a stack of jars. The implication being that women always use some form of cream on their arms each day – so why not a medicated one that is good for you as well as being unobtrusive? By the end of the ad even the question has gone away, like the cream as it dissolved into the skin of the woman in the nice suburban house with her cosy bathroom and its louvres.

Despite the warnings in the red shirt of the woman in the opening sequence, the fine print, and the sense of doom that someone who lives with, say, psoriasis, might feel when confronted by the ad, it engages with received ideas and promotes a product in a way that makes the idea of using it – just a few dabs on your itchy patch in the evening before going to bed, or in the morning before getting dressed – seem easy and anxiety-free. 

Like the cream itself, the ad offers relief from a form of stress – looking different from the people around us can be challenging. And unlike the demanding regime perhaps necessitated if you consult a medical specialist, despite the fine print in this ad you’re reassured that you might have a common problem that, with E45 cream, can be simply fixed. 

No comments: