Did I Just See What I Think I Saw?

In a 2008 Huffington Post op-ed, Alex Leo identified five sexist trends that advertisers continue to use ad nauseum. She categorized these trends as “bondage, rape, sluts, girl-on-girl action, and cum shots.” Yes, they’re pretty descriptive terms, but they get to the point. Mainstream culture’s acceptance of sex in advertising has normalized these trends, so some ads merely get labeled as edgy while others remain undetectable for the most part. The downright pornographic ads such as the ones by Tom Ford and American Apparel below are obvious in their sexual content, and Leo’s “slut” category applies quite well.

However, the application of these categories might be considered more questionable if an ad’s sexual content is hidden in plain sight.

The ads I discuss below could be included in the categories “sluts” and “cum shots,” but their sexual references are presented much more subtly so as to be barely noticeable. How can one sell a coffee maker and a pair of glasses using these categories? After all, these aren’t items typically associated with sexism and/or pornography. That’s easy to answer! Make the viewer feel naughty for “getting it,” for being sophisticated enough to pick up on the sexual innuendo and pornographic visual references. Nestle’s Nespresso commercial and Pearle Vision do just that. Or am I the only one who noticed these things?


Nestle’s espresso machine uses sexual fantasy and pornographic visual references to sell its newly released coffee capsules and coffee machines in a 30-second spot created by the Martin Agency. When the commercial first begins, a woman narrates as the camera pans across a wall filled with artsy pictures that replicate the environment of a small independently owned coffee shop. In the background sits a bookcase, further adding to any confusion over the location.

Next, the camera closes in on a table that holds two coffee cups, a glass, a vase with flowers whose stems are all that remain visible, and a sugar server. At 6 seconds into the commercial, a quick close-up of a woman’s face interrupts our glance around the room. She glances at us as if we are sitting next to her.

How do I know there is another person in the room? That second coffee cup that the camera quickly panned over at the beginning of the ad suggests that she is not alone. If she’s not alone, then who is she looking at so seductively with her lips slightly parted like that? Is it a man? Is it a woman? Who is she waking up with? And who gave her those flowers?

At this point, the ad begins to switch back-and-forth between images of the woman and then of the coffee. At 7 seconds we see her use the espresso machine and coffee capsules. It’s almost as if we are sitting in the kitchen, watching her, and she knows she is the object of our gaze. We watch as she lifts a capsule out of the container and puts it into the machine.

At 16 seconds, we see a close-up image of coffee coming out of the machine and into a cup.

This is our first glance at the actual cup of coffee. This is what Nestle’s wants us to crave. Their job is to instill us with enough desire that we purchase the machine and the coffee. But these are only part of the fantasy. This is a teaser. We are only offered a one-second glimpse of the caramel-colored coffee as it lands into the foamy white head that has settled on top.

At 17 seconds, an extreme close-up of the woman’s lips and nose appears. Is she looking at the coffee or at us? She wants something, but what is it? Her lips are slightly pursed. She wants it. She wants it bad. But what is it she wants? Us or the coffee?

We look back at her. If the ad is appealing to us in the way it is intended to, then we want either her or the coffee or both. We just spent the night with her, right? We just woke up with her. Now she is making us coffee, looking seductive while engaging in a mundane act. She is there to serve us. She knows we are watching her, and she likes it. That’s what her lips tell me anyway.

At 18 seconds another close-up of the coffee, but this time the cup is transparent, and we get an image of what lies beneath–a rich, dark, brown liquid with a white foamy head.

At 20 seconds another close-up of her neck from the side. A drop of sweat rolls down and meets up with her necklace. Why is she sweating?

The image of sweat with a necklace brings to mind a “pearl necklace,” something that one website describes as “a physical reminder of a fleeting moment of pleasure.”

The picture below is a necklace made to accurately represent semen. I see a connection between these two images and what they both suggest.

At 22 seconds the woman walks away from the camera, and we see her entire body wrapped in a towel. Did she just shower? Was that sweat or a drop of water that just rolled down her neck? The towel suggests a shower, but for me, it suggests something else.

The commercial ends with a final close-up of the woman. She is looking at us again, before she sips her coffee. She has a satisfied and seductive look on her face. The commercial’s voice-over says, ““I found the best cafe in the world, Nespresso, where there’s a grand cru to match my every mood, where just one touch creates the perfect cup, where no one makes a better cappuccino, latte or espresso than me, and where clothing is optional” (italics mine). Her words are even suggestive: “mood,” “just one touch,” no one does it better than me, and the possibility for bare flesh. Whew! That was some coffee ad!

The increase in sales of single-serve coffee makers has been remarkable, and Nestle’s ad introduced its machine and coffee capsules before its competition could. But is Nestle’s only selling its coffee machine and capsules, or is it offering us the chance to be the other person in the room, sharing an intimate moment with the woman in the commercial? Is the commercial tantalizing us with the promise of a sexual encounter?

Pearle Vision

Pearle Vision’s “naughty librarian” commercial also fulfills a sexual fantasy—role-playing. Why do you think so many women dress up as nurses, French maids, or kitty cats during Halloween? All of these costumes have been sexualized and allow for fantasizing and role-playing. The stories that go along with these costumes come straight from the pages of erotica or pornographic fiction.

Once again we have a young attractive woman looking us straight in the eye, but instead of making us coffee the morning after, she is making us promises of another kind. In a coquettish voice she scolds us,

“You have a lot of late fees, mister. Maybe someone should teach you to return your library books on time.”

Ooh! If I’m not reading this wrong, it sounds like there’s a promise of a spanking that comes with that scolding!

So is Pearle Vision being naughty and promoting BDSM? Are they sending a slight nod and a tip of the hat to fans of Fifty Shades of Grey, or why are they suggesting that we, the viewers, will be receiving some sort of punishment for not behaving, for not returning our library books on time?

Neither of these ads is explicitly sexual when compared to the more graphic images that appear in Tom Ford or American Apparel ads, for example, but both Nestle’s and Pearle Vision use erotic sexual fantasies, innuendo, and ironic humor to create sexual desire in the viewer. And, if these aren’t intended to elicit sexual desire, then I must have my mind in the gutter.

Whether or not sex really sells is not really my interest here, because we can be sure that we are being sold ideas about sex. I think the ideas we are being sold are more important than questions about whether the sexual content in ads is appropriate or not.

What are each of these ads teaching us about women, sex, sexuality, and power? What gender norms are they reinforcing?

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