How do you advertise luxury, aspirational products in China, which is moving to ban exactly that kind of advertising? By exploiting Marxism. Look closely:
You watch this droning, anodyne, short-film-length commercial, and your reaction, like many Westerners and Americans, is that the ad stinks. It’s too long, and the message isn’t clear. We’re used to ads that rely on the product as a object that enables a fantasy in which the consumer gets or achieves something they lack. This ad doesn’t appear to do it nearly as well as any of the myriad of jewelry and fashion ads we’ve seen do.
But recall the Chinese government’s position on advertising. Starting with outdoor advertising, China is moving to ban luxury and aspirational advertising that promotes what they call a “foreign” lifestyle that highlights the gap between rich and poor, and that establishes wealth as an objective in and of itself.
So that political backdrop casts ad in an entirely different light. Yes, by western standards the ad sucks, but that’s because these are kinds of watch ads we are used to seeing:
But these are precisely the kinds of ads that China doesn’t want. So how do you sell a product like this into a culture that is actively trying to ban the conventional way of selling them?
You make a long-form commercial superficially espousing “traditional values” of familiy, community, honor, and respect. But you also include some over Marxism. If consumerism alienates the consumer from the laborer who created the product, this ad tries to subvert commodity fetishism and shows the consumer exactly where the product comes from, and who the workers are who made it. Beginning at around the 5:30 mark, we are shown the a tour of the Montblanc factory where smiling workers (“artists”) construct each watch by hand.
Secondly, now that you’ve given the dignity of labor its time in the spotlight, you, the seller of grossly overprices luxury status symbols, redefine “luxury watch” as “art”. In fact, the Montblanc worker states baldly “the watch is really a piece of art” and “a masterpiece”. But in redefining it as art, it re-establishes the fetish that the tour through the factory undermined! We know from earlier in the ad that the woman, the object of his love and the means by which he can “satisfy” his parents, is interested in art, and it is her admiration of a painting of the Montblanc building that leads them to Switzerland in the first place. So giving her the watch is really giving her a gift of a work of art, because she will appreciate it. All the other accoutrements of wealth shown in this ad–the large home, the Mercedes convertible, the private jet–are not just playthings of the rich as they are in Western advertisements, they serve the narrative purpose as the tools he uses to win her back. These non-advertised luxuries take on a utilitarian function, and the one advertised luxury, the watch, is explicitly elevated outside the consumer space to the level of artwork.
But feminists out there will see right away that the message of this Montblanc commercial is still exactly the same as the the Patek Phillipe ads above. The girl is still a prize, an object that can be acquired. The only real difference between them is narrative efficiency.
And this is how it must be in advertising. That is the power of the commodity-as-fetish. This watch has a magic power. If you buy this watch, you will get something you really want but can’t get otherwise, and it’s got nothing to do with telling time.