Did Brad Pitt sell more Chanel?

October 16, 2013  |  Alicia Androich  |  Comments

A look back at the headline-grabbing No. 5 TV spot

It was the ad that launched a thousand spoofs.

Last fall’s notorious black-and-white “There you are” commercial for Chanel No.5 features a soulful Brad Pitt, alone in a room with nothing but his existential thoughts. In a throaty voice, his gaze drifting aimlessly, he offers up such meaningful lines as “The world turns and we turn with it.”

It was the first time the legendary luxury brand used a man to endorse its famed Chanel No.5. The question is: did the idea work? Was using a man to sell women’s perfume a wise choice for the French fashion house synonymous with quilted handbags, tweed suits and, of course, its No.5 fragrance?

Chanel’s CEO, Maureen Chiquet, said at the time that Pitt was the obvious choice for the campaign, which also appeared in print and on billboards. As she put it, “No.5 is the most iconic fragrance of our time, and Brad Pitt is the most iconic actor of our time.”

You can’t blame Pitt for signing onto the campaign. When fashion visionary and Chanel creative director Karl Lagerfeld calls you to appear in a perfume campaign (presumably dialing with a finger encased in an impossibly elaborate ring), you say yes. Even if the brand has never used a man to sell women’s perfume before – and perhaps even because of it. (Of course the pay – reportedly $7 million – may have helped Pitt’s decision, too.)

While Chanel keeps mum about its sales figures, the campaign seems to have helped boost sales at the end of last year. Senior beauty buyers reported that in the lead-up to Christmas more men were coming into department stores looking to buy classic Chanel fragrances – both Chanel No.5 for the women in their lives and men’s fragrances for themselves. The director of beauty buying at U.K. department store House of Fraser said the Pitt commercial “has changed perceptions amongst men of the brand as a whole.”

Lagerfeld called the concept of a male appearing in a female fragrance ad “beyond a commercial idea. It’s a new statement.” He went on to say that the perfume industry has already used women and celebrities to sell its wares, “so I think the newest idea Chanel could have was to take a man.” But no ordinary man would do. Lagerfeld said it had to be “the most famous and…sexiest man in the world.”

With more than 8 million views on Chanel’s YouTube channel alone, Mr. Pitt’s poetic commercial wasn’t an outright flop. The second video installment of the campaign, also directed by film director Joe Wright, is called “Wherever I go” and focuses more on shots of female models; Pitt only appears twice and narrates using the same script from the first video. It earned an additional 5 million-plus YouTube views.

And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Chanel’s executives must have been blushing. A lot. The torrent of spoofs came fast and furious, with everyone from Conan O’Brien to The Daily Buzz getting in on the action. Saturday Night Live did an especially popular parody of the spot, which featured cast member Taran Killam impersonating Pitt, muttering things like “You want me to sound less coherent. Really?”

One much-parodied campaign isn’t going to permanently mar a beloved product that’s been around since 1921. In 2012, Chanel reached more than US$44 million in retail value sales in Canada, and nearly US$1.8 billion globally, according to Euromonitor International. With executives that aren’t afraid to stand out from competitors by casting a man to sell perfume, its continued success seems—to quote a line from Pitt’s commercials – “inevitable.”

The Oct. 21 issue of Marketing is the Gender Issue, exploring how gender roles are shifting among Canadian consumers. It’s available on newsstands now, and subscribers can expect it in their mailboxes this week (though if they’re smart, they’ve already read it on their iPad).

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