Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Smile or Grimace?

In the 1980s the Newport cigarette company ran a series of magazine ads showing women and men interacting. The tag line was “Alive with pleasure! After all, if smoking isn’t a pleasure, why bother?”

One ad showed a man and a woman embracing while squeezing giant, long balloons between them.

The ad campaign continued with a woman squirting her boyfriend with a drinking fountain, spraying him with a boda bag, and a holding an icycle up to his mouth.

The Freudian overtones are pretty obvious now that two decades have given us a little more objectivity.

But what is even more interesting are the facial expressions. Are those really smiles of pleasure, or something else?

Primate social behavior expert Jane Goodall has said, “The chimpanzee's smile so often seen on TV is actually a grin of fear.” Monkeys and apes pull their lips back from their teeth in social situations to show extreme discomfort.

Sometimes the primate smile has an aggressive side. Diane Fossey, who studied gorillas, said, "The primate grimace known as the threat face tells an aggressor to back off."

Humans have two kinds of smiles. One is the genuine smile of pleasure. The other is the nervous grin. It’s the uncomfortable smile that we see at cocktail parties or in conference rooms when people are unsure of their social position.

Anthropologists call it the “deferential grimace.” It’s often accompanied by a squinting of the eyes.

Above is a painting by contemporary Chinese artist Yue Minjun. Time Magazine describes the expression in Mr. Minjun’s work in this way: “a laugh that isn't entirely funny; an exuberance shadowed by deep unease.”

The Newport ad campaign affects us on two simultaneous and conflicting emotional tracks. The conscious track tells us that these are happy people having fun together. The unconscious track, which the conscious mind easily dismisses, awakens uncomfortable feelings of role reversal, alienation, or jealousy.

The conscious tag line is “Newport: alive with pleasure!” But the unconscious line should read: “Newport: fraught with social anxiety!”

But why does it sell cigarettes?
A study suggesting that Americans and Brits use slightly different muscles when expressing the deferential grimace, link.


June said...

Your blog is so amazing! I don't know how you find time to do all the things you do, but I sure appreciate the things I am learning here.

Erik Bongers said...

Very funny rabbit trail!
My god, why is it that these sexual connotations are so much more obvious now? Have we 'learned' to critically interpret ads better?
They seem too 'easy', at the insulting level - at the 'whiter washing powder' level.

What makes me feel comfortable is that we can no longer be fooled by this types of over-obvious connotations (unless deliberate of course).

What makes me feel uncomfortable is that it is beyond any doubt that in 30/40 years from now we will feel exactly the same embarresment about some contempory ads that raise no eyebrows today.
So what are our current naiveties?
We don't know yet, do we?

Billy Guffey said...

"Why does it sell cigarettes?"

Maybe it's the fear of quitting.

Larry said...

A look in the mirror confirmed, I have a prototypical "American Smile" exposing the upper but not the lower teeth. Not sure what to make of it though. With rampant unemployment, foreclosures, deficits, and patrician bickering, I guess I won't look like I'm grimacing....but I am.


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Richard said...

Paul Ekman is the psychologist whose distinguished career is about facial expression and Gary Faigin wrote a good book for the artist about it. (both have books on Amazon). The problem for the artists is that asking someone to model for you with a particular expression almost never gets the real thing. Smiling requires not only lip movement but eyes to wrinkle at the edges but with the eyes wide open and focused not squinting as in your examples.

~ Rebecca Harbison said...


I have a mild autistic spectrum disorder (Asperger's Syndrome). One of the classic signs is missing social cues. And, it's hard in your examples for me to see the difference between the grimace and the smile because the context tells me 'smile'.

I have also been told that I have that problem in photos -- I always look like I have a 'fake' smile on.

Anonymous said...

Every cylindrical object is a phallic symbol? Other than smoking, are not all of these behaviors that innocent children might engage in? Maybe the awkward looking expressions are simply the result of the models trying to conjure up emotions and reactions that the shoot requires? It seems to me that this blog is being ever more influenced by academic liberalism, and its disappointing.

Dan Gurney said...

What about the smile of the Buddha or Mona Lisa, a half smile, maybe, one showing no teeth?

A different smile altogether?

James Gurney said...

Mr. Kinder, yes, maybe that's a third kind of smile, the inward spiritual enigmatic smile that you would see in Raphael's Madonnas.

Etc, Etc: I'm actually fairly resistant to interpreting the world in Freudian terms. But this isn't the world we're looking at; it's a carefully-planned ad campaign. I think it's self-evident that the imagery of campaign was created in Freudian terms. It's easy to dismiss if you just look at one ad, but if you look at a lot of them, the symbolism is kind of blatant. Each cigarette company had a definite theme, and not all of them were Freudian.

Erik, you have posed a very thoughtful question, worth pondering a while.

Unknown said...

Mmmm, I can't think of a better combination that watermelons and cigarettes. What a strange campaign. Almost as obscure as GM's EV1 campaign in the 90's.

Moai said...

The balloons even have veins, for Pete's sake.
Very interesting post, James.

Matt said...

In a great episode of the X-Files, Peter Boyle plays a man who sees things in the future, but doesn't understand their significance. At one point, while Mulder is trying to push a car out of the mud, and getting that mud all over him, Mulder says to Boyle "What are you smiling at?", Boyle says "I'm not smiling, I'm grimacing". This is because he sees a hand attached to a dead man in that same mud.

r8r said...

I think that the fear-smiles, in the context of the ads shown, sell tobacco for this reason: because the ad is being aimed at people who fear being left out of the group.

The ads imply that smoking will make one part of the in-crowd, and the fear-smile is shown on one of the faces to link the group to viewers who desperately want to be a part of it.

People who are already 'secure', either alone or as part of an in-crowd, wouldn't necessarily be affected by the ad.

(I think you could also call that grin a pain-smile. Don't we all know people whose first reaction, when something bad happens to them, is nervous laughter?)

r8r said...

" is beyond any doubt that in 30/40 years from now we will feel exactly the same embarrassment about some contemporary ads that raise no eyebrows today."


My prediction for future cringe-inducing-ness: ads that show meat sizzling on a griddle.

What's your prediction?


Meghan Jean said...

"Why does it sell cigarettes?"

Without trying to over-analyze, maybe the idea spawned from the already long-established relationship between sex and cigarettes.

Was a post-coitus (can I say that on here?) smoke more socially prevalent at that time? Maybe as such, this ad was somehow more relevant, or subversive. Now, these just seem comical/borderline inappropriate, ha!

Meghan Jean said...

And frankly, if I were a model in that shoot, I'd be "grimacing" too.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Fascinating--I really enjoyed this one. You always draw such interesting connections. The "aggression smile" or awkwardness smile is an interesting way to interpret these ads--brings to mind the idea of primate (well, chimp; not bonobo) sexual competition, especially in light of the other imagery. :D