Barbara Lippert’s Critique: A Whole Lotta Sniffin’

Ever notice how much sniffing has been going on in advertising? I don’t mean the nose-to-the-heavens, upward-shoulders, smiley deep breaths of the 1950s, but something more on the level of trans-species snout action: covert, nonstop, nostrils-buried, just-this-side-of-fetishistic inhalation.

An early entrant to this year’s advertising sniff film festival was a PG-13-rated spot for McDonald’s in which a husband inadvertently puts a McD’s french fries wrapper in the dryer instead of fabric softener. Later, he can’t help but be aroused by the alluring vegetable-oil (no more animal fat) scent of his wife’s blouse.

Next, Burger King upped the ante to R with its entry: A short, stocky office guy in a sweater vest spots a discarded BK wrapper on a female colleague’s desk. He picks it up nonchalantly and takes a whiff; within seconds he’s got the wrapper covering his face like a mask and is inhaling deeply. “What are you doing?” the co-worker asks as she catches him in the act. “Are you sniffing my wrapper?” He hangs his head and says, “Yeah, right. No!” She responds to the now-outed (and obviously humiliated) not-so-secret sniffer, “It’s not cool!”

(In the pantheon of pervert-weirdo sniffers, no one holds a candle to Dennis Hopper, who perfected the act as the monstrous, nitrous-oxide-sucking kidnapper in Blue Velvet and went on to reprise the role as renegade football ref Stanley Craver in Nike spots. “I have smelled the shoes!” he cries.)

One reason for all the sniffin’ could be that with the proliferation, and parity, of products, marketers now need consumers to develop a sort of primal bond with the brand—wanting to eat, drink and literally sniff it. Advertising has always used the power of smell, of course, but from the ’50s through the ’70s at least, it was the fear of odor that pervaded ad messages, especially detergent messages. Mom might make a face at Dad’s stinky socks—if she can’t get rid of him, she can at least destroy his smell. The point was obliterating the offense rather than lolling in the result.

By now advertising has exploited every other sense—could smell be the last frontier? Certainly, it can be visual and wordless, and as Proust proved, evokes memory. Perfume commercials are obviously all about triggering such power, but only Axe deodorant has taken the effect of heavy comic sniffing to, can we say, European extremes.

So kudos to P&G for finding a sophisticated way to go olfactory direct in this Gain commercial. It’s a breakthrough for the category, as not only are there no blood or grass stains in sight, but neither are there a washer and dryer. Instead, we get a freshly washed dress, a little white slip of a thing, very pure and virginal. Left alone with it while his girlfriend is on vacation, our guy Adam is seen conversing, napping and eating with it in his happening modernist apartment, complete with suggestive, hole-in-the-avocado art.

The music is great: a remix of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” which covers in a delightful, comic way all the possible weirdness of the acts shown. Indeed, in quick and funny cuts, our heart-is-a-lonely-sniffer guy finally places the dress on a life-size cutout of a bare-chested, sweaty Sly Stallone as Rocky, taking it in his arms and dancing with it.

Here, smell becomes an obsession, something so powerful that Adam doesn’t stop following the nose trail. It’s pretty kinky for P&G, and also pretty funny. The only person so closely associated with smell and unrequited amour previous to this, I believe, was Monsieur Pepé Le Pew. Still, it’s not as though we’re getting in touch with our earthy sides, as was the case with outcropping of scents like musk and patchouli back in the ’70s—it’s more getting in touch with the highly industrial, manufactured scents that give us almost drunken pleasure. Something from childhood perhaps, Adam? Your personal madeleine?

It’s a legitimate way to go, because the strategy comes from something real: a growing number of laundry-doers are apparently fanatical about the eau du Gain and have posted letters to the Web site (, confessing as much. The spot evolved from a letter from a guy who told about his gal giving him her dress, recently washed in Gain, before going away and leaving him with two weeks of happy smelling.

By the end of the spot, we see that Adam’s inamorata has returned—she stands outside his apartment building, looking up at his window, and sees the unfortunate dances-with-Rocky moment in shadow. We watch her watch him (two levels of voyeurism) as the narrator says, “Adam, yeah, I hope your relationship lasts as long as the fresh scent of Gain.” (The only clue that the spot comes from Canada, by the way, is the way he says “yah.”)

It’s a fresh idea, nicely executed. The spot even motivates the viewer to buy the stuff, if only to figure out just how “dirty” clean can get.

gain laundry detergent


leo burnett, toronto

Creative director

Heather Chambers

Art director

Frank Lepre


Tony Lee


Rob Tunnicliff


Clay Williams/ NewNewFilms, Toronto, and MortonJankelZander, los angeles