Flip open the latest issue of Vogue and perhaps there you’ll see her: a woman in a leopard-print bathing suit and heels dangling a purse over what appears to be a lifeless male body floating face-up in a pool. In striking capital letters, written across the image: JIMMY CHOO. What the heck is going on there?
This would be a standout example of a grotesque ad, the subject of a study co-authored by Ed McQuarrie in the October 2010 edition of the Journal of Consumer Research. “This is not pretty girl getting out of fancy car in front of posh night club,” says McQuarrie, a professor of marketing at the Leavey School of Business. “The grotesque is not pretty. It’s a little bit more charged,” he says.
For the study, 18 women ages 30 to 52 (the target demographic for fashion glossies) were interviewed. The grotesque ads grabbed their attention and caused them to linger over ads—even critique them as works of art: light, color, and texture.
McQuarrie and co-author Barbara J. Phillips of the University of Saskatchewan borrowed the term “grotesque” from aesthetic literature. Think Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, which persuades the reader to be both disgusted by and empathic toward the grotesque Quasimodo.
The same sort of reaction is elicited by grotesque advertising, which represents about 25 percent of fashion ads in Vogue and other such mags. Without words, the ads encourage viewers to consider the scene and imagine a story unfolding—what McQuarrie calls “narrative transportation.”
“There’s a potential for alteration of how you experience a brand,” McQuarrie says of the grotesque. Indeed. Witness the grotesque in a Dolce & Gabbana handbag ad featuring two women in French period costume, one about to stab the other’s neck with a metal skewer. “You do not see the grotesque in Good Houskeeping,” McQuarrie notes. “Tide detergent does not advertise this way.”
Is this emergence of the grotesque ad a positive thing? McQuarrie says yes. “The viewer gets to do more,” he says. A more creative mental process comes into play in considering the original and bizarre. Which, in turn, might seduce us into buying the product, after all.