I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Ringing of the Surreal Cash Till: David Lynch's Commercials

by David Selden
Aug. 25, 2017

It’s one of Hollywood’s worst kept secrets that A (and B) -list celebrities in search of another payday could always sneak off to Japan or Europe to shill products they wouldn’t be seen dead endorsing in America. Arnie’s enthusiastic efforts on behalf of the energy drink, "Vfuyy" and Sly’s insatiable appetite for Ito Ham are internet memes well past their respective sell-by dates, but they are but two examples in a roll call of unlikely but highly lucrative commercial partnershipsi.

In 2003 Sophia Coppolla’s Lost in Translation featured Bill Murray as an over the hill actor adrift in Tokyo while making a TV spot for Suntory Whisky. The inspiration for the film came from her own father’s appearance (along with Kurosawa) in a television commercial for the brand, which had previously featured Sean Connery in its ads. This film, along with the internet’s inability to let sleeping dogs lie, meant that the “secret” was well and truly out. Coppolla herself would go on to direct a commercial for Dior in 2008. ii

These days, when John Lydon is as synonymous with margarine as he once was with anarchy in the UK, it is hardly surprising to find credibility traded for its cash equivalent. The tragedy of Orson Welles slurring his way through commercials for Paul Masson Champagne or Findus frozen peas barley elicits a shrug of disinterest -- after all the bills have to be paid somehow. Nonetheless, the Japanese in particular seem to have a penchant for unusual celebrity endorsements, with Warhol’s deadpan efforts on behalf of Burger King and Joseph Beuys commercial for Super Whisky springing to mind.

Of course it is not just actors and celebrities that have been cashing in. Many well-known directors have a lucrative sideline directing commercials. Alan Parker (Cinzano), Ridley Scott (Apple), Michael Bay (Victoria’s Secret) and Tony Kaye (British Airways) all cut their teeth in the advertising industry, and indeed Ridley and Tony Scott founded the advertising production company RSA Films in 1967 and its Top Dog division specializes in recruiting name directors.iii

It is not just “mainstream” film makers who are in on the action. Woody Allen (Telecom Italia), Wes Anderson (American Express), Kenneth Anger (Missoni), Darren Aronofsky (Revlon), Harmony Korinne (Liberty Mutual) and Errol Morris (Miller High Life) are just a few of the somewhat more unlikely directors to have dabbled in advertising. In this light, David Lynch’s involvement with commercials seems far less surprising, though the extent of his client list (which includes Armani, JC Decaux, Playstation 2, Clear Blue Easy, the SciFi Channel, Adidas, Barilla, Alka Seltzer, Georgia Coffee, Dior and Nissan) perhaps is.iv

What then are we to make of Lynch’s commercials? His advertising career kicked off two years after Blue Velvet in 1988 with a series of films for Calvin Klein’s Obsession (a fragrance apparently irresistible to big catsv) which featured enigmatic quotes from F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, D.H Lawrence and Flaubert and starred Benicio del Toro and Heather Graham, along with Lara Flynn Boyle. The ads were shot by Philippe Dixon and Frederick Elmes but the enigmatic aura with which the brand liked to surround itself had been established from the outset in 1985 when the perfume was launched with a series of commercials shot by Bruce Weber and Richard Avedon vi.

Following the scent of easy money, Lynch went on to direct perfume ads for Yves St Laurent (Opium), Armani (Gio), Karl Lagerfeld (Sun Moon Stars), Jill Sanders (Instinct of Life) and Gucci. Despite the occasional subversive moment, the word “BACKGROUND” appearing over a sunset in his ad for Sanders recalling Ed Ruscha’s paintings, the strobing edits in the Gucci spot, the overwhelming impression is one of expensively photographed clichés with a frisson of his signature gothic thrown in for good measure.

In 1993, Kyle MacLachlan the opportunity to reprise his role as Agent Cooper, the famous caffeine addict (“even a bad cup of coffee is better than no coffee at all.” vii). His Japanese TV spots for Georgia Coffee gave him the opportunity consume many a “damn fine cup of coffee” in a lazy parody of Twin Peaks which saw many of the original cast reunited. The client was unimpressed and of a projected series of eight commercials only four were made.

The ads for Clear Blue Easy (1997), a pregnancy testing kit, were storyboarded by Ogilvy and Mather and starred Marisa Parker. According to Entertainment Weekly the mischievous director made the actress take the test and swapped her results with those of a pregnant crew member. Writing in Details, Martha P. Nochimson saw “a subtle lesson in the distinctions between stories that elevate the human spirit and one's that merely sell products.”viii Others perhaps heard only the ringing of the cash till.

Of greater interest is the director’s work for Parisienne Cigarettes made for Swiss cinemas in 1999. Parisienne had previously commissioned films from Robert Altman, Emir Kusturica, the Coen Brothers and Jean-Luc Godard, and Lynch’s film is genuinely disquieting. Spots for Playstation 2 (2000) which invited the viewer to a mysterious “Third place”, deployed a range of nightmarish Lynchian tropes and allowed the director to experiment with anthropomorphic CGI to great effect.

In 2010 Lynch directed Lady Blue Shanghai for Dior. This 16 minute short film was one of a series starring Marion Cotillard and was preceded by Lady Noire, directed by Olivier Dahane and Lady Rouge, directed by Jonas Akerlund ix. A strange encounter with a haunted handbag in a Shanghai hotel room allows the director to indulge himself in an extended bout of romantic déjà vu. The short film culminates in the discovery of a blue rose, a symbol Lynch previously used in Twin Peaks; Fire Walk With Me (1992), which itself is a reference to the blue rose of forgetfulness that appeared in Korda’s Thief of Baghdad (1940). Whilst Lady Blue Shanghai is a more engaging experience than many of the directors other commercials it is hard to avoid the sense of a director only too willing to sacrifice narrative coherence for atmosphere and endlessly recycle vague pseudo-existential imagery in what can only be described as self-parody. Then again, perhaps that is what he was getting paid for.

i http://www.japander.com/japander/index.htm

ii Lost In Translation, Sophia Coppola 2003


iii Get ready to buy a car from a star. Belinda Archer, The Guardian, 5 Feb 2001.


iv David Lynch’s commercials. City of Absurdity


v Big Cats Obsess Over Calvin Klein's 'Obsession for Men'. Ellen Byron, WSJ June 8 2010

vii David Lynch: Czar of Bizarre. Time Magazine Oct 1, 1990


viii Public Lynching. Deconstructing David Lynch's New TV Spot

Martha P. Nochimson.
Details, October 1997


ix David Lynch’s new film for Christian Dior. Nicola Copping May 14 2010 FT.com

After a long international career exhibiting video installation and photography, David Selden renounced the art world in favor of the far less superficial drag scene and became intimately involved with a number of notorious London fetish clubs. ‘Retiring’ to Berlin in 2007 having run out of pseudonyms, he has written about music for Dorfdisco and about art for Whitehot Magazine as well as contributing numerous catalogue essays and translations for a variety of publications and websites. His misadventures in the world of anti-music can be endured at affeprotokoll.tumblr.com