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Ads that made history: No. 5 The Film by Chanel

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Nicole Kidman and Film Director Baz Luhrmann have always had their own “thing.” By good Baz’s own admittance in an old Vanity Fair interview, him and the movie star have worked together since they were much younger and there has always been that kind of unspoken harmony in how they work together. Make of that what you may.

One only need look at Moulin Rouge!, one of my most dear and personal favourites from the early 2000s’ cinema, to see how beautifully Baz’s direction resonates with one of the finest actresses of her generation. So when Chanel needed a new piece of branded content to advertise their historical and signature fragrance No. 5, Baz Luhrmann was called on board – and Nicole Kidman followed.

The result was a visually spectacular, captivating and compelling ad – a short film with monumental budget and destined to become a symbol of luxury from the years preceding the global financial crash.

The most expensive ad ever made (so far)

In 2004, Chanel poured a gargantuan $33m (about £18m) into 180 seconds worth of commercial to advertise Chanel No. 5. That is exactly 3 minutes of runtime, which had to include 60 seconds of credits on screen. Almost two decades later, in an era when marketing spend is forecasted to reach all-time highs, it is still the most expensive ad ever made, distancing its closer runner-up by double the budget. The second most-expensive ads of all time, namely Guinness’ Tipping Point and a few Google and Alexa Super Bowl ads, sit comfortably at around $16m each – half of the Chanel commercial.

Reasons vary of course. 180 seconds of runtime are a rather long window for TV, and that certainly played a huge part in the overall costs of the ad. But starring Nicole Kidman (who was reportedly paid $3m for the ad) and Rodrigo Santoro (Westworld) was just as relevant, as well as enlisting the help of an award-winning director such as Baz Luhrmann. To put things into perspective, Nicole Kidman was paid the entire budget of Trainspottingfrom 1995.

Throwing money at the problem

Chanel had a rather troublesome if not common problem from the modern brandscape: a serious issue with the No. 5 positioning. The perfume had lost its halo of exclusivity and premium, having become a widely available fragrance and often used “for mistresses and grandmas.” Pulling a Marlboro-man-style approach, Chanel wanted to relaunch its flagship product in the lifestyle scene and make it feel more premium. 

Their choice was to, interestingly, throw a bucketload of money at the problem. They financed the No. 5 Film ad, which became an event in and of itself, with teaser ads and trailers generating hype in consumers and around the industry. The result was a short film with voice-over and no dialogue, visually striking and making heavy use of CGI and bespoke sets, focused around a successful woman and the ever-so-alluring charm of forbidden love.

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Stories of Forlorn Love

It was most certainly less of an ad and more of a short film, with costumes designed by Karl Lagerfield and music by Debussy. The film featured an actual plot, which could be described as a tribute to Moulin Rouge! and yet another attempt of Baz Luhrmann at filming romance on screen.

Outside of Moulin Rouge!, the influence of Roman Holiday on the plot of the ad was later confirmed by Baz Luhrmann himself. The short film features an actress, played by Nicole Kidman, who has a fling with a man met in a taxi cab. The unnamed actress is later forced to return to her glamorous life, leaving the man behind with nothing but a memory of something so ethereal and intangible he will be able to remember it for the rest of his days: her perfume.

The ad itself is a masterpiece of storytelling and advertising. Despite the rather simple plot, it is beautifully shot and narrated, and the final reveal is likely the culprit of such widespread love for this ad. As Chanel is a private company, we unfortunately do not have data that can confirm this ad was widely successful, but we do know that it kickstarted an era where ads (in the luxury world and outside) became increasingly abstract over the years.

Leaving a mark

Those working in the luxury sector will know perfectly well that you cannot broadcast a scent (yet?). For this reason, all sorts of creative approaches have been adopted to advertise perfumes and fragrances, from the right use of words to psychology and surreal imagery. If you ever wondered why perfume ads look so strange or why car adverts all focus on a sense of freedom and comfort, you now know why.

The visionary production of Baz Luhrmann set the Chanel No. 5 Film quite apart from the rest of the competition. Abstract became actual, hints became plot and beautiful characters. Every woman had to desire to be like Nicole Kidman in that ad: successful, free, powerful, in control. Chanel associated that ideal to the No. 5 fragrance, without even showing one bottle of perfume in the whole film. By selling a lifestyle, the brand was indirectly selling its signature product.

In 2014, exactly a decade later, Chanel released a sequel to the film, still directed by Baz Luhrmann but this time starring one of the highest paid models of the time – Gisele Bündchen. The brand did not share figures on the budget this time, but it is likely that the new three-minute film was rather expensive.

It is natural that, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and with a global social crisis still ongoing, thinking back on the Chanel No. 5 Film ads evokes feelings of opulence and unnecessary spend, regardless of the results achieved by the brand. $33m are a huge sum, and it’s likely there is a reason why most brands and advertisers don’t aim that high. It begs the question: what is the future of luxury brands in the new normal? Will they ever change their ways, or is excess the only way to convey premium and exclusivity?

Perhaps it is. Luxury brands have been throwing money at problems for a rather long time now. But we must not forget what truly lies at the hear of the No. 5 the Film ad: a beautiful story of a man and a woman, falling in love and moving through life, like all humans do. That, I believe, is what touched the consumers way more than a truckload of dollars in budget spend.

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