It’s been widely lambasted as one of the most “bizarre” ads in recent history. Kim Kardashian, dressed as Audrey Hepburn, rides a bicycle with a basket full of Hype energy drinks. The bike topples. Cans of Hype roll. And a knocked-out Kardashian has a dream in which she becomes another historical fashion icon, the soon-to-be-beheaded Queen Marie Antoinette. She takes a sip of Hype from a crystal goblet, and wakes up as Audrey Hepburn again.
Strange as it might seem, this commercial is just the latest in an ongoing advertising trend that wistfully evokes the opulence of the ancien régime of the deposed French Bourbon monarchy, and it speaks to more than just marketing. Economists have made much of the fact that income inequality is at a level not seen since 1789, on the eve of the French Revolution. On September 4, 2013, Forbes asked in all seriousness: “Could America’s Wealth Gap Lead to a Revolt?” And the wealth gap isn’t just an American phenomenon. By the most recent estimates, one percent of the world’s population holds half of its wealth. Today, when the media throw around terms like domestic terrorism, redistribution of wealth, or the 99 percent, they’re using the language of the French Revolution.
But that language can also be visual. Over the past few years, French Revolution-inspired imagery has crept into ads for products as diverse as breakfast cereal, perfume, airlines, and, now, energy drinks. Though usually tempered by humor, these images play on fears as much as fantasies, alternately inviting consumers to identify with the angry peasants and the pampered aristocrats. The result is often advertisements that fetishize luxury and royalty, while also playing up the spirit of rebellion.