The Revolution Will Be Advertised

Why so many modern commercials are referencing Marie Antoinette and the Reign of Terror

An advertisement for Katy Perry's fragrance "Killer Queen" (Katy Perry)

It’s been widely lambasted as one of the most “bizarreads 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.

Sometimes this trend takes the form of gallows (or guillotine) humor. Take “Revolutionary Chocolatier,” a commercial for Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut Chocolate Cornflakes that aired in the U.K. in 2013. In it, an unruly mob of sans-culottes sporting tricolor cockades storms the shop of an elderly chocolatier, where two aristocrats cower beneath the floorboards. One of them can’t resist digging into a bowl of chocolate cereal so crunchy that it gives away their hiding place. The ad ends with the pair of them (and the traitorous chocolatier) being carted off to the guillotine; the blade even drops in shadow.

This wry reenactment of the Reign of Terror is an exception—in most cases, the one percent is depicted more sympathetically, particularly when represented by supermodels dolled up as Marie Antoinette. Gisele Bündchen wore pearls and a pink corset to channel the doomed queen in a 2012 commercial touting Sky TV Brazil. A mob of ruffians invades the palace where she’s obsessively watching the channel, but instead of losing her head, she calmly invites them to join her, proclaiming: “Everybody has the right to watch Sky!” It’s the digital-revolution equivalent of “Let them eat cake!”—an optimistic, modern update that has a subtly political point to make: that television is a democratic medium, a great equalizer that can break down class distinctions and defuse societal resentment.

Some of music’s most successful image-makers have taken inspiration from Marie Antoinette, including Madonna, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, and Nicki Minaj. Indeed, Perry and Minaj took strikingly similar approaches to the 2013 ad campaigns for their royalty-themed fragrances, Killer Queen and Minajesty. In both TV spots, the singers start out in full 18th-century Marie-Antoinette garb—complete with wigs, corsets, jewels, makeup, and hoop petticoats—before they revolt, stripping off their royal regalia piece by piece as the music surges and they run away in slow motion. Neither dwells much on the tragedy of the monarch’s real-life story. Instead, they summon the spirit of the underclass and end up dressed in fetching rags (but also fetish-worthy shoes).

Perry’s version is the fiercer of the two, embracing a more subversive take. Her gown is blood red; her hair, beneath the powdered wig, is jet black. The classical soundtrack is drowned out by pulsing guitars as Perry struts through her palace, eliciting gasps from the stuffy courtiers. She approaches her throne, but instead of seating herself, the Killer Queen embraces her inner angry peasant and topples it, declaring: “Own the throne!” Of course, more generic messages underly the whole commercial—that the rules and conventions of the past are stifling, that beauty products offer a route toward independence and self-definition. In keeping with the historical angle, though, Perry’s newest fragrance is called Royal Revolution, an even richer oxymoron.

Minaj takes a more traditional, but no less paradoxical, approach. Her gown is pink, as is her hair. Soft piano music plays beneath a dreamy voice-over. She starts out in a misty forest on her way to a castle, where “she will reign forever.” The armored guards catch a whiff of her signature scent, and—voilà!—the gates are opened. Like the Killer Queen ad, it’s a fascinating conflation of two opposing fantasies: on the one hand, indulging in ancien-régime levels of luxury and power, and, on the other, harnessing the rebellious, individualistic spirit of the French Revolution.

Nowhere is this modern-day dilemma better expressed than in the current Air France campaign, in which the Argentine fashion photographers Sofia & Mauro tweak French institutions like the Eiffel Tower and the Folies Bergère. In the most widely circulated print ad, a model in a pink ball gown lounges in the gardens of Versailles in a business-class airline seat that’s been transformed into an 18th-century sedan chair. The message: Fly Air France, and you’ll be treated like a queen. Only, this queen wears a tricolor cockade in her hair rather than a crown, and the copy alludes to the seat’s “revolutionary comfort.” She is at once Marie Antoinette and Marianne, the patriotic female symbol of the French Republic.

In its own shallow and clumsy way, the Hype ad accomplishes a similarly improbable transformation. With her ponytail and thick bangs, Kardashian isn’t just any Audrey Hepburn; she’s Audrey Hepburn in 1957’s Funny Face, wearing the black turtleneck, capri pants, and ballet flats of the would-be Left Bank beatnik turned fashion model Jo Stockton. Circling unsteadily on her bike, smiling for the photographer, she’s perky political insurgence personified, thanks to her instantly recognizable sartorial markers. Her Marie Antoinette alter ego is equally French and fashionable, but curiously static in contrast to the playful cyclist. As she lounges on a divan, asleep, Kardashian’s Marie Antoinette is neither heroine nor villain; she’s pure icon.

Like the Kardashian of the commercial, viewers want it both ways: the perky beatnik and the aloof queen, the revolution and the comfort. And why shouldn’t they? Consumerism isn’t just for the superrich. These ads may not be a realistic approach to social harmony or fiscal responsibility, but as a way of selling stuff, they’re insightful. What Kim, Katy, Kellogg’s, and the rest understand is that the French Revolution is a powerful metaphor for the ambitions and anxieties of modern life. These consumer fantasies rewrite Marie Antoinette’s story with a happy ending; they let the masses have their cake—or cereal—and eat it, too.