Emeril's cinnamon-flavored toothpaste.

Advertising deconstructed.
Sept. 29 2003 2:38 PM

Emeril's Tasty Toothpaste

The celebrity chef hawks cinnamon-flavored Crest.

For reasons that remain obscure, the chef Emeril Lagasse has a following. Not just his restaurants—Emeril's, Nola, etc.—and his cookbooks, but Emeril himself. As the biography on his Web site puts it, he is a "television personality," largely on the strength of his Food Network show Emeril Live. (Elsewhere on the site you can buy Emeril cookware and Emeril apparel.) He has such a following that NBC thought it would be a good idea to build a sitcom around him, but that show flamed out in a way that suggested perhaps the public had little appetite for Emeril saying anything other than "Bam!" and "Kick it up a notch!" Still, two catchphrases are more than enough to qualify for the role of beloved personality in American consumer culture. And so Emeril is back in prime time lately, in a commercial for a new kind of toothpaste.

Emeril adds some spice (click to view the ad) The spot begins with Emeril arriving home late at night, climbing out of his vanity-plated car and up the stairs, then peeking in on his sleeping wife before ducking into the bathroom. He squeezes out some red Crest toothpaste—"Bam! Bam! Bam!" he ejaculates, apparently overcome by this intense new tooth-brushing experience. His wife is startled to wakefulness, and car alarms sound in the distance. A lingering product shot is accompanied by the voice-over: "Introducing Crest Whitening Expressions, in kickin' new flavors: Cinammon Rush, Fresh Citrus Breeze, and Extreme Herbal Mint." We cut back to Emeril in the bathroom, where he says, "That really kicks it up a notch."

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Well, what else did you expect him to say?

The idea is clear enough: Here is toothpaste so delicious it impresses a celebrity chef, indeed makes him lose his cool. Toothpaste, as you are surely reminded every time you're at the drugstore contemplating the absurd array of dental-care product offerings, is a keenly competitive category. And it is no longer enough to sell the stuff on the basis of dental hygiene or even the vanity power of its whitening capabilities. Crest is betting that there is a demand for paste that does all that and also tastes fantastic. And why not? Maybe it'll even catch on as a condiment. And Heinz will retaliate with fluoride-fighting, tartar control mayonnaise and extra-strength whitening ketchup. Bam!

Given this strategy, the use of Emeril is fairly shrewd. Sure, we've already heard Emeril blurt his little phrases so often than the mere sight of him causes us to start involuntarily muttering "Bam. Kick it up a notch. Bam. Kick it up a notch. …" But so what? Emeril at this point is not so much a man as a signifier, living shorthand for the notion of flavor. His sitcom failed because if you take him out of that simple, one-note context, no one cares. But for Crest's purposes, he's perfect. All that's left is to get the stuff some product placement on Emeril Live: Maybe change Emeril's Beggar Purses Consisting of Seared Scallops, Truffle Mash, and Fried Quail Eggs Wrapped in a Truffle Crepe to Emeril's Beggar Purses Consisting of Seared Scallops, Truffle Mash, Fried Quail Eggs, and Crest Whitening Expressions Extreme Herbal Mint Wrapped in a Truffle Crepe. See? It might just kick—oh, forget it.

Rob Walker is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Design Observer and the author of Buying In.

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