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Case Study: Haagen-Dazs

The Making of an Advertising Koan

A woman with stunning, East European features stands at the edge of a dark, rolling sea. The sky is a stark white, the mood portentous. A lone cello provides a sonorous undercurrent of sound. The woman wears a diaphanous white fabric beneath which the outline of her body is discernible. A dark-haired man with chiseled, brooding features approaches, riding bareback on a large white horse. The man and woman acknowledge one another with a steady gaze, though their faces remain expressionless. He extends his hand. The scene shifts to the woman now mounted on the horse, the man riding behind her. The horse gains speed, now galloping vigorously along the shore. The camera cuts in, and we see only the undulating motion of the man and woman, the woman's head thrown back, eyes closed, the man holding her from behind. Cut to a close-up of the woman's mouth taking in a spoonful of white ice cream. Fade to white, and the text "Shall We Haagen-Dazs?" appears on screen with male narrative voice-over.

THE THEME AND SLOGAN of the advertising campaign of which the commercial described above were created one afternoon ten years ago when a Japanese colleague unexpectedly stepped into my office at the advertising agency at which we both worked. He suggested we brainstorm themes for an upcoming pitch to Haagen-Dazs. Without a moment's thought, I said, "Shall we Haagen-Dazs?" He stood for a moment in silence. "Yes, that's it," he eventually responded, thanked me, and left. The entire exchange lasted no more than a minute. But in the years following, the words took on a resilient and resonant life of their own, the campaign winning several awards, securing a dominant market share for the brand, and making "Shall We Haagen-Dazs?" a household phrase in Japan for the past decade. How did this strange "advertising koan" take root and flourish within current postmodern Japan?

Though a bowl of ice cream can be nice, its transcendental, healing powers may not immediately spring to mind at a time when a nation is yearning for respite from massive socioeconomic change and the collective shock of suddenly finding itself cast in a leading role on the global stage. Yet, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, as Japan sought the where-with-all to respond to its emergent role as a dominant economic power, and as the West increasingly turned to Japan as a model of political, social and economic success, the phrase "Shall We Haagen-Dazs?" provided an unexpected palliative to this moment of social crisis. On the one hand was gaiatsu, the pressure from external forces to open the nation more fully to international discourse and trade, in addition to the genuine if conflicted desire among Japanese themselves to connect with the larger, outside world. On the other hand was the fear of stepping from the comforting shadows of Japan's ancient, circumscribed cultural context and into a global drama of cacophonous, confusing dynamics, daunting new complexities, confrontation and exposure.

Yet it would be less than accurate to portray Japan as timidly waiting in the wings, struggling to sum up the courage to step into the fray of international exchange. At that time, with the U.S. economy still mired in recession, American cultural icons such as the Rockefeller Center, Columbia Pictures, and Pebble Beach were newly vulnerable to the lure of the yen and Japan's appetite for acquisition. Indeed, the Japanese appetite for any and all foreign prestige commodities had become quite infamous by the early 1980s. Within Japan, too, the hunger for international intercourse led to the highly selective importing of desirable language, sex, and other workers from designated regions of the world. For both Japanese individuals and corporations, consumption had clearly become a primary method through which one partook in the global public sphere.

It was within this context that the Haagen-Dazs ad campaign first appeared, and was, I believe, interpreted as reinforcing and legitimizing this ideology of contact through consumption, becoming a momentary, artificial means of ameliorating the social tensions of that specific place and period.

Though details of the presentation varied, the underlying content and structure of the advertising campaign media and presentation remained remarkably consistent for nearly a decade. One variation on the television and cinema commercial described above, for instance, presented two lovers converging beneath the white, silken sheets of an expansive bed. The folds and undulations of the sheets were visually blended with the flowing waves of white liquid cream. This was followed by the close-up of a mouth and tongue taking in the frozen cream. And, as always, the only words spoken were "Shall We Haagen-Dazs?" as narrative voice-over at the end of the piece. The campaign's most successful print ad borrowed this image of the two bodies beneath the exquisite white sheets, with the phrase and logo the only signifiers presented. Often, the phrase appeared completely by itself, always against a field of white, in print media such as menus and promotional materials.

As with many advertising slogans, the phrase itself contained an intensely disorienting, koan-like set of internal contradictions. The heightened language (the use of "Shall we" rather than "Let's") would have been immediately recognizable to any audience member who had been through the mandatory primary and secondary school English instruction. The brand name itself must have connoted for some members of the audience a certain mythology of Germanic grandeur and ascendancy from the not-so-distant-past. Additionally, the consistent use of pure white light, pristine white fabrics, white liquids (and white models), combined with the virtual absence of language clearly conveyed a heightened sensibility, sophistication and purity of expression which lifted the intensely sensual images to an otherworldly realm of transcendent, elemental purity beyond or before law or language. The refined, film-quality cinematography, the classical score, the selection of the then reigning European super model Tatania as the female lead, down to the typefaces and extravagant use of white space, all conveyed a quality and style viewers had perhaps seen only in the cinema. And they were being invited to step into this world, forget their inhibitions, and "Haagen-Dazs" with the West.

Yet the focused spoken and typographic signification, the absence of facial expressions in the models (in one appearance they are completely covered by sheets), and the elemental human actions depicted in the advertising, effectively functioned to minimize the possibility of diverse interpretations, and reinforced in the audience a specific illusion of cultural transcendence through innate human sensuality and unfettered immediacy. As Edward Hall has argued, Japan's high-context culture provides for extraordinarily accurate and consistent constructions of shared meaning (1977). The socio-linguistic fabric of the society being so finely woven over time that gaps and inconsistencies in meaning are said to occur less often and to a lesser degree than between members of low-context cultures (such as the United States), whose more loosely constructed cultural grid might be more closely akin to a net than, say, silk.

At the same time, the absence of any Japanese language or Japanese characters created in the advertising the internal tension necessary to produce the transcendent quality of the audience experience. The phrase is not Japanese, it is clearly spoken by a gaijin (outsider), and yet there is no mistaking the compelling intimacy of the moment. As with Barthes' vision of the Parisian striptease, the raw sensuality of these beautiful foreigners and the open invitation to join in has the effect of signifying "nakedness as a natural vesture of [man and] woman, which amounts in the end to a perfectly chaste state of the flesh" (1983, 87-88). Thus the audience, too, was able to momentarily shed the "incongruous and artificial" constrictions of inculcated shame, to divest themselves of the isolating effects of their Japaneseness for a brief romp.

In these ways, the "Shall We Haagen-Dazs?" invitation distilled a pervasive yearning among Japanese to shed age-old cultural isolation, language barriers, and anxiety about direct contact with outsiders for the opportunity to momentarily enter Utopia. Better yet, the gaiatsu (external pressure) Japanese sensed from the West to become more fully engaged in the new international cosmology became, however briefly, a bewitching sexual overture. This was an offer the audience was disinclined to refuse. The Haagen-Dazs experience offered the promise of shedding the Japanese self and its meticulously defined behavioral grid by getting intimate. Beyond this, the advertising koan itself may well have come to invoke and momentarily legitimize the specious ideology of contact through consumption when presented as an external invitation to set aside social conscience. In it's message to the collective unconscious, the phrase may have been taken as license to strip away all conventions and shame, climb beneath the sheets with the foreign other, and become lost in the intense imminence and intimacy of the commoditized sensuality.

Here, as previously noted, the producers themselves may have stumbled upon the seed of the campaign in what Jung might have termed a receptive burst of "unconscious Zeitgeist." And the audience at that particular time, in that particular social context, was fully prepared to allow this deception, embrace the illusion, and accept this utopian solution to the tension of that moment.

As "Shall We Haagen-Dazs?" became synonymous through the interpretive act with this transcendent bridge into the pristine, natural bliss of supra-cultural union, the producer was thus able to momentarily co-opt the desire for this unmediated experience of guiltless pleasure and blissful unity with the gaijin world, the foreign object. For the producer would, of course, provide the audience with ready opportunity to relive that initial moment of release and illusory transcendence. Since the premium price of Haagen-Dazs ice cream would require that the buyer overcome her cultural compulsion to scrimp and save, to open wide the purse strings, plunge breathlessly into Western bourgeois consumerism, indulge in a moment of extravagant, alien sensuality, and shamelessly embrace contact through consumption, all within the secure comfort of her very own home.




The words took on a resilient and resonant life of their own, the campaign winning several awards, securing a dominant market share for the brand, and making "Shall We Haagen-Dazs?" a household phrase in Japan for the past decade.

Experience includes ...

T-Mobile US
Microsoft | Windows Phone
Microsoft | Worldwide Marketing
Microsoft | Partner Network
The US-Japan Council
Seattle Arts & Lectures
Drexel University
George Mason University
American College of Cardiology
American Chamber of
Commerce in Japan
The Brookings Institution
Lipton Teas
De Beers
Jack Daniels
Howrey LLP