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From the NS archive: Here's mud on your mink

7 April 1956: Was there ever a naughty, flighty lipstick?

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By the 1960s, the writer Marghanita Laski was a prolific contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary, and in this NS piece from 1956 she deploys her rigorous linguistic analysis. With wry, spiky wit, Laski systematically dissects a new lipstick advert that proclaims, among other things, that “Dreamy pink can lead to mink”. There is, Laski writes, “real meaning” in advertising copy. The lipstick’s “naughtiness” and “flightiness” must, she infers, “transfer from lipstick to reader, since a naughty (or flighty) lipstick could only be one that behaved unpredictably, stuck in its tube or changed its colour”. So what are the “good things” that will “come your way” on purchasing Dreamy Pink? And who is the “girl in the mink”?

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Like poetry, advertising copy is meant to be emotionally rather than intellectually apperceived. But there is, as with poetry, real meaning there, and a correct analysis of text may usefully bring to our understanding exactly what it is that has already been accepted at thalamic levels. Here is my present text:

“DREAMY PINK CAN LEAD TO MINK. Dash out now and buy —’s Dreamy Pink — the naughtiest, flightiest lipstick there ever was. Then, with that Dreamy Pink on your lips, you can sit back and wait for the good things to come your way. Maybe you'll be the girl in the mink! Lucky for you that —’s lipstick stays on and on and on. In its new woman-about-town gilt case…”

The illustration must, as inevitably as with a poem by Blake, be considered as integral to the text. Here it consists of a girl in a low-necked black dress, heavily bejewelled, with, round her shoulders, an indeterminate fur, presumably — I don’t think we're going too far — the mink in question. Behind her stands a man in a white tie with appropriate accessories (negligent white scarf, gold-topped cane under arm). Behind him, the lower half of a knee-breeched flunkey. Behind him, a very, very, very long car.

We can now get on with our analysis. The theme, DREAMY PINK CAN LEAD TO MINK, may be given the broad preliminary gloss: the purchase of this lipstick can be the causal agent in the subsequent acquisition of mink. How? That is what the main body of the text, no matter how unconsciously assimilated, makes very clear.

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Dash out now: the reader is not a woman of responsibilities. No major executive she, and certainly no mother of young children. She is free to act on impulse. Experience tells us that she may be a junior in quite a lot of firms, or a childless, non-working wife.

...and buy —’s Dreamy Pink: she is not a country girl, since few village shops stock new lipsticks as soon as they appear. More, if a homebody, she lives within sufficient distance of town shops for an initial impetus not to be spent before she gets there. “Dash” hardly implies queueing for a bus. But “dash” and “buy,” taken together, imply that the reader can afford to spend money impulsively. People of such financial position usually prefer to live away from urban shopping districts. Our reader must have reasons for choosing to live in the district to which people go to spend money.

...the naughtiest, flightiest lipstick there ever was. Was there ever a naughty, flighty lipstick? We do not know; but the last three words must fail of their impact unless the reader lacks equally a sense of history and of logic. “Naughtiest” and “flightiest” we may, nay we must, transfer from lipstick to reader, since a naughty (or flighty) lipstick could only be one that behaved unpredictably, stuck in its tube or changed its colour. “Flightiest” is an exceptionally interesting word in the context. As well as its dictionary meaning — “guided by whim or fancy, fickle” — it could carry at least three metaphorical interpretations. It might well recall that sense of levitation that is such a distinctive concommitant of ecstasy. Or it might be to do with birds — a subtle wordplay indeed. Or with the American air force. The word must certainly be accepted as an Empsonian ambiguity, Type One.

Then, with that Dreamy Pink on your lips — the manna of “flightiness” and “naughtiness” has now definitely been transferred to the reader — you can sit back and wait: the reader is not in employment, since, even if the initial dashing out were possible, the indefinite sitting back and waiting are not. And, if it has occurred to anyone that cause might be related to effect by (a) buying and applying the lipstick, (b) feeling better as a result, (c) so working harder and (d) eventually being able to afford mink, he can now put that idea right out of his head.

...for the good things to come your way. The meaning of “good” here is particularly abstruse. What comes, we already know, is mink: the plural is confusing, but may refer to the number of skins. Mink may certainly be accepted as good. But we already know that “flightiness” and “naughtiness” are involved in its acquisition. God knows one doesn't want to throw accusations around lightly these days, but the underlying suggestion that naughty means are justified by good ends seems to me to be tinged with red rather than pink.

Maybe you’ll be the girl in the mink. Housewife is out. Our irresponsible, extravagant, naughty homebody is unmarried — an unmarried girl to whose home come men in white ties bearing, somehow, the potentialities of mink. The hint of dubiety implied by maybe will be dealt with later.

Lucky for you that —’s lipstick stays on and on and on. So, it seems, does the man. Otherwise, being at home, there's nothing to stop her renewing it. More, we can't burk the fact (texts could readily be adduced) that the idea of lipstick staying on and on and on is inextricably associated with kissing. The visitor may, however, be a fiancé.

In its new woman-about-town gilt case — so he can't be a fiancé after all. “Man- (or girl-) about-town,” says the N.E.D., “one who is in the round of social functions, fashionable dissipations, etc.” A round of social functions, undertaken in the home, definitely implies that more than one man calls. The whole phrase is extremely subtle, since our author has amended the dictionary’s “girl-about-town”; and, knowing his addiction to ambiguities, we cannot doubt but that he has done so by attraction from the very next phrase the dictionary dissects: “Man or woman of the town — one belonging to the shady or fast side of life.” It is particularly significant that earlier in the train of events, “girl” was still thought appropriate.

We can now sum up: a flighty, naughty girl, unburdened by responsibilities and shortly to be a woman, waits at her town home to be visited, in a fast and dissipated atmosphere, by a number of men (possibly American air force officers) who, having stayed a long time and kissed her a lot (query: to the point of ecstasy?) may give her mink. I think we should be right in moving the author's scintilla of doubt to the very end of the sentence.

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