On the aesthetics of intimacy

by Stephen Papson

Commercials are always dual-narratives. There is the selling proposition-buy a commodity, build a brand, and/or believe in a corporation. Then, there is the compelling narrative, a story aimed at its target audience, which covers or is stamped upon the selling proposition. It is this second narrative that attracts us, and from a seller's point of view, binds us to the selling proposition.

Every once in a while I watch a commercial that produces a deep ambivalence. On the one hand, it attracts me, touches me, and captures my gaze. It is as if it speaks to me directly or produces an affect that lies beneath my defenses. On the other hand, recognizing its commercial intent, the ad produces contempt. I despise its power for affecting me. I know the punch line is coming—some brand and logo pasted on to the screen. I know it is designed to burrow through my defenses and sell me something: a commodity, a brand, or even a corporation.


The Shell commercial entitled “Kim” is such an ad. (https://youtu.be/5Ua8ysw02T4)  It is a simple piece. A young Malay couple is waiting at a stop light on a motor scooter. The light turns green and they ride into a tunnel. What can be simpler than that? And yet every time it plays I am drawn to it. It is not the ad itself but one moment in it. As the voice over states, “This is Kim about to feel one of his favorite sensations,” the young girl on the back of the scooter wraps her arms around him and dreamingly places her chin on his shoulder. Looking forward Kim smiles. No matter how many times I watch the commercial this one shot captures my gaze and yet disturbs me. It reminds me of a comment by Godard that when two persons kissed he always looked away. To watch was to violate their intimacy. But this is a commercial—nothing intimate here. And yet it creates for me that sense of violating someone’s intimate space. Despite that feeling I still watch.

This ad is just a small piece in Shell’s flow of media messages. Originally produced in 2010 by J. Walter Thompson London the ad ran for several years on channels such as BBC America and PBS. The ad campaign “Let’s Go” launched right after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was a way for Shell to distance itself from its competitor BP. The BP spill was not only a public relations disaster for BP, but also for the oil industry in general.

The voice-over provided by Philip Glenister gives a standard legitimation message.

“At Shell we are developing more efficient fuels that can help us to get the most out of our energy resources. Let’s use energy more efficiently. Let’s go.”

The Shell ad is composed of 15 shots. Even though the average shot length only lasts 2 seconds the editing rhythm is actually slow. Driven by electronic music by a group named Eclectic and Glenister’s deliberate low-key narration the commercial has a relaxed rather than hurried feel. Moreover, the internal movements within each shot have a slow deliberate pace.

The urban landscape of bridges and highways are shot in muted grey blue and tan colors. The rain has ended and yet the water falling on to the road gives the landscape a warm glow.  We are asked to correlate the warm fuzzy feeling of the ad with Shell. As Glenister finishes his narration with "Let’s Go," the campaign’s slogan, the couple speeds off through an empty tunnel. The traffic at the beginning of the ad has magically disappeared. Shell’s logo appears on the screen.


The two other commercials in Shell’s “Let’s Go” campaign entitled “Kite” and “Guitar” are shot on a Brazilian beach and in a Japanese apartment, respectively.

In "Kite" two Brazillian boys unsuccessfully try to fly a kite on the beach despite help from several beach goers. After several failed attempts, a dog grabs the kite and runs, successfully launching it into the air.

In "Guitar" a young Japanese boy wails away on his electric guitar, much to the dismay of his parents, who are trying to enjoy a quiet meal. The father sneaks into the boy's room, pulls the plug from the wall, and smiles as he sneaks away.

Like "Kim" both are warm, fuzzy, feel-good commercials designed with the expectation that the same warm affect will be transferred to Shell, or at least that we will associate Shell with the caring relationships depicted in all three commercials. Using generic, recognizable tropes, these commercials are designed to play internationally.

Legitimation advertising, particularly in this industry, which is under a never ending barrage of criticism, functions as a counterweight by producing a more hospitable cultural environment in which to do business.

"Kite" and "Guitar"feel totally contrived. “Kim,” however, although as staged as the other two, feels genuine and authentic.  The actor who plays Kim is a Digital Media Activist named Niki Cheong. The girl was an acquaintance named Fatin. Cheong couldn’t even ride a motor scooter and so they used a body double for the shot that goes into the tunnel. The couple sits on a trailer behind a truck for the shot when they move away from the traffic light.

Here is where I turn to Barthes’ (1981) discussion of the photograph in Camera Lucida in which he distinguishes between the studium and the punctum. The studium of the photograph refers to “the average effect.” It is how we read photographs, their general effect. It connects us to the intentions of the photographer who shares with us the cultural codes embedded in the photograph.  For Barthes it is anchored by mythology “recoiling the Photograph with society” (28). The studium lends itself to semiotic analysis. This might be a light or deep reading, a hegemonic or a counter-hegemonic reading. It is how we position an image in the socio-historical moment in which it was produced.

The key section of the commercial is a short decoupage when the couple is stopped at the traffic light:

  • a long shot of the traffic light,
  • a close-up of the hand reaching for the accelerator,
  • a medium shot of the couple sitting in traffic with a lighted bus stop in the background. Here the narration starts, “This is Kim”.
  • a close-up of the traffic light with the crossing seconds counting done,
  • a long shot of a man dragging a cart across street,
  • a close up of Kim’s face,
  • a close up of a red street light with a yellow core (serving as a visual correlative with the red and yellow Shell logo we see at the end of the ad),
  • and a shot of a puddle with the traffic light reflecting off it.


Stating, “This is Kim about to feel one of his favorite sensations,” Gleinister sets up the longest shot of the ad: a medium shot held for 5 seconds of Kim in his University of Pittsburg sweatshirt smiling as the young woman lays her chin on the back of his neck and wraps her arms around him. There is one moment in this shot in which Kim and the woman simultaneously close their eyes. For me this is the punctum.

Comments on YouTube focused on this shot.

Who cares about Shell and Fuel. The greatest thing about this commercial is The whole "This is Kim about to feel his favorite sensation" Then the expression on his face when his love put her arms around his neck. Also, The Night scene, You can feel the air and hear the sounds...the wind. I’ve seen this many times over the past year...just saw it on TV ,had to comment (TheHeavensSpear).

Loved the smile. So genuine (r1876).

This is one of my favorite ads, right now. Shell gets lost in the message. It is Kim and his lady that make my day. He is about to feel a favorite sensation...then his big smile when his lady wraps her arms around him. I am not much of a romantic, but this ad makes me feel so mushy inside. Kim and his girl are so very cute on that intimate little bike. Thanks Shell, for the feel good moment!! (solarpurplestarlight).

I love this commercial because it made me realize that sensation I get whenever my girlfriend wraps her arms around me like that (Ethan Williams).