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Mona

Lisa Smiles, Mona Lisa Sells

By: Marissa Lemon

La Gioconda, La Jaconde, Mona Lisa.1 Known by many names, Leonardo da Vincis

16th century masterpiece has evolved from its status as the quintessential renaissance

portrait into a global icon, recognized the world over.2 Remarking upon its fame, Pulitzer-

prize winning author, Dave Barry, said, You should definitely visit the Louvrewhere you

can view, at close range, the backs of thousands of other tourists trying to see the Mona

Lisa.3

What might have remained an historical piece to be quietly admired instead

skyrocketed to fame after its theft from the Louvres walls in 1911.4 The resulting

proliferation of the image, and the countless comedic and artistic reproductions that

followed, placed the image squarely within the realm of advertising.5 Its legendary beauty,

meteoric rise to fame, and consequential commodification have imbued the painting with a

particular set of values. These values have proved useful in marketing a vast array of low-

involvement beauty products, among many other items.6 In its many and various

renditions, the Mona Lisa has become a successful advertising tool that captures attention,

conveys cultural value, and improves memory retention in the mind of the consumer, all

while increasing profits in the coffers of corporations.

A mere mention of the Mona Lisa7 is enough to recall a definitive image to most

peoples minds. The subject sits at a slight angle with her face turned toward the viewer

and her right arm crossed over her torso.8 An expression of possible amusement plays

across her face, and her dark brown hair is evenly parted around her. Clothed in a soft

green and brown dress, she sits with her back to an atmospherically rendered landscape

whose hazy blues and grays depict a series of rivers and valleys splayed out in the
distance.9 More than five-hundred years after its creation, cracks and wrinkles are evident

as they crisscross and stretch over the canvas.10

Originally lauded as a feat in portraiture, the image has continually garnered the

admiration of academics and political figures.11 Giorgio Vasari wrote that the Mona Lisa

possessed, a smile so pleasing, that it was a thing more divine than human to witness,12

and Napoleon himself had the painting hung in his bedroom for four years, describing her

enigmatic, mythological qualities as reminiscent of the sphinx of the occident.13

Coupled with the mystery that surrounds her identity and the reason for her smile,

19th century Europeans became fascinated with the painting due to the revived interest in

the Renaissance.14 Stemming from a Romantic fantasy of the femme fatalethe Mona Lisa

was co-opted into [a] chorus line of dangerous beauties.15 In a journal entry written by the

Goncourt brothers, a famous beauty of the day is described as like a 16th-century

courtesan who wears the smile full of night of the Gioconda.16 Today, though she may not

easily align with contemporary beauty standards, she is still an effective tool in selling low-

involvement beauty products because she exists outside of time as a mythological beauty

icon.17

Despite the previous reverence held for this painting, the image did not then

engender the type of tourist-frenzy that exists today.18 This fanaticism arose as a direct

result of its theft from the Louvre in the early 20th century.19 The ensuing outrage over the

theft was primarily incited by papers such as the Petit Parisien that, stressed that [the

Mona Lisa] was no ordinary Renaissance masterpiece but the unusual portrait of a

mysterious womanIt was not just a theft. It was abduction, almost a rape.20 One account

of the reporting hysteria that ensued states that journalists, mourned the loss and hyped

the painting ([as] one cannot grieve for trivial damages).21


Long before traditional advertisements would get hold of the Mona Lisa,

newspapers were utilizing her image as a marketing tool to sell their publications, as seen

in a 1913 issue22 of Le Petit Journal.23 This global proliferation of images of the Mona Lisa,

and the accompanying crash course in Leonardo da Vinci and Renaissance art, would

educate the masses on the work and make it accessible to people of every socio-economic

status.24

If not for the Mona Lisas recovery in 1913, the work might have faded back into

relative obscurity. Its discovery and retrieval from Italy, and subsequent showings in Milan,

Florence, and Rome prior to its homecoming in Paris, revitalized the worlds fascination

with the artwork.25 Over one-hundred years later, it remains one of the most recognizable

paintings in the world.26

Following the paintings reinstatement in the Louvre, a resurgence occurred in the

type of satirical productions that had accompanied news of its theft two years previously.27

Everything from postcards to cabarets utilized the Mona Lisa for commercial purposes,

turning her into a marketing gimmick.28 These exploitations, more than anything else,

would cement the Mona Lisas position within popular culture while distancing it from the

arena of high art.29 Its increased popularity became repellant to the intellectual elites of the

art world who believed that it was rapidly becoming kitsch.30

After years of rejection by the avant-garde, and critical renditions by the likes of

Malevich31, would come Duchamps infamous postcard of a defaced Mona Lisa in 1919.

Rebelling against the formalist idealism of Renaissance painting, and attacking the

whole traditional concept of artistic production, Duchamps postcard32 represented his

pursuit of the idea of an art object whose artistic status was only reliant upon the

proclamation of it as such.33 Duchamp was well aware of the commodification of the Mona

Lisa and her use in advertising. It is therefore significant that he chose to alter her likeness
on a postcard, a cheap commodity that is easily disseminated. As one of his ready-mades,

the postcard is unaltered in its portrayal of the Mona Lisa, with the exception of a drawn on

goatee and moustache, and the caption L.H.O.O.Q.34 Spelled out in French, the caption

roughly translates to, She has a hot ass.35 Rendered in this way, Duchamp was also

criticizing museums in general, of which the Mona Lisa is emblematic.36 Similarly rejected

by the avant-garde at large, the Mona Lisa would slide firmly into the category of kitsch and

become immortalized as a premier tourist destination.37

Due to the Mona Lisas explosive popularity and mythological status, it seems only

natural that the image would be assimilated into advertising in order to sell low-

involvement beauty products. The ease with which the image is recognized helps to break

through to consumers who have become desensitized to advertisements in a world that is

overly saturated with media messages.38 When presented in a novel fashion, its ability to

attract the eye of customers can then trigger irritation and heightencuriosity,39 which

encourages further engagement and examination by the individual.

One of the earliest examples of the Mona Lisa being used in advertising comes from

a 1937 Maybelline ad40 for eyelash darkener, eyebrow pencil, eye shadow, and eyelash

grower41. The black-and-white spread features an image of Leonardo da Vincis Mona Lisa

juxtaposed with a made-up, new and improved Mona Lisa whose eyebrows and eyes are

more well-defined.42 The text below the image reads, See if you do not agree with us that,

lovely lady though she was, her charm would have been increased a thousand-fold with

proper eye make-up.43 As an inexpensive and low-risk series of products, these Maybelline

beauty aids required a low level of involvement on the part of the consumer when making

purchasing decisions. As such, the use of a well-known, alluring image worked to initially

capture the attention of a buyer and differentiate the product from its competitors.
Additionally, this ad was successful in its novel use of the image and its ability to

mitigate cognitive effort on the part of the consumer. Constantly over-stimulated by media

images, a recognizable picture used in an easily understood advertisement made this ad

attractive on a neurological level.44 By slightly altering the Mona Lisas visage, the ad

avoided becoming part of the ever-present background noise of popular advertising.

Furthermore, because novel imagery is linked to the release of dopamine in the frontal and

temporal regions of the brain, the novel use of the Mona Lisa can help to create positive

associations between the image and the brand.45

When delivering messages to consumers, advertisers depend on the use of signs to

convey value and meaning.46 Playing off its extensive history and the ease with which it is

recognized, the semiotics of the Mona Lisa further validates its use as a marketing tool.

In a 2007 Pantene advertisement,47 the Mona Lisa is again easily recognized and

rendered nearly identical to the original image, with the exception of soft, cascading waves

replacing her usual veil-covered head.48 At its first semiotic level, the Mona Lisa is a sign

that represents high art and culture.49 Emptying it of meaning, the sign becomes a new

signifier that produces a signification that posits the Mona Lisa as the pinnacle of aesthetic

representation.50 The Pantene advertisement then builds upon this myth of historic female

beauty and mystery, conveying to the consumer that they too can achieve this type of ideal,

in this specific case, through the ideal head of glorious hair.

In a very similar way, the Maybelline advertisement also plays with this same

system of meaning by communicating to the viewer that the Mona Lisa is beautiful, just like

the potential buyer, but that both could become even lovelier with the use of Maybelline

products.51 Each ad engages with the myth of the Mona Lisa through connotative semiotic

systems that confer value upon the products being advertised.


The Mona Lisa is a powerful conveyer of this type of message because of its status as

an art object.52 Beate Flath writes that, Art is part of our cultural heritage but it also

signals prosperity. This applies above all to the status of oil paintings.53 Considered an

aesthetic and cultural authority by the masses, if not the intellectual elites, the Mona Lisa

can be effectively used to make an emotional appeal,54 one that contributes to the

consumers formation of an identity as it relates to the possession-dependent, extended

self.55

As low-involvement items in product categories filled with competing, often

interchangeable, products, Joan Gibbons writes that, this excess requires consumer

choices to be made not so much on the basis of the use or exchange value of the product,

but on the basis of its worth in terms of symbolic value or cultural capital.56 By conflating

the meaning of the Mona Lisa with Pantene shampoo and Maybelline eye make-up, both the

product and the brand become oriented in the mind of the consumer as an option that will

help them to achieve a set of beauty standards associated with their conception of an ideal

self.

Moving beyond its implicit set of meanings and its recognizable appearance, the

Mona Lisa has further been used so successfully within advertising due to its memory-

retentive value. In order to be useful as a selling tool, it is necessary that the advertisement

make an impact on the long-term memory of the individual.57 Therefore, a primary goal of

any brand is to be placed within a consumers evoked set of products, which consists of

those brands that are top of mind when making a purchase decision.58 In both the

Maybelline and Pantene versions, the use of the Mona Lisa encourages this placement

because of their memorability, which can be understood through an examination of the

three main stages of memory: encoding, storage, and retrieval.


Since both previously discussed ads are visually consumed, familiar, and understood

through semiotic meaning, they are more likely to be assimilated into long-term memory,

whose principal encoding system is related to semantic coding.59 Held by long-term

memory, the advertisement will be available for later retrieval for a longer period of time.

While many ads are both visual and symbolic in nature, the use of the Mona Lisa

poses an advantage because it is already understood and tied up in the collective cultural

consciousness of most shoppers. As an image, it is constantly being retrieved from memory

and reinforcing the stages of encoding and storage, thereby creating a stronger association

and making it even more memorable.60 It logically follows that the successful memory-

retentive use of the image in ads is bolstered by its pre-establishment within the psyche of

the consumer.

When purchasing a low-involvement product, customers often rely on heuristics, as

it is typically impractical for them to filter through and absorb all the data that could

possibly have an impact upon their buying decision.61 The formation of these cognitive

shortcuts simplifies their purchasing habits, positioning the brand as a superior option in

the minds of customers and encouraging repeat purchases, which will ideally lead to brand

loyalty.

The Mona Lisa has evolved greatly since its conception, most radically in the past

century. On top of its use in a multitude of advertisements, the name Mona Lisa is

frequently used as a title for everything from beauty blogs to cosmetic supply companies

and beyond.62 Moving forward, new renditions and conceptions could continue to alter the

meaning and cultural value of the piece, which will dictate its future use in advertisement

and other mediums. For the time being, its ability to spark recognition, the novel way in

which it is used, and its semiotic and memory retentive value, will continue to be of use to

advertisers marketing low-involvement beauty products the world over.



Notes

1. "Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) (1503-6)." Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci: Analysis,
Interpretation. Accessed April 20, 2017. http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/famous-
paintings/mona-lisa.htm.
2. Riding, Alan. "In Louvre, New Room With View of 'Mona Lisa'" The New York Times.
April 06, 2005. Accessed April 18, 2017.
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/06/arts/design/in-louvre-new-room-with-
view-of-mona-lisa.html.
3. "TOP 25 MONA LISA QUOTES (of 52)." A-Z Quotes. Accessed April 10, 2017.
http://www.azquotes.com/quotes/topics/mona-lisa.html.
4. Bonazzoli, Francesca, Michele Robecchi, Marguerite Shore, and Francesca
Bonazzoli. Mona Lisa to Marge: how the worlds greatest artworks entered popular
culture. Munich: Prestel, 2014.
5. Sassoon, Donald. Becoming Mona Lisa: the making of a global icon. San Diego, CA:
Harcourt, 2002.
6. Kemp, Martin. Christ to Coke: how image becomes icon. (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2012), 197.
7. See Image A
8. "Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) (1503-6)." Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci: Analysis,
Interpretation. Accessed April 20, 2017. http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/famous-
paintings/mona-lisa.htm.
9. "Leonardo da Vinci: Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)." Art & Critique. March 11, 2012.
Accessed April 18, 2017. http://artandcritique.com/leonardo-da-vinci-mona-lisa-la-
gioconda/.
10. "Visual and Spectral Analyses." The Mona Lisa Foundation. August 19, 2016.
Accessed April 18, 2017. http://monalisa.org/2012/09/06/visual-spectral-
analysis/.
11. Kemp, Martin. Christ to Coke: how image becomes icon. (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2012), 152-157.
12. Kemp, Martin. Christ to Coke: how image becomes icon. (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2012), 153.
13. "Napoleon Slept with Mona Lisa." The Regency Redingote. May 20, 2015. Accessed
May 24, 2017. https://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/2010/07/02/napoleon-
slept-with-mona-lisa/.
14. "The Myth of the Mona Lisa." The Guardian. March 28, 2002. Accessed May 23, 2017.
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/mar/28/londonreviewofbooks.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid.
17. Danna, Sammy R. Advertising and popular culture: studies in variety and versatility.
(Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1992), 89-90.
18. "The Myth of the Mona Lisa." The Guardian. March 28, 2002. Accessed May 23, 2017.
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/mar/28/londonreviewofbooks.
19. Hoffman, Barry. The fine art of advertising: irreverent, irrepressible, irresistibly ironic.
(New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2003), 56.
20. Sassoon, Donald. Becoming Mona Lisa: the making of a global icon. (San Diego, CA:
Harcourt, 2002), 176-177.
21. Sassoon, Donald. Becoming Mona Lisa: the making of a global icon. (San Diego, CA:
Harcourt, 2002), 177.

22. See Image B
23. Getlen, Larry. "How Mona Lisas smile led to love affairs and suicides." New York
Post. July 27, 2014. Accessed May 25, 2017. http://nypost.com/2014/07/26/how-
mona-lisas-smile-led-to-love-affairs-and-suicides/.
24. Danna, Sammy R. Advertising and popular culture: studies in variety and versatility.
(Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1992), 86.
25. Sassoon, Donald. Becoming Mona Lisa: the making of a global icon. San Diego, CA:
Harcourt, 2002.
26. Ibid.
27. Ibid.
28. Ibid.
29. Sassoon, Donald. Becoming Mona Lisa: the making of a global icon. (San Diego, CA:
Harcourt, 2002), 209.
30. Sassoon, Donald. Becoming Mona Lisa: the making of a global icon. (San Diego, CA:
Harcourt, 2002), 190.
31. Kramer, Hilton. "The Suprematist: Malevich Abstracts At the Guggenheim."
Observer. May 25, 2003. Accessed April 30, 2017.
http://observer.com/2003/05/the-suprematist-malevich-abstracts-at-the-
guggenheim/.
32. See Image C
33. Danna, Sammy R. Advertising and popular culture: studies in variety and versatility.
(Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1992), 86.
34. Danna, Sammy R. Advertising and popular culture: studies in variety and versatility.
(Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1992), 85-86.
35. Ibid.
36. "Interactives | Exhibitions | 1999 | Museum as Muse | Duchamp." MoMA. Accessed
April 30, 2017.
https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/1999/muse/artist_pages/ducha
mp_boite.html.
37. Sassoon, Donald. Becoming Mona Lisa: the making of a global icon. San Diego, CA:
Harcourt, 2002.
38. Danna, Sammy R. Advertising and popular culture: studies in variety and versatility.
(Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1992), 87.
39. Flath, Beate. Advertising and design: interdisciplinary perspectives on a cultural field.
(Bielefeld: Transcript, 2014), 66.
40. See Image D
41. Williams, Sharrie. "MAYBELLINE STORY BLOG." Da Vinci's The Mona Lisa,
Maybelline's The Mona Lisa, 1937 Before and After. January 01, 1970. Accessed May
22, 2017. http://www.maybellinebook.com/2012/07/da-vincis-mona-lisa-
maybellines-1937.html.
42. Ibid.
43. Ibid.
44. "Kissmetrics Blog." 15 Psychological Triggers to Convert Leads into Customers.
Accessed May 12, 2017. https://blog.kissmetrics.com/15-psychological-triggers/.
45. Schtze, Daniela Fenker Hartmut. "Learning By Surprise." Scientific American.
Accessed May 17, 2017. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/learning-by-
surprise/.
46. Dyer, Gillian. Advertising as communication. (Place of publication not identified:
Routledge, 2013), 123.

47. See Image E
48. "Adsarchive." Coloribus.com. Accessed May 03, 2017.
https://www.coloribus.com/adsarchive/prints/pantene-pantene-for-mona-lisa-
9684655/.
49. Sassoon, Donald. Becoming Mona Lisa: the making of a global icon. San Diego, CA:
Harcourt, 2002.
50. "Work Mona Lisa Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo."
Mona Lisa Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo | Louvre
Museum | Paris. Accessed May 15, 2017. http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-
notices/mona-lisa-portrait-lisa-gherardini-wife-francesco-del-giocondo.
51. Williams, Sharrie. "MAYBELLINE STORY BLOG." Da Vinci's The Mona Lisa,
Maybelline's The Mona Lisa, 1937 Before and After. January 01, 1970. Accessed May
22, 2017. http://www.maybellinebook.com/2012/07/da-vincis-mona-lisa-
maybellines-1937.html.
52. Angelique van Niekerk & Marthinus Conradie (2016) Branding through art: the
commercial value of visual and linguistic signs of art, Critical Arts, 30:2, 233-251,
DOI: 10.1080/02560046.2016.1187795
53. Flath, Beate. Advertising and design: interdisciplinary perspectives on a cultural field.
(Bielefeld: Transcript, 2014), 66.
54. Amir Hetsroni Ph.D. & Riva H. Tukachinsky B.A. (2005) The Use of Fine Art in
Advertising: A Survey of Creatives and Content Analysis of Advertisements, Journal
of Current Issues & Research in Advertising, 27:1, 93-107, DOI:
10.1080/10641734.2005.10505176
55. Belk, Russell W. "Possessions and the Extended Self." Journal of Consumer
Research 15, no. 2 (1988): 139-68. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2489522.
56. Gibbons, Joan. Art and advertising. (London: I.B. Tauris, 2005), 133.
57. David Brandt, EVP, Product Leadership and Ingrid Nieuwenhuis, Director,
Neuroscience, Nielsen. "Understanding Memory in Advertising." What People
Watch, Listen To and Buy. Accessed May 17, 2017.
http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/journal-of-measurement/volume-1-issue-
3/understanding-memory-in-advertising.html.
58. "What is evoked set? definition and meaning." BusinessDictionary.com. Accessed
May 26, 2017. http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/evoked-set.html.
59. McLeod, Saul. "Stages of Memory: Encoding, Storage and Retrieval." Simply
Psychology. 2013. Accessed May 29, 2017.
https://www.simplypsychology.org/memory.html.
60. Lim, Bryant. "What We Know About Memory and its Implications for Modern
Advertising." Medium. January 10, 2017. Accessed May 17, 2017.
https://medium.com/comms-planning/what-we-know-about-memory-and-its-
implications-for-modern-advertising-60399127c826.
61. Hoyer, Wayne D., and Deborah J. MacInnis. Consumer behavior. (Mason, OH: South-
Western/Cengage Learning, 2008), 147-248.
62. See Images F-J







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Images


Image A: Mona Lisa (1503) - Leonardo da Vinci



Image B: Le Petit Journal (1913)

















Image C: L.H.O.O.Q (1919) Marcel Duchamp



Image D: Maybelline Advertisement (1937)



Image E: Pantene Advertisement (2007)





Image F: Vidal Sassoon Advertisement



Image G: Mona Lisa Salon & Spa - Aveda


















Image H: Mona Lisa Skin & Body Bar



Image I: Mona Lisa Cosmetic Supply




Image J: Mona Lisas Beauty Corner