How Ryan Gosling Sells a Watch—With a Wink and a Smile

Here's what you can learn from an ad starring one of America's (well, Canada's) most famous stars—selling a luxury watch.

What does Ryan Gosling have to do with a watch?

Imagine my surprise when I opened my door this morning and found Ryan Gosling’s face looking back at me. Well, not exactly. What I saw was a photo of Gosling printed on a poster wrapped around my daily copy of the New York Times. I brought the paper inside, did my usual cursory reading, then turned my attention to the poster. 

Gosling is in top form here: a light beard, platinum-blond hair left over from his star turn as Ken in the Barbie movie, what looks like a blue tracksuit. It could be a still from Drive, the role that defined him in the eyes of many young cinemagoers (at least, those of us who’d avoided The Notebook). He has a cocky look in his eyes. The tagline: “How bad does he want that watch?”

Because this isn’t a poster for a film. At least, not one you can watch in theaters. It’s promotional material for TAG Heuer, a Swiss watch company whose product appears prominently on Gosling’s wrist. 

See that text there?

As copywriters, of course, we have to give credit to the purely text-based portions of the ad. On the poster, where you’d expect to see credits for an actual film, we instead get the following:


It might seem strange to put so much thought into text that will almost certainly be passed over. Your eye naturally passes over text in this format, as you’ve been trained to do by seeing countless film posters. But these aren’t amateurs. They’re leaving this in on purpose, almost as a kind of easter egg. They’re in on the joke.

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There’s layers within layers…

Now let’s discuss the ad itself. The QR code at the bottom of the poster links to a video in which Gosling portrays himself, alongside director David Leitch (also playing himself), on a film set. After shooting a stunt scene—and making sure to include the watch prominently in the shot—Gosling goes over to Leitch and sketches out an idea for a commercial that roughly corresponds to the one we’re seeing onscreen. Leitch rejects the idea as nonsensical, and we all chuckle.

When prop master Vanessa Bayer comes to retrieve the watch, Gosling makes a quick exit, setting up the middle third of the ad: The Chase for Carrera. It’s a parody of slick, ultra-stylish action films like the ones that have built Gosling’s and Leitch’s careers, with additional references to Hollywood clichés and tropes of other genres. When the whole thing devolves into a shouting match between Gosling and Bayer, we see that they’ve spent the whole time on a green screen: another layer of artifice. Here, too, though, Gosling is reluctant to surrender the watch.

It’s not hard to unpack the layers of semiotic association at work here. First, most obviously, there’s Gosling the heartthrob. People like to buy products they associate with charming, good-looking people. Michael Cera is probably about as famous as Gosling, and rose to prominence at around the same time, but would you buy a watch because Michael Cera was wearing it? No offense intended, but it’s more likely that Cera, like his character in Twin Peaks: The Return, would be the one desperately trying to emulate screen badasses.

Second, there’s the specificity of Gosling’s roles. You can’t put Gosling behind the wheel of a car without audiences thinking about Drive, which established his role with laconic simplicity: “I’m the driver.” The neon colors of the TAG Heuer commercial seem deliberately evocative of the work of Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn. For the first few seconds, we might think that what we’re going to see is an out-and-out pastiche of the film.

But of course, that’s not the direction they go with. Taking us out of the action-movie world and into the Hollywood caricature establishes an ironic distance which shows that the copywriters who scripted this ad are well aware of what they’re up to. “Yeah, we’re selling you a watch by putting it on the wrist of a handsome movie star,” they say. “But at least we’re being honest about it.” Once again: they’re in on the joke.

Compare this to the iconic McConaughey Lincoln commercials. While they drew a lot of attention, they also invited parody, as McConaughey’s southern drawl proved all-too-imitable, and the philosophical dictums that made his performance on True Detective magnetic seem a bit ludicrous when they’re put in the context of a car commercial. An actor’s image can quickly turn into shtick when it’s nakedly used to sell a product, regardless of the quality of the product itself—let alone some of the weirder products stars have sold, in and out of the U.S.

So what have we learned?

Of course, you’d expect a top-tier advertising campaign like this to have high standards. “Well-funded ad looks and sounds great”—well, yeah. But there’s a lesson here that copywriters and marketers can apply even on a small scale: a little bit of irony can be healthy. Of course, don’t overdo it, or you can seem self-effacing. Just a dash of self-awareness can make viewers feel that they’re not just being sold to: they’re sharing a laugh with a peer.

Want copywriting that gets it? Contact the team at MarketSmiths.

George Menz

George Menz

Before joining MarketSmiths, George's professional experience spanned gaming, education, and big law. He is a born New Yorker and graduated from Columbia University.

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