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Clooney’s Nespresso: genre in a cup

The Nespresso Cinematic Advertising Universe

Art by Shania O'Brien

I remember the moment I was introduced to Nespresso. I was 12, sitting in my room polishing beyblades, and I heard my Dad ruffling around the kitchen. He had purchased a Nespresso machine. In retrospect, I never really used it, but it had a profound impact on me: it introduced Nespresso into my life.

While the capsule technology and machine design was revolutionary, they didn’t even hold tea lights to how Nespresso was marketed. George Clooney shot the Nestle product to absolute stardom, and with it, his identity and personal brand became intrinsically attached to Nespresso. Its ads have a unique filmic and narrative language, an audio-visual universe created for solely this purpose.

The first advertisement launched in 2006. Titled What else?, this entry established the genre and all its tropes. George Clooney, decked out in a dark grey suit and black turtleneck, waltzes into the Nespresso store from the sidewalk. Popping a capsule into the machine, Clooney overhears two women talking about their coffee: “rich,” “mysterious,” “an intense body.”

“You’re talking about the Nespresso, right?” Clooney inquires.

“Uh-huh,” one of them says.

“Yeah, what else?” Clooney replies.

Most of what has come to define the Clooney ads comes through in this one entry. The Boutique, composed by Benjamin Raffaelli and Frédéric Doll, accompanies the action and has remained a staple of the series. Its sophisticated electric piano, soft bass, and brassy techno chimes lends the ad a distinct musical character and sets the tone perfectly, imbuing the Nespresso brand with elegance and refinement. 

The catchphrase “What else?” also made its debut here, and has maintained a crucial presence in the franchise. It’s catchy, it’s memorable, but its significance lies in the obviousness of praise for Nespresso – not only is it deserved, but it’s a no brainer.

Finally, the narrative itself establishes a template that has been replicated time and time again. George Clooney gets a Nespresso, and in the process is humiliated or emasculated by female patrons. I do not know why this is such a consistent theme, yet it appears so very frequently throughout the ads. Does this reflect an anxiety of the directors, an insecurity of George himself, or do the big wigs at Nespresso think their customers love a bit of public humiliation? 

In How far would you go for a Nespresso? featuring George Clooney and French actor Jean Dujardin, Jean is about to use the last capsule. George sees this and intervenes in an attempt to negotiate for the capsule. Jean asks for George’s shoes and they partake in a trade. But after George makes his coffee, a woman saunters over and asks if she can have it. George graciously agrees (as is the chivalrous thing to do), only to find out that the coffee was bound for Jean. 

This narrative arc appears across multiple entries. In the George Clooney x John Malkovich Nespresso marketing campaign, George is killed by a falling piano after exiting the Nespresso store clutching a newly purchased machine and capsules. Greeted by John Malkovich (God) in the afterlife, George tries to bargain his way back to earth. He offers his car, his house, yet none of them will satisfy the good Lord himself: all John Malkovich wants is the coffee machine. And he gets it. Not only is this broader storyline repeated, but a more specific trope of George getting conned out of Nespresso by female co-stars is particularly prescient in the series. Both In the Name of Pleasure and a 2010 commercial from the What Else? series feature a woman either conning George out of an already made Nespresso or a Nespresso capsule. This convention of the genre presents the audience with a tragic hero: George is alone and vulnerable – exposed to the wiles of a string of femme fetales and almost never winning. It often seems as if this reflects the numerous failed relationships Clooney had from the late 80s till just before his long term relationship with Amal Alamuddin began. The narrative of Clooney as a victim of his own celebrity and heartless female suitors has been spun often, and these ads are no exception. But for a marketing campaign that seeks to sell a product to its audience, it consistently denies its main character access to that product. A presumably counteractive strategy for any ad.

George isn’t always denied his Nespresso though. In Change Nothing, Clooney elects to be brutally beaten up by a local mob boss (played by Ian McShane) and his goons rather than give up his coffee machine. Yet once again, he finds himself in this situation after being led on by Ian McShane’s wife at the Nespresso store. Another example of the sinister seductress archetype that features so very heavily throughout the series.  

But in both scenarios, Nespresso presents a world where their product is not only desired but demanded. People lie, cheat, steal, and attack others in an effort to obtain the coffee or coffee adjacent products they so desperately crave. This, in many ways, is the world as Nespresso would like it to be: one where their product is king and their customers are  frothing to get it.

The internal universe of these ads isn’t all sinister though. The weird hyper-capitalist, misogynistic throughline is just the body of this latte – travel a little further up and you can see some of the froth. Throughout my viewings, I’ve often wondered what canon these ads have operated off. Is George Clooney George Clooney or just a character named George Clooney? If he is our George, then is he the exact same or slightly different? And lastly, where are the events of these ads taking place and do they all exist within a cohesive, consistent, and continuous Nespresso Advertising Universe? 

I put these questions to Nespresso, but they did not get back in time for the publication of this article. I don’t need them though! I never did. Because if you look at the texts themselves, they offer up some interesting and curious answers. In The Quest and an unnamed 2015 commercial featuring Danny DeVito, Nespresso quite explicitly addresses the separation between reality and fantasy. Both feature a motif of Clooney stepping in and out of screens or images. In The Quest, a medieval alternate reality version of George Clooney is sent on a quest for Nespresso by the Queen (played by Natalie Dormer). Sir George, as I’ll call him, steps out of a cinema screen, into the audience, and presumably into our world. He runs out into New York city in search of the precious Nespresso and boards a double decker tour bus. As he’s seeing the sights we spot a billboard ad for Nespresso in the background: a billboard featuring George. This raises many questions. Is Sir George simply a magical manifestation of a film character played by George Clooney, or has George escaped into the world of this film, only to be thrust back into reality by royal decree? These questions repeat themselves in the unnamed Danny DeVito commercial. George and Danny spend most of the ad walking around the set of a film, exchanging quips, getting into hijinks, and just generally being their wonderful selves. The moment I’m interested in happens at the close of the ad, where George and an extra dressed as a court jester step into a fabric screen being moved by two men and bearing an ad for Nespresso on it. They become part of that 2D ad, creating an ad within an ad, with George hopping from one ad to the other. 

All this makes Clooney some kind of pan-dimensional advertising demon, able to cross from one advert to another through screen portals. One might even say he is able to cross between all media, as he steps out from the film of The Quest and into the ad. Of course you could then argue that the film playing in The Quest is just an extension of the ad we’re being shown, making it all advertising at the end of the day. While these ads may seem shallow and personality driven at first glance, from my research, they’re so much more than that. They’re intertextual and interconnected, each of them engaged in an ongoing dialogue within the saga. With each entry, they comment on their predecessors and even themselves, both recognising and ignoring the tropes of their genre. Together, they sing as one chorus – preaching a single gospel of Nespresso.

Of course, when I told my Dad all of this he replied that he’d never seen a Clooney Nespresso ad. But for me, Nespresso has always been a piece of media rather than a tangible line of products. The genre they’ve managed to construct over more than a decade of production ensnared me from day one. So, thanks Dad. While that coffee machine might not have done much for me then, it led to a manic preoccupation with the ads which sold them – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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