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Cleopatra, the Queen on Her Throne, by Claire Mercier

Cleopatra, the Queen on Her Throne, by Claire Mercier

Since antiquity, the historical reality of Cleopatra has yielded to myth. Liberated from the constraints of reality, and sometimes even realism, this almost fictional character could evolve according to the expectations of each era. While this 2020 American advertisement for Kohler’s toilets does not explicitly name Cleopatra, few would fail to recognize her in this image. This association has been made possible through the arrangement of characteristic signs specific to the current representation of the queen. This advertisement, while playing with these signs, also illuminates them.

The contemporary image of Cleopatra is complex, reflecting the various layers of interpretation that have accumulated over the centuries, and this advertisement provides a compelling example. The most significant layer is that imagined by the 19th century, comprised partly of the influence of the aesthetics of pharaonic Egypt and partly of Orientalism. For the former, although the elements have been adapted, we find the pleated white robe, bracelets, and pectoral necklace, as well as Cleopatra’s black square-coiffed hair. These Pharaonic-inspired costumes are also worn by two of her servants. The palace setting, with its columns, walls adorned with hieroglyphs, statues, and in the background, the pyramids, reinforces this pharaonic ambiance.

The second Orientalist influence is embodied, firstly, by the two final characters: an oriental dancer and a snake charmer, and then by the jewel that Cleopatra wears around her face, inspired by the accessories of Oriental dancers, and finally by the presence of the two panthers. These animals began to appear in the paintings of 19th-century history painters, initially in the form of skins and then vividly for the first time in Alexandre Cabanel’s “Cleopatra trying poisons on condemned men” in 1887. However, it wasn’t until the 20th century that these new companions more frequently complemented Cleopatra’s universe. We note the presence of a new, unusual animal, the scorpion.


These elements underscore the grandeur of the queen, who exudes a haughty air. Her power is so great that she even controls dangerous animals. The snake charmer introduces a snake into the image, a presence generally ominous when accompanying Cleopatra, but here it is charmed. The panthers, resembling large domestic cats, sit calmly, and even the scorpion turns away. This royal and pompous image juxtaposed with the product creates an irreverent and comedic dissonance. Promoting toilets is no easy task. Like a number of other products (such as sanitary napkins or funeral services), they are subject to social taboos. Humorously diverting Cleopatra’s image helps to destigmatize the product. By playing on the polysemy of the word “throne,” the advertisement achieves this, as evidenced by the text: “I feel like a queen on this throne.” Humor also helps to attract the attention of the public and make the brand more likable. Furthermore, Cleopatra becomes the guarantor of the product’s quality by reinforcing the association between comfort and royalty.


Creating an advertisement requires significant budgets, so advertisers must provide ads that are effective and easily understood by the public. History is a risky theme in advertising because it may be poorly understood by consumers. It is therefore necessary to include figures of very high notoriety, of which Cleopatra is a part, as demonstrated by this example.

Author: Claire Mercier, ISTA Laboratory, University of Franche-Comté, France

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