Of all the various products in which marketing is involved, cosmetics must be the most mysterious and complex. In a single tube of lipstick there is allure, deception, provocation, exhibitionism, pig fat and a healthy margin.
To invest such a potent item with the additional compelling qualities that make for extra sales is a craft demanding an almost intuitive grasp of the very roots of human sexuality.
Happily, we have Dr Chris Knight of the University of East London to help. He has made a study of earliest man and, fittingly for an academic working in that robust part of the metropolis, he has come up with the leg-over theory of evolution and language.
Whereas Aristotle believed that the ability to engage in thought for its own sake was what distinguished man from beast, Dr Knight holds that the mainspring of humanity was the male’s insatiable lust, and the female’s ability to manipulate it.
Out of that came the organised grunts, glottals, labials and dentals that were to flower some 100,000 years later in the sonnets of Shakespeare. And pivotal to the development of civilisation was livid red make-up. Who would have thought that, reaching back over the millennia, the Avon lady had a forebear for whom leg waxing would have been mere tinkering?
Dr Knight’s theory runs something like this: earliest man, who was without words, and therefore unable to chat to his mates about the weather, the mammoth that got away, and the new female who’d moved into the hole next door, nevertheless had a large brain and a limitless interest in sex, unlike today’s Sun reader, who has a limitless interest in sex.
This relentless urge to mate with as many females as possible presented problems for the ape-women, who were also without the gift of speech and therefore denied the opportunity to say no. Worse even than the constant pregnancies were the infants who, with their enlarged brains, were coming out of the womb quicker than had been the case a few thousand years earlier and were therefore helpless infants, mewling and puking around the cave for longer than anyone wanted.
The females needed some practical help, but the males were no use. Pubs not yet having been invented, and dog tracks still light years away, all they could do to kill time between sunrise and sunset was to keep working on the invention of the wheel and lay a few females in between times.
According to Dr Knight, the females’ first solution was to make sex available all the time, which, though not much of an answer, at least meant the men hung around long enough to help with odd jobs like peeing on the fire when the flames got too hot.
Menstruation, then as now, was a curse. It was a dead give-away, highlighting for the rolling eye of the ever-rutting male the females who were neither pregnant nor breast feeding and therefore a good bet, not that the odds were long when all you needed was a good turn of speed and a useful right hook.
It was at this point in pre-history that females laid the foundations of civilisation with deception. To limit the chances of the males successfully finding new mates who would conceive and be in competition for food with existing mothers, they hit upon the notion of daubing themselves with blood-coloured make-up. That way, they all looked a good bet.
Now confused, the male woke up one morning to find the Ice Age was over, meaning the food was walking around further afield.
The females, still painting themselves with ochre rock or fetching shades of cerise, were faced with more problems. How could they persuade the males to stop mooning about the place with only one thing on their mind, and get down to the job of hunting instead? And how could they stop the selfish sods from eating all the meat before they got back to the cave?
Here Dr Knight makes an imaginative leap (as if all that has gone before was more than mere supposition). The females, he says, already bonded by body painting, organised sex strikes. The message was as simple as it was brutal: “No meat, no jig-a-jig.” Primitive man, though a hunter, was plainly a softie who could no more bring himself to dishonour an unwilling female than stone a bison from behind. He buckled under, and civilisation was born. So, too, was language.
The women, believe it or not, began talking first, as part of their female conspiracy. “Language refers to the world of the imagination,” explains Dr Knight, “and that was what was going on with these sex strike rituals.”
Of course, it must have taken thousands of years for the males to make sense of the unusual noises being created by the females, and, after all that time, it cannot have been rewarding to discover that the meaning of language was, “three pork chops and a brisket or you’re on your own tonight”.
But once understanding had dawned, there was no holding man back. He turned the cosmetics revolution and the creation of language to commercial advantage. It was perforce an exercise in subtlety, for there is no illusion more fragile than the appeal of cosmetics.
How could it be otherwise when, beneath the blood red glow of the lipstick’s lure, there lies a distant primeval memory of an ape with a painted backside?