“You know, if any lipstick is really going to soften and moisten your lips, it can’t just sit on the surface—it has to penetrate!” In a lipstick commercial for Revlon from the 1950s, the model recites these words without a wink. The viewer might also have completely missed the innuendo here. But the fact remains that the image of a soft, malleable lipstick emerging from its casing has an undeniably phallic appearance, even without the suggestive script.

Until recently, makeup advertisements have merely hinted at sex, sending subliminal messages to the viewers. The right lipstick will change your life, a good ad might try to communicate—but first, the lipstick has to penetrate.

Subtlety seems to have vanished since then, and innuendo almost seems quaint. Cue the video for makeup artist and beauty-product creator Isamaya Ffrench’s Lips collection. Ffrench, in close-up, applies the bright scarlet lipstick as she gazes into a reflective surface. The camera zooms out, and we see Ffrench in a red latex tube dress leaning against what appears to be a tall chrome sculpture of … oh, it’s a penis. This sculpture is a larger-than-life rendition of the Lips package design; the actual lipstick comes in a palm-size chrome sculpture. Remove the shaft, hold the testicles, and the bullet of pigment becomes its own kind of phallus.

There’s nothing subtle about Isamaya Ffrench’s lipstick.

Shortly after it was released, in February, the first run of the Lips collection completely sold out, proving—not that anyone needs proof—that sex really does sell. The design created its viral, photogenic moment. Ffrench tells me, “It was very important to create something that didn’t feel gratuitous and actually felt quite playful and light, because, listen, a dick’s a loaded symbol, isn’t it? And I think to be able to make that work, you have to keep things light and humorous.” Does she really believe that a lipstick inside a chrome cast of a cock and balls isn’t gratuitous? Isn’t that the whole point?

In 2019, Nars released a video on Instagram to promote its new Morocco shade. The video showed the fleshy lipstick melting in reverse: going from a flaccid, veiny object to a smooth Nars-branded bullet. The caption read, “When the nudes keep you up all night.” Chrissy Teigen tweeted in response, “Honestly in love with this color and now I must have it to soften my boner.” Others were not so amused. Nars, already known for its sexual makeup names—Deep Throat, Orgasm, Super Orgasm, the Multiple—may have traveled too far into vulgarity, according to most of the commenters, and lost the audience. It was less art than commerce, less class than crass.

The right lipstick will change your life, a good ad might try to communicate—but first, the lipstick has to penetrate.

Ffrench contends that her love for art keeps her lipstick above the fray. She mentions “a nod to Jeff Koons” in the Lips packaging, which is certainly evident—Balloon Dog as a dog. She also steers clear of any campy, sexualized product names. Cardinal Red Satin, Flamingo, and Vanity Black Shimmer are fairly straightforward as these things go. Ffrench says she wants the design to speak for itself, and there’s no arguing that. “You don’t need to do too much to something that’s already quite powerful. In the end, it can almost kind of dilute the essence of it.”

What goes up … Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks, by Claes Oldenburg.

The Vanity Black Shimmer shade is a subtle “water balm.” It reminds me of a scene from The Breakfast Club when Molly Ringwald tucks a tube of Clinique Black Honey lipstick in her cleavage and applies it hands free. Ringwald is essentially motorboating herself, but the lipstick, once applied, looks sheer, understated, and almost innocent.

There’s nothing innocent or subtle about Ffrench’s lipstick, and she’s not apologizing for it. “Sexuality is big right now,” she says. “And we’re trying to find our place in it because it’s in a time of flux or shift or transformation … Lips came at a moment where people were well equipped to deal with a cock lipstick.”

In the realm of legitimate art, Claes Oldenburg used lipstick as a form of cultural commentary when he installed Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks at Yale University in 1969 amid protests against the Vietnam War. The 24-foot sculpture, made of an inflatable fabric rather than a metal or stone, depicts the bullet of lipstick as a stand-in for an actual bullet. “The wonderful thing about it is that it will never stay up,” Oldenburg recently told The New York Times. War is counteracted by the possibility of peace; a phallic object is deflated by its own softness and vulnerability.

Ffrench believes her lipstick’s popularity reflects a general acceptance of sex and sexualized objects, at least among her audience. “No subliminal messaging needed,” she says. “It is what it is.” Perhaps it’s inevitable that innuendo would eventually be replaced by directness. The lipstick as penis. It is what it is.

Chelsea Hodson is the author of Tonight I’m Someone Else and the publisher of the independent press Rose Books