Perfume ads

I’m not a particularly regular magazine reader – my only subscription is to New Scientist, and I am way behind in my reading of those. (They arrive every week, and I only get through one or two a month… you do the maths – Adam, you should really borrow a few!) But I actually am quite shallow do like flicking through fashion magazines sometimes, especially when I go to the hairdresser, as they tend to have the really nice glossy overseas ones. A while ago I noticed the grimmest, most crass perfume ad I have ever seen. Since then I’ve noticed a bit of a theme in crass, heavily sexualised perfume ads, and it got me thinking: why do they offend me so much? Most perfume ads are so formulaic, and inoffensive. Why do these few make me squeamish? And – more importantly – are there people out there that find them appealing?

At school I frequently wrote reports or essays in which I critically analysed magazine or TV ads. (Was this actually prescribed in the English syllabus in the 80s? Media literacy? I can’t help wondering whether the apartheid government wanted us to be savvy to the manipulation of the media. Oh well, we did loads of it at school, and I enjoyed it a lot.)

I particularly enjoyed dismantling each ad, figuring out what made it work. What messages was it sending me and other viewers, and how? How was it manipulating us with subtle suggestions and inferences. I developed a bit of respect for the people that put ads together. Designers and stylists and ad people are the snake oil salesmen of our day, and we fall under their charms, over and over again.

And usually the charm is sex. Sex is what sells clothing, cars, toothpaste, and certainly all the fashion and beauty related stuff like cosmetics and perfumes. I suppose we all know this by now, so perhaps it’s a bit old-fashioned of me to expect a bit of subtlety, a bit of style. But I do. You know, some layering, some nuance, a bit of a story.

Here’s your classic perfume add. Take a) a pretty model (or in the case of a men’s fragrance, a sexy man). Model  usually gazes provocatively into camera to suggest direct sexual provocation to viewer. Put said model next to b) the perfume bottle. Then position c) the name of the perfume in some way that maximises the relationship between a), b) and c). Sweet pretty fragrances get sold in soft faded or  floral colours and/or dreamy, evanescent images – clouds, flower petals, mist. More powerful fragrances get sold in reds, black, silver. Gold means sophisticated, good for the older woman. Dusty denim and leather is the rugged boys’ domain. And so on.

Here’s an example:

All three elements – model, bottle, fragrance name. Yup, there’s that direct, provocative gaze. And there’s the gorgeous bottle. The way the model is styled, the colour and the mood of the advert all drive home the name of the fragrance – insolence. Except that this isn’t the dictionary definition of insolence (whatever the hell that is – I haven’t looked it up, but I suspect when my school teachers spoke of insolence, they weren’t thinking of a sexually predatory looking Hilary Swank); this is a distinctly sexualised version. The tousled hair, the parted mouth, the naked arm … I think we get the message. Of course, if you’ve seen Hilary Swank’s movies (Boys Don’t Cry, Million Dollar Baby), the ad works even better. She breaks boundaries, she’s not a girly girl. She’s not Chuck Norris (well obviously – would Chuck represent Guerlain?) but she’s a force to be reckoned with. She’s (erm, maybe?) insolent. Yes, well. By now this is hopefully making us want to smell like her, and persuading us to spend several hundred rand on a bottle of perfume we haven’t even smelled.

OK, so that’s a classic perfume ad. Here are some more examples:

Britney Spears’ perfume, Believe. Again: hot model, evocative name, interestingly shaped bottle. The little birds suggest that our Britney might herself be a recently uncaged little songbird, somewhere between Eden and heaven. Dreamy greens and whites – I guess that means it might smell sweet, fresh, clean, a Heaven-meets-Eden sort of smell. You still haven’t smelled it. But you would, right?

OK. Boy model (he’s probably someone famous, but I don’t know him and I don’t think it even matters in this case); name of perfume; bottle. Name pretty small because, let’s face it, model’s blue eyes and background scenery and colour of bottle all create more than enough of an impression of cool water. I guess it smells fresh and cool and aquatic.

Girl – tick – superstar Halle Berry. Name – tick – as per girl. Bottle – tick – in similar bronze tones to girl. Basically you’re buying a bottle of her. Judging by the Club Tropicana background, you can expect this to smell a bit like a beach holiday. So it might just be a mix of coconut oil and suntan lotion, but probably sexier.

Again, all three elements, but this time with Scarlett Johannsen in a very retro glam guise, looking like one of the original starlets of the silver screen – Bette Davis or Marilyn Monroe. The neckline is all about leading your eye down from her red mouth to her cleavage, running your eye over the name you’ve seen so often before – Dolce & Gabbana – to the bottle, nestled in the bottom corner against the right angle of her elbow. Which also underlines the name. And leads your eye back up the other arm to those fingers, back at that red mouth…. Lots of gold in this ad, giving it warmth and opulence and old-time glamour. No  pineapples and vanilla in this one.

Funny that the model is wearing exactly the same neckline in this one to the previous one. And that the composition also draws your eye from her smoky gaze, down over her cleavage to the name. The predominant shade in this image is black, with the name and bottle each leaping out in contrast – white and red respectively. The black-red-white combination is all about sexual drama – it’s unclear whether the model is supposed to be a stripper in a private room (with all those mirrors behind her) or a creature intoxicated momentarily by her own sultry sexuality opium.

Here’s another cool boy version:

Tom Ford. Infinitely stylish. (Have you seen A Single Man? See it.) This perfume would be understated, amazingly sophisticated. I have no idea what it actually smells like but I can already tell I’d like it. What I like about this one is that it’s more about style than it is about sex. Using grey as the predominant shade is a strategic move. It implies incredible confidence of style, as grey is traditionally the key shade of boring. But here it gets transformed through the use of texture. The textures of the different fabrics – the jacket, the textured grey tie, the amazingly smooth, soft-looking shirt, the silky handkerchief, the sharp metal tiepin, Tom’s velvety stubble – all of these subvert the tradition of grey-as-boring and transform it into grey-as-incredibly-stylish. The gleaming white of the glass bottle, the flaring grey-white of the background, and Tom’s impeccably airbrushed conditioned hair and skin all finish off the composition of textures perfectly. I won’t go into the gorgeous font, which also helps. Point is, it’s enough to make me you want to buy an overpriced potion you haven’t smelled yet.

Right, so these are all fairly blatant, right? I mean, this is not rocket science. Sexy models and sexy images sell perfume. But this started out as something that was going to be a couple of paragraphs about a specific ad that makes my skin crawl. And instead I’ve gotten sidetracked deconstructing rambling on about a bunch that don’t. So here’s what got me started:

Why, then, This advert always make me want to close the magazine I’m looking at and fling it across the room:

I mean, it hardly bears analysis. Hot model? Yes, well, tick. (Happens to be the designer, Jacobs, himself, who apparently is quite pleased with himself after doing a bit of working out and getting himself a bit buff.) Strategically positioned bottle? I’d say. And the name? BANG???!!! The crassness of the thing beggars belief. I suppose some media person could explain it to me, but probably not without some sort of appeal to “irony”, although I just don’t get it. The tin foil? Are you supposed to feel like you’re getting a foil-wrapped bang with an oiled-up Marc in every bottle. What does it smell like? Roast chicken? Duty-free? (Or does all perfume actually smell of duty-free?) I am mystified. Is there anyone out there that finds this advertising persuasive?

About Lisa

I live in South Africa with my husband and two small children, doing things, thinking about things and sometimes writing about them.
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6 Responses to Perfume ads

  1. Anita says:

    I am sooooo please you are back blogging. I really missed you. And I agree about that crass advert. I have Marc Jacobs “Daisy” and I do so love it………..

  2. Lara says:

    I think it’s supposed to look like what happens when you pull a Christmas cracker – a big BANG and then the crunchy foil & hot guy with star tattoos falls out – your novelty to keep. Thank you for not speculating on what BANG smells like …

  3. Adam says:

    I’m guessing it smells like toffee – sure looks like a recently-unwrapped one.

  4. Kristina says:

    I found your blog while looking for images of perfume bottles to use in a color study. This is a great topic. I totally agree about the Marc Jacobs ad- puh-lease. I have never liked his advertisements for anything. It goes with his “brand” that he’s going for- a branding I just plain old don’t get. This is beyond “sex sells”- my guess is the perfume sells of stale semen.

  5. amanda says:

    enjoyed this – thx.

    um i guess perfume is just not targetted at me – no mum pushing shopping trolley, late for pick up or madly missing deadlines to the aluring whiff of…..BANG.

  6. That add made me wrinkle my nose in total disgust. It has an oily-slimey-turn-your-head-from-the-sun-glare feel about it. I just can’t even look at it let alone imagine wanting to smell it, or buy it.
    Great post, thanks.

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