The highly sexual art of selling perfume

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The sexualisation of fragrance

Beyonce, Kate Moss, Eva Mendes and Madonna have all lent their own overtly sexual poses to advertise their perfume brands.

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A few months before the mildly anticipated release of Madonna’s first fragrance, Truth or Dare she released a statement that described it thusly;

Truth: Duality. Sin is my twin. Contradictions push and pull.
Dare: To expose what lies beneath. Infinite possibility.
In this tension, we find our true selves.

While we’ll never know if she lifted this verse directly from one of Lourdes’ teen-angst-ridden diaries what we can ascertain is what she meant by the line ‘to expose what lies beneath’ because when the campaign for the fragrance launched it predictably showed Madonna writhing around on various surfaces dressed in lite-bondage wear and whispering provocatively. Which is exactly how one would expect Madonna to sell anything be it a fragrance, her next album or a household cleaning appliance.

Unforgivable Woman by Sean John (P. Diddy).

Unforgivable Woman by Sean John (P. Diddy).

 

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The Disney-owned ABC network in the States quickly found issue with the amount of cleavage she was flaunting and banned the ad until the creators agreed to a re-edit. It then joined an illustrious list of celebrity perfume endorsements deemed too inappropriate for the mainstream media. This press-worthy coupe is shared by Beyonce’s first fragrance Heat, Kate Moss’ YSL Parisienne commercial, Dakota Fanning’s peculiar Marc Jacobs campaign, Eva Mendes’ nipple slip for Calvin Klein and, to nobody's surprise, this corker from Sophie Dahl.

 

Dolce & Gabbana

Dolce & Gabbana

Advertising a fragrance is a tough gig – it’s the ultimate case of the Emperor’s new clothes – selling us something we actually can’t see. And of all the different products that rely on sex to market themselves perfume is a particularly interesting case study. Scent is intrinsically linked to desire and sexual attraction. It actually makes sense to associate it with romance, flirtation and the prelude to gymnastics in the bedroom. Of course the way advertising agencies have always ham-fistedly portrayed women in these ads is riddled with problems – none more concerning than the hypersexual strain of imagery that has emerged over the past few years.

 

Almost like a template - women - famous or otherwise – appear in these ads posing in 1. A state of undress (not new) 2. In position of submission - either dominated by a man or calling out for his attention (unfortunately also not that new) and 3. (the twist) more and more often they are positioned in scenarios that appear to skate very closely to representing abuse. The pre-orgasmic  (or is it panicked?) voiceovers that narrate the TV commercials add another layer of concern.

Jasmine and Musk by Tom Ford.

Jasmine and Musk by Tom Ford.

 

How and why have marketers come to so strongly correlate sugary fragrances in expensive bottles with submissive and/or borderline abusive sex?

 

Opium by Yves Saint Laurent.

Opium by Yves Saint Laurent.

Ad Week contributor Robert Klara says, “It’s gone from a knowing cleverness about sex to the rawness of a porn shoot. Marketers have lost the whole meaning of why [people] wear fragrances and moved away from reality in fragrance ads. Today, cologne is positioned solely around beautiful, young people—and you only sell it with sex.”

 

Interestingly it tends to be the most high-end brands creating the most overt and disturbing material. These brands are fixated on appearing “aspirational” to consumers and somewhere along the line that has started to be interpreted as something that is highly sexual.

Daisy by Marc Jaobs.

Daisy by Marc Jaobs.

 

Fragrance is big business. A billion dollar industry that continues to gain momentum. In 1990 there were 76 fragrance launched worldwide. In 2011, there were 1047 launches and, already this year, 500 new fragrances have launched.

 

Purr by Katy Perry

Purr by Katy Perry

Marketers will always push boundaries to get our attention but glamourising  this kind of imagery seems a pretty good place to draw a line.  Jane Caro, Gruen Transfer panellist and lecturer in advertising at the University of Western Sydney says, “The easy route to go [for marketers] is this soft porn nonsense – it’s also because you’ve got a bunch of blokes writing the ads.”

 

It would be hard to argue that any of the banned ads or most fragrance ads in general are designed with women’s titillation in mind. How effective can ads be that seem much more focused on getting male attention and devaluing women than getting us to pop down to the perfume counter?

Intamately Beckham.

Intamately Beckham.

 

Caro says, “I find a lot of perfume ads completely impenetrable. I don’t understand them and it’s very rare that you see a good one.  The real worry for me is the real submissive element that the woman as sexual service provider for the male – that’s a real concern – it’s a form of grooming for young girls and I think companies should be  very wary of associating themselves with that”

 

If only these brands would start to feel more wary. Because if they need to keep pushing boundaries to get ads banned (to in turn get our attention) you’ve got to wonder -where will they go from here?