Perfume is a product to sell via advertising much like any other. However, it also brings special challenges that make it a process with unique propositions and creative opportunities. It’s a demanding task matching the intangible to the indefinable in the pursuit of the illusionary. That so much hasn’t risen to these demands is both evidence of the scale of the challenge to get it right and the usual prohibitive industry pressures. The combination of sheep/lemming syndrome: agencies not seeing outside of their narrow creative coterie with the inevitable lazy results; associated cultural piggy-backing and clients seeing the opposition and saying – I want one just like that – has been responsible for a school of advertising that is less than heaven s(c)ent.
Looking beyond elements of seasonality and gift; as well as image consciousness derived through close proximity to, or from being a direct off-shoot of, the fashion industry – the core message of any perfume ad remains sex and attraction. It depends on consumers buying into the overpowering whiff of scented seduction and the promise of scoring with the opposite sex. We’re like ships in the night: requiring a prevailing waft of breeze and the right circumstances to anchor our hearts. That little miracle bottle attains the best of both worlds – encouraging and achieving intimacy.
Imbuing values into a scent is to appeal to one of our strongest senses – one that acts as a powerful aide-mémoire. That so much has been at best instantly forgettable – or at worst risible – is because the perfume ad has too often been the rank home of creative directors with a penchant for pseudo-film school imagery. Whether it be stultified talent, or evidence of delusions of grandeur from those who realise this is the only arena they’re going to get their paeans to shattered professional dreams out into the open.
Impressionistic montage abounds… moody black and white images attempt to confirm and convey weighty thought and values through the rain, the film stock grain and the emotional pain. Languid black and white slow-mo cavalcades unwind – literary and cinema inspired – of intimacy and enough body fascism to make Leni Riefenstahl blush. Obsession from Calvin Klein is almost a sub-genre of its own: from Kate Moss stalker-chic to glossy well-toned bodies that flit in and out of our peripheral vision like driftwood on a sexual shore. More beached bum than parfum.
Cue the dancing ethereal sprites… girls who giggle and whisper like a bipolar Audrey Hepburn; all slender-limbed – both pixy-cut and pixilated. They’re elusive; just out of reach representations of the universal feminine spirit seeking the enlightenment that is delivered via floral notes and subtle hints of mystery. Similarly oblique… square-jawed and mumbling muscular men pontificate and elucidate – all the better if phrased in the language of love. French mumbo-jumbo sounds so much more intense and meaningful than mumbo-jumbo in our own native tongue.
Ah… there they go again – those sweet-smelling extensions of our psyche: running down beaches, through fields of gold without any sting and across summer meadows in relationship games as old as the landscape they barely touch. Free to mess with convention as much as the wind – or a lover’s wanton hand – messes with their hair as they divine a life of freedom: a life like no other. A life we’re equally free to engage in with a quick spurt of eau-de-toilette. The magic mist descending in a spray designed to strip a lifetime of inhibitions, nurture and social conditioning.
Last year’s Gucci Guilty Black is an exemplar of the current genre: Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight meets Tinto Brasso soft-core thrusting on the back seat propelled by rent-a-car ad euphemisms so blatant it hurts. Surely the nadir was reached – or the peak for those of us intent on chasing the next cheesy perfumed thrill – with Brad Pitt’s Chanel No. 5 performance. Memorable for all the wrong reasons, this loose jumble of quasi-spiritual psychological claptrap made like a press release from a fourth form creative writing class. All agonising, quizzically smouldering looks to camera and posing dressed as insight.
A quick straw poll – highly unscientific and with a few members of the general public closest to hand and less likely to treat my request with the same unease as a philosophical musing from our Brad suggests that there are very few fondly remembered or defining perfume ads in the manner of other more concrete products. Those that did crop up illustrate the glorious days when catchphrase was king: Faberge’s Brut with its determinedly popularist – Splash it all over line – celebrity endorsed by Henry Cooper and Kevin Keegan. And Old Spice’s – The mark of a man – which to our more sophisticated tastes might seem to embody the crude sexism of the ‘70s but nevertheless reinforces the contention of the underlying universal message.
But these responses were either from men of a certain age or those younger with a taste for kitsch. Female recollections were almost all about the scent: matching life experiences/stages – conjuring up what they wore, where they went and who with; the first time of affording a more upmarket fragrance and celebrity emulation – or the product names which had a certain dissonance such as Lentheric’s Tramp and Christian Dior’s Poison.
It seems we like the tease; we like the intrigue; we like the possibilities of the little bottles in the bathroom/bedroom. Maybe we might like to see something that is more grounded – less away with the fairies; sorry pixies. Cut back on the Ikea porn – all cool, artful angles and no sweaty bits – for a suitable hint of reality. Maybe the British taste would prefer it straight and to the point – like sex on the night out that the chosen fragrance commonly articulates and underscores. Certainly not kept in – or coming out from – the dark where all manner of weird obsession lurks…