My scent of choice: Miss Dior Chérie. I’ve been wearing it exclusively for a few years now and barely remember how that came to be. I had never seen a commercial for it nor was I accosted by an overeager salesperson and a spray bottom at my local mall. My mother had another Dior perfume and the overall notes in the Dior collections were my style. But after reading an article by Cynthia Freeland in Fashion: Philosophy for Everyone, I wonder if there are other factors contributing to my or another consumer’s preference for a certain perfume. Share the Fantasy: Perfume Advertising, Fashion, and Desire first points out that perfume advertisements are fundamentally different from other aspects of the fashion industry: such as clothing and cosmetics.
Perfume cannot rely on language alone to sell. Instead, perfume advertisements need to employ visual descriptions, music, and visual imagery. Perfume is thus said to be “aspirational.” Consumers want to hold the qualities or experience the actions of the people in these advertisements. It becomes less about the actual physical characteristics of the fragrance, and more about the anticipated intangible characteristics that a consumer will obtain if they purchase the perfume.
I looked up two of the most recent commercials for Miss Dior Cherie to see if I had gotten it right – not based on scent preferences, but on a desire to be the people displayed in these commercials.
In the first commercial, directed by Sophia Coppola, a bubbly young Parisian woman has what appears to be a fun, light hearted day around the city. Cutely dressed and fresh faced, she also gets the guy.
I can’t say that the woman in this commercial is “me” though I wouldn’t mind a carefree day in Paris filled with pastries.
In the second commercial, Natalie Portman is our leading lady. We have no idea what she does, but it includes fabulous clothes, long baths, and plenty of kissing.
Again, there is nothing inherently that draws me to this character that makes me want the perfume. But what if I am the wrong audience? I am viewing these commercials after having already bought the perfume and without any strong prior connection to Christian Dior.
Let’s look at Justin Bieber’s latest perfume, the perfectly named Someday. I literally could not have asked for a better example. As Freeland explains, “perfume ads work by linking fragrance to lifestyle.” And Justin Bieber (or rather, his team) is communicating lifestyle right away, even in the name. Someday you can be with Justin Bieber.
The commercial stars a girl presumably in the same age range as the core of Bieber’s fan base: tween to early teen. Her flowing blonde locks and porcelain skin play with the music, creating a whimsical fantasy. She is not overtly provocative, yet she and Bieber do embrace (often and intimately) and the dark eye shadow and red lip stick give her a seductive aura. The two could just as easily be playing Frisbee in a crowded park. Instead, they are alone together in a dimly lit bedroom. For any person desiring to be that close to Bieber, they are most certainly picking up on the sensual cues of this commercial and the ultimate message is that Someday that person can have exactly what he or she desires. Prices start at $35, but for a few more dollars, you can buy more products to undoubtedly get you that much closer to the Biebs.
And while this may seem harmless and “normal” – young girls pining for the heartthrob of the moment – is perfume advertising really that innocent? I don’t think anyone should be faulted for desiring a certain kind of aesthetic or wanting to live a fantasy every now and then. I certainly can’t make daily trips to Paris, so what’s the harm in a few splashes of Miss Dior Chérie to make me feel like I’m there. Then again, I feel okay with my pseudo escape because I am the one that decided it would happen. I was first drawn to the perfume for its fragrance qualities, and decided to “give in” to its advertising only later. What happens if instead I were the young fan of Justin Bieber? Would I know that Someday I may not meet him even after purchasing a box set? Will I know that if I don’t purchase the perfume, that it doesn’t mean I am less of a fan, or more importantly, less of a person? This type of pressure in perfume advertising is not strictly for a young or naïve audience.
Perfume advertising also communicates strong ideas about race and gender that go largely unchecked. We use humor and sex to mask stereotypical depictions of large groups of people. In the case of Ax and Old Spice, it’s hard to draw the line between joke and insult.
We, philosophers and academicians are not so dense as to miss a little sarcasm, but surely we can go a bit deeper. Are women that simple minded? One whiff of a stranger’s cologne and we lose our ability to think. Or do we just sit around dreaming of the perfect man all day? Someone to rescue us from our dreary lives to shower us with poetry (and money). This is every woman’s fantasy after all. The fact that these depictions are always heterosexual is a topic for another day but even without that analysis they still do a disservice to women and men. But, here we fall into the grey area of stereotyping, where large group assumptions are considered positive, so we do not question the intention of the creators of those messages. Why would we see a problem with a man being able to attract large swarms of women? It seems pleasant enough, but these advertisements are still creating a false world for men. Once in which a few cologne clicks makes you the envy of all men and the desire of all women, and for nothing that takes any more thought then stepping into a shoe.
This vague middle ground of perfume advertising also appears in those fragrances either created by or marketed for women of color. In the case of Halle Berry, Mariah Carey, and Beyonce, all of their commercials are hypersexualized.
We get the depiction of black woman as exotic, as temptress, as insatiable. Again, who doesn’t want to be a sexy woman? Well, in a historical and sociological context where black sexuality is often seen as excessive and deviant, then these commercials are just playing to those themes. And a simple read of user comments on video sites or magazines shows that even with these glossy and sexy commercials, women of color still have to legitimize their fragrances.
Ultimately, perfume is a wonderful facet of fashion that allows us to express our identity through scent. However, we need to be cognizant of the fact that we are also transmitting markers about our identity not based on the fragrance alone, but on the advertising that surrounds that fragrance. Perfume advertising is created to elicit a response from the consumer, to make them desire the lifestyle above all else. This can be a whimsical and lighthearted way to help consumers express themselves, or a deliberate attempt at creating fake deficiency in people that can only be rectified through the purchase of yet another thing.