(Top image: screen shot from a 'Saturday Night Live' parody of perfume adverts, via)
This article first appeared in VICE UK.
Picture the scene: a very good looking person, often but not always a celebrity, is either nude or in a dress that costs more than your entire wardrobe combined. Maybe there's an expensive car, or a beach, or they're entwined with someone in a sexy way. They're wearing fancy jewellery. A sexy, breathy voice says some words. You're supposed to get sucked into their lavish, decadent world, but you have no idea what's going on, until the closing few seconds, when it's revealed that you're actually watching an advert for some perfume.
While there are some perfume ads out there directed by big names which aim to break up this monotony, most of them are almost exactly the same. Some are banned for being too sexy, which is perhaps intentional – controversy is publicity – but all perfume ads are "sexy", dripping with wealth, trying to sell you a lifestyle rather than an actual scent, because – obviously – there's no way to demonstrate to the consumer what the perfume smells like.
Sex usually sells, but apparently not so much in the world of formulaic perfume ads. A report from management consultancy firm A.T. Kearney found last year that perfume makers spend an estimated $800 million (£647 million) on fragrance marketing each year, but that it does seem to change a whole lot: four out of five of the top-selling scents have remained at the top for five years. Once a person is set on their scent, or once a perfume is entrenched in culture as being prestigious, it's hard to unseat them. So why do they keep making the same ads? I spoke to some advertising experts to find out.
Nina Friede, director and founder of perfumery Friedemodin, said, "Perfume ads hire top end celebrities, models and directors; they can cost millions to produce. Perfume is hard to sell, as there are no tangible results that can be shown in an advert. So perfume needs the glitz and glamour." Jo Tanner, founding partner of advertising agency Duke, agreed: "These brands are nearly always global, and dreams – beautiful pictures, music and models – don't need translating. Plus, the markets that really matter to these brands are emerging ones where Western fantasy is still sniffed up with gusto. When you wear a fragrance, you're spreading the dream."
However, Nina does see flaws. "This isolates and excludes the majority of consumers as the adverts are always 'beautiful female, handsome male', and this is becoming boring and doesn't leave much room for diversity," she said. Hayley Smith, owner of lifestyle PR company Boxed Out, agreed: "All perfume adverts look the same. This makes the product recognisable, but it prevents particular brand awareness. It becomes difficult to distinguish one designer from the other, let alone remember the name."
"Many of them have in-house creative departments who all end up with the same strategy; it's attraction plus something. Attraction plus rebellion, passion, addiction or individuality. They don't care what plebs like us think.
I asked Peter Murphy, Creative Director of Hunterlodge Advertising, if there's any potential room for creativity. He told me, "It's international advertising, so dialogue, meaningful or otherwise, is a no-no. Most brands are from fashion houses that are, by nature, pompous and melodramatic. Many of them have in-house creative departments who all end up with the same strategy; it's attraction plus something. Attraction plus rebellion, passion, addiction or individuality. They don't care what plebs like us think." So do no perfume marketers actually want to be creative and stand out?
Iain Hunter, the Executive Creative Director at ad agency Stack, said, "Creative ideas are used most frequently to make your product accessible to more people, whereas perfumes and high end fashion want to appear elite. Truly elite products let their reputation do the talking, and they don't want the risk of trying something that might appear 'mass market'."
Jo Tanner was let go after a year of working on huge fragrance brands like Armani. She told me that she "tried to put a creative idea into their ads, but they were consistently removed. I thought, 'Why would they not want rational, funny, witty or persuasive thinking in their ads?' Eventually I realised that that was the point – they didn't want definition; they wanted implication. Brands – specifically fragrance brands – don't want to be 'pinned down'; they want to be 'sensed'."
All of the advertising experts I spoke to were in agreement that perfume ads are universally pretty shit. Perfume brands are crushed under the weight of their own obsession with prestige and elitism, but could it get better?
"The recurring themes of these ads have become so common that perfume advertising has become a parody of itself."
Iain Hunter said, "Technology is beginning to change this. Fashion brands such as Burberry are using tech to unveil what they do in different ways and different mediums, attempting to bring people closer to the brand but without losing the prestige. Tech is cool, so smart brands have already worked out that using tech will be seen as cool, too. It won't be long before the big perfume brands will be playing more in this space."
Sean Kinmont, the Creative Director of agency 23red, added, "The recurring themes of these ads have become so common that perfume advertising has become a parody of itself. It might all have started with real creativity with Ridley Scott's Chanel No.5 swimming pool ad, but what the genre needs now is the scent of some fresh creative thinking." Elliott Holt, the Strategy Officer of McCann Worldgroup, said, "When a fragrance brand does do something different, and disrupts the codes of the category, as Kenzo World did in their film directed by Spike Jonze, it breaks through the clutter. That ad was thrilling because it was offbeat and surreal, and most women could relate to the heroine's urge to escape convention. I loved that the woman was dancing for fun, on her own terms, not to try to seduce a man. That ad, in its zany surrealism, offered a different sense of possibility: one of freedom."
Perfume marketers know their ads are formulaic. That's what they want: to be instantly recognisable as a perfume ad. They're selling unattainable beauty, an unattainable boyfriend, a completely unattainable but still very seductive lifestyle. Even if, ultimately, what they're actually selling is smelly water. The experts I spoke to were in agreement that the industry needs the kind of creative thinking they're adverse to, but they won't do anything until something critical happens.
Even if ads make no money, there's a degree of prestige attached to having a certain kind of perfume "film" in your vault. The sexier, the more controversial or likely to be banned, the better.