Most celebrity perfume commercials start with a woman. She’s undoubtedly beautiful, has perfect skin, and wears a shimmering dress that leaves just enough to the imagination.
She walks forward. Flash to a bedroom with satin sheets while the sun rises outside. You see her crawling toward the footboard; the dress now turned into lingerie.
Then you see this woman in the pool. She looks happy, and the logo for the perfume appears on top of the water.
“Love you,” she whispers. Then you see the perfume bottle and where to buy it.
You sit there wondering how that imagery was meant to convince you to purchase the product. A thought comes to mind: why was that commercial so bad?
Why Are Celebrity Perfume Commercials So Incredibly Awful?
Fragrance is abstract. The goal is to create personal connections while delivering an aura of physical attractiveness and individual appeal. Celebrity perfume commercials attempt to reflect these traits differently, whether by being sexy or offering cut-scenes that feel like a dystopian movie.
Perfume commercials often feature celebrities at the top of the industry, costing the company millions of dollars to produce the advertising.
Since the brands are taste trendsetters, this approach helps them to start conversations and lead people toward new or established scent options.
That explains why there is an artistic element to them, but why are they… so weird?
There are a few legitimate reasons why the perfume commercials are distinctively different from most advertising you find on TV today.
1. What Does Perfume Do?
Perfume does nothing. It might make you smell better after a four-mile run or create personal aromatherapy while grocery shopping, but this product doesn’t offer the same value proposition as stuff that cleans the kitchen.
How do you show the impact that perfume has on someone?
A famous interview with Robert Green, who was the VP of Advertising for Calvin Klein Cosmetics in 1991, produced this quote about perfume. “It doesn’t stop wetness. It doesn’t unclog your drain.”
That “uselessness” creates a marketing challenge. Since you can’t show people a tangible outcome, the only option left is to play to a person’s emotions.
2. Smells Trigger Memories
When your favorite dish is getting made for dinner, the smell turns an awful day into something better.
If you encounter someone sporting a perfume with a scent that delivers a nostalgic moment, that individual might seem more attractive.
Our sense of smell ties strongly to our emotions. It also produces sexual desire. Although scent is inherently neutral, the experiences we have with different ones create individualized perspectives.
That’s why perfume commercials emphasize the emotional power of odor.
No other human senses have the same kind of access to the brain’s emotional processing center.
3. Scent and Intimacy Have Strong Links
The links between desire and scent are in texts as old as the Kama Sutra. In the Bible, King Solomon confesses his love by saying this his wife’s perfume fragrances are pleasing.
Of course, if you live in the desert and showers aren’t possible, perfume is about your only option if you don’t want body odor dominating the bedroom.
It’s interesting to note that a single scent can predictably attract one person to another. Even perfumes using pheromones have failed to create consistent outcomes.
That doesn’t stop the marketers from playing up the urban myth with their advertising.
Erotic themes and symbolism have been a part of the perfume advertising industry since at least the 1940s.
People want to associate scents with fantasies. Romance and intimacy tend to be where most imaginations go, which is why you’ll see some crazy ads for the latest perfume brand or scent.
4. Subconscious Thoughts
All commercials rely on the power of suggestion to a certain extent. When you watch a pizza ad, the act of pulling cheese with a slice creates an urge that says, “I’m hungry. I want pizza.”
When you see beautiful celebrities in a perfume advertisement, the subconscious mind might say, “I’m lonely. I want companionship.”
That’s why you see the “heavy eyelid” in so many perfume ads. It’s the visual representation of being intimately satisfied.
On the one hand, it’s a bit cliché – and everyone will admit it. On the other hand, companies and marketers wouldn’t use this tropism if it didn’t work.
Print advertising gets racy quickly. A search of Kate Moss ads for Obsession gives you plenty of examples of how marketers looked for visual stimulation, especially in the 1990s.
On television, commercials cannot get graphic without going against the rules and regulations set by standards boards.
An ad that featured Keira Knightley in 2013 was deemed to be too sensual to be around programming for young viewers.
It shows the Knightley unzipping her clothing before she gets undressed to crawl toward him during a shoot. Then the two almost kiss before she tells him to lock the door.
Meanwhile, the song in the background says, “This is a man’s world.”
Knightley disappears out the window, gets on her motorcycle, and rides away.
The goal is to say something without actually saying or showing something. That’s why the messaging can end up being quite strange for some viewers, especially if they don’t pick up on what the references are meant to convey.
5. Recurring Themes
Marketers create advertising based on their information from focus groups, surveys, and consumer behavior. Outside of intimacy, you can find narratives that include beauty, distinction, and freedom.
Should you decide to deny yourself the pleasure, the implication is that you’re repressing yourself instead.
Every ad has a goal. Food companies want to make you hungry. Fitness organizations want you to think about your weight, muscle tone, or need to exercise.
When one thing works in Hollywood, you’ll find a lot of people trying to copycat that success by following the same path.
In 1979, Ridley Scott produced a perfume ad for Chanel called “Share the Fantasy.”
The advertisement was different from others because of what it chose not to show.
Although blatant references are found in the imagery, Scott allowed the brand to harness the power of dreams and imagination without creating something distasteful.
Even though it was “dirty,” Chanel stayed clean. Scott’s work was the only perfume advertisement listed in the 100 best campaigns of the 20th century by Ad Age.
With that success, the commercials continued to get stranger.
Some brands believe that when the advertisements get parodied, that means a successful campaign is created.
Do Perfume Ad Creators Think of Themselves as Strange?
It takes a creative director and writer to turn a strange perfume advertisement into something bizarre. Someone decides the ad is stylistic and beautiful, representing everything the brand wants to communicate. Even so, it still feels like those involved are disconnected from the reality of the marketplace.
One of my favorite movies is Boomerang. In the film, Eddie Murphy’s character runs an advertising agency that pitches a spot for a perfume called “Strangé.”
“After months of hard work by our creative team, you’re about to see the ad that launches our $18 million push,” says the presenter in the movie.
The ad depicts a woman giving birth to the perfume, then closes with the catchphrase, “It stinks so good!”
Perfume ads sell more than a product or a fantasy. They’re trying to pitch the entire brand to the consumer.
Fragrances are an entry point that can lead to watches, sunglasses, clutches, and other items.
The average consumer might not be in a place to afford a $5,500 Chanel bag today, but they could be inspired to buy a more affordable fragrance that lets them feel connected to the brand.
Perfumes are high-margin items, helping the bottom line more than couture. That’s why more brands enter the market and create even stranger ads for us to see.
In 2015, the three shows that had the most fragrance advertising were Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, and Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
Chanel spent $36 million to sell its top perfume during that year.
Good advertising can’t make up for a poor scent, but it can create curiosity and awareness. Until that isn’t possible, we can expect these commercials to get even worse.