December 19, 2012
Perfume ads, pre-pornography
It's taken so long for the idea to even occur to me, but I haven't looked into the history and cycles of perfume and cologne. Seems natural enough after looking into the visual culture, music, literature, etc., to see if they too track the trend in the crime rate. Because they leave no trace, it's hard to know what scents were popular when and among whom, without first-hand testimony. Fortunately it seems like there's enough written down to piece together the history.
Before writing that up, though, I thought it'd be worth taking a quick look at what the industry's ad campaigns used to look like. Today, they're certainly the first ones we'd think of when calling to mind examples of trashy or offensive ads.
My earliest memory of fragrance ads are the Kate Moss campaign for Obsession. She's nude and looks to be about 13 -- which I didn't mind back in 1993, when I was also 13. But taking a second look nearly 20 years later, yeah, I see why everybody got so worked up over them, especially since they were plastered everywhere.
I never noticed any change away from that trend in the meantime, so I'd always assumed they were like that back through, well, I didn't think about it exactly, but probably back through the 1970s and late '60s.
It turns out the mainstream porno perfume ad is a product of the past 20 years. It's unrelated to the sexual revolution -- indeed, it sprung up just as young people began to have less sex and with fewer partners. Real life was becoming more prudish, so people wanted to look at really bizarre ads to shock themselves awake? I don't know.
An easy way to see these changes is to look at the ad campaigns for a single perfume over time. Ideally you'd want to look at the ads for many popular perfumes in a given year, and do so across however many years. But the quick way works pretty well too.
Here is a gallery that shows the evolution of the ads for Coco by Chanel, starting with its debut in the mid-1980s. You can find other popular perfumes by decade by searching Fragrantica and then doing a Google image search for their ads.
To anyone whose memories only go back to the naked pedo-looking Kate Moss, the ads of the '80s appear to come from an earlier, defunct civilization. The women are glamorous, mysterious, and playful, rather than cheap, obvious, and bitchy.
The main difference, at least for me, is how the '80s babes may come off as mischievous, but it's all in the spirit of good fun, wanting to challenge the men to approach them and see how well they can do. Their followers from the past 20 years give off a haughty and bored-with-you kind of vibe, while still showing way more of their bodies -- combined, they project a harsh warning of "look but don't touch". They're attention whores who don't need to interact with someone else to please themselves.
That focus on sassiness actually detracts from all the skin shown by the recent models: a half-naked woman who insists on keeping the man at arm's length appears uncomfortable with her own body. Just by looking, you can tell it'd be like making it with a sack of potatoes. The earlier pictures, although revealing less skin, show a more sensual woman.
Also note the total lack of shock value in the earlier ads. Even in the one from '88-'89, it takes awhile for the mind to register that you're looking at a woman with no top on. It's not so on-the-nose. Desperate attempts to shock the audience, like the S&M, heroin, and generic prostitute imagery of the past 20 years, only shows how vegetative the viewers' daily lives must be. Back in the '80s, you didn't need to shake them awake -- they were already rarin' to go.
If you're still skeptical, just see for yourself. Find some popular perfumes from previous decades with the Fragrantica search thingie, then check out their ad campaigns on Google images. Especially if you were born after the early '70s, you'll be surprised by how tasteful, if provocative, the perfume ads used to be.