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.


  1. The blatant sexuality is meant to be intimidating. The woman is saying "stay away from me". Its meant to reinforce the lack of sex.


  2. Think about it like this - if a woman is being aggressive, then she cannot be aggressed upon. Its a way of disarming those who would want to make a move on her. So when women act aggressive or "shocking", they're signalling to men that any sexual overture will be met with a counterattack. Its a signal that they *don't* want to be hit on and are not open to sexual relations.

    The over-the-top perfume ads appealed to women, not to men. It also may be linked to the disintegration of courtship. Men are no longer allowed to buy gifts for women. I'm willing to bet, though, that in the '80s, it was at least somewhat more common for men to buy perfume for women. But maybe I"m reaching to far...


  3. So far, it looks like the only major ad campaign in the '80s that featured nudity or quasi-nudity was for Obsession. There's always an exception to the rule, and that'll be what gets amplified when the zeitgeist changes.

    Another striking case study is the ads for Opium by Yves Saint Laurent. It launched in 1977 and didn't feature nudity or porno, or even stay-away-from-me attention whores. Here's an ad from as late as 1990:

    By 2000, the campaign showed a totally naked pale chick, in an exaggerated, really caricatured sex position. It became one of the most complained-about ads in England.

  4. "The over-the-top perfume ads appealed to women, not to men."

    That's worth emphasizing. It's more about the change in what women aspire to be -- courted by many and swept off their feet, or gawked at by men and feared by women.

    In more socially and sexually interactive times, a young woman knew she desirable -- all those boys coming up to hit on her, and maybe more.

    But in more cocooning times, they get little feedback from interactions and so have to rely more on tallying up how many looks from afar she gets. Not feeling comfortable with her body, and not having much experience sharing it with someone else, she has to awkwardly thrust her sexuality out there every once in awhile, just to make sure she can get stared at. Like, "Phew, not ugly yet. Just had to check to be sure."

  5. hey, I got into an argument with someone about this stuff. could you give me a list of social institutions and social customs which have been dismantled since the 90s?


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