Collage photos via Getty Images and courtesy of Kenzo, Dior, and Gucci


The Fantastic, Fantastical World Of Perfume Commercials

“The world of scent isn’t about making sense, it’s about making sexy faces”

There’s a reason why fragrance content notoriously doesn’t perform well online. For one, it doesn’t have a serviceable aspect to it. It’s not clearing your skin, brightening up your face, or lightening your dark spots. It’s making you smell good, but unless you’re Luca Turin or Tania Sanchez or Helena Fitzgerald and Rachel Syme, co-founders of The Dry Down—who manage to poetically write about scents—there’s only so much a reader can do with “it has top notes of bergamot and citrus.” You can’t swatch it like lipstick to show its pigment quality. The same issue pops up for fragrance companies. Perfume sample tear-outs are a thing of the past, while spritzers in department stores are a nuisance. Until scratch-and-sniff screens become a reality (let’s get going on this, guys; Willy Wonka had flavored wallpaper in 1971, what’s the holdup?), brands are forced to lean heavily on the abstract in order to make a statement.

When I was younger, my sister and I would play a game. While watching television commercials, we would try to guess what product was being advertised before the end reveal. Cars were obviously the easiest. Hair products, too. But perfume ads… perfume ads always threw us for a loop. As we caught on to the formula, though, they got easier to identify. If it walked like a perfume commercial (i.e. dramatically down a runway, running to an undetermined location, or strutting through grass), talked like a perfume commercial (in whispers, sighs, moans, or solely with music), it was likely a perfume commercial. There were some outliers, where it wasn’t until the scene cut from a smoldering shot of a celebrity to a bottle perched on a table, that we realized it was fragrance they were pushing. But what we didn’t realize at the time is that, even more than that $110 bottle of scented liquid, they were pushing a fantasy.

As far as your average consumer’s fantasy goes, sex and romance are usually involved. And brands play into that. “Leaning on representations of the sexual body has been legitimate for the perfume ads at least partly because perfume is connected to sensuality and bare skin,” Leena-Maija Ross, professor at the Swedish school of social science explains. “You can only sense/smell it if you are close enough to the person wearing it, therefore it is tied to intimacy.” Which is why you see so many overly sexualized scenes in commercials. Simply put, the sex makes you pay attention. “Smell is the animal world's most common lure. Sex is the most common activity,” Steven Heller, the author of Sex Appeal: the Art of Allure in Graphic and Advertising Design, says. “Add that up and what do you have?” A successful campaign, that’s what.

The fragrance industry is estimated to be worth $43.6 billion in 2021. Right now, it’s at about $40.8 billion. Companies spend around $800 million on ads that, according to Bloomberg, aren’t that effective. When consumers like a scent, they hold on to it and rarely deviate. The industry's top sellers are Dolce & Gabbana’s Light Blue, which was first launched in 2001, Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle (2001) and No. 5 (1921), and Marc Jacobs’ Daisy (2007). Television ads are the most expensive and prominent of marketing tactics but, reportedly, only 6 percent of consumers credited ads as the reason they purchased a fragrance. But all of the money being lugged out isn’t completely moot. It could just be strategy. “Those kinds of ads do serve a longer-term purpose of building brands and keeping them in shopper’s mind,” Bloomberg advises.

Take Brad Pitt’s Chanel No. 5 commercial from 2012. It cost $7 million and has been parodied at least five times. (With good reason, it’s very bizarre!) But the YouTube video also has upwards of nine million views. So, as far as marketing goes, it did a damn good job because it got people talking (even if it was at the expense of Pitt), and when people talk, they remember. “I’ve done quite a few ads that have been parodied, and you always know you’ve really got it made when that happens,” Glenn O’Brien, who wrote the script for the Chanel No. 5 commercial, told New York Magazine.

One thing most perfume ads have in common is a major celebrity star fronting them. This helps to keep a product at the forefront of costumers' minds, too, says The Dry Down's Fitzgerald. “Where the ads work, I think, is for people buying gifts in a panic which, to be fair, is a huge amount of perfume purchases, and there I think the celebrity element is crucial because people will buy something just because they remember it and celebrities make things more memorable.” So, brands hope you buy their product because you adore the person associated with it. If Beyoncé smells like Armani Diamonds, dammit, I want to smell like Armani Diamonds, too.

It’s also not a coincidence that another thing celebrities remind us of is wealth. “Perfumes have also carried the air of luxury, and they have been attached to certain classes in certain ways, i.e. the ‘smell of cheap perfume,’” Ross explains. “That is one reason why the surroundings in the ads are often so fantastical, full of signifiers of wealth. Like the pearls and the dress in the J'ádore commercial, or distant places traveled to in Gucci Guilt. It’s aspirational for those watching.”

You might not fall into the trappings of commercials, and that’s fine—Fitzgerald doesn’t either. “I think a lot of perfume marketing, at least for mainstream perfume, is very silly and often gendered in a way that's cliche and aggressive and boring and extremely eye-rolling,” she says, adding that she prefers indie brands who either can’t afford or can’t be bothered with creating these types of campaigns. “But as I get more into perfume, and more comfortable exploring different scents and aspects of perfume, I find that I sort of feel affectionate toward the silliness of mainstream perfume marketing.”

It’s often the nonsensical, voyeuristic nature of these campaigns that make them so intriguing. They’re not supposed to reflect the actual world you know. Because often, the outside world isn’t all that great! They’re supposed to make you think of anything but reality. There’s nothing wrong with buying into a fantasy from time to time, and if your escape comes in the form of a warm floral blend, then so be it.