Contemporary Media Analysis: Selling Sex or Scent?

In today’s globalized market, fragrance companies have turned to what will travel best. In the face of intense competition gripping the senses of consumers, campaigns must go farther than simply market the fragrance itself. They must sell another yet more desirable product: sex. And it’s selling. The global fragrance industry now holds a $36 billion market share, with Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, and Hugo Boss at the lead. One must ask, are these companies selling sex or scent?

Brand and product (range) typically serve as the only verbal components of fragrance ads and play a prominent role in the marketing strategy. Fragrance names and other verbal components are often connected with mood rather than with the description of some factual property or properties (Freitas 3). Thus, their associative meaning is largely dependent both on brand image and advertising strategy that forms a sort of symbolic synesthesia that connects visual, auditory, and olfactory images: the graphic forms of the inscribed name, the sound of the spoken name, and the fragrance. It is thus not surprising that names and images evoking glamor, eroticism, exoticism, and sexuality are recurrent. Also unsurprisingly, in their quest for eroticized marketing, fragrance producers make more than a few flagrant and presumptive statements about gender through the use of models and pictorial cues. These sensuous, pictorial cues divide women and men into four strictly heterosexual categories: the femme fatale, the Don Juan, the ‘natural man’, and the ‘natural woman’ (Voogt 5).

gucci-00052The femme fatale is presented as a seductive and mysterious woman whose charm ensnares her heterosexual lovers. Consider Gucci’s ENVY. Gucci’s femme fatale here looks on lustfully as a man sucks her finger. The consumer should envy her because she has obtained this man through her sexuality. She is in control. Yet the most notable detail of this advert is that the viewer relates this message only through the experience of the man. He is intoxicated. He is overcome with her allure. It is as if the woman can only display her power through the presence of the man, making a provocative statement regarding her sexuality and individuality (A Scent of Corruption 3). Though ENVY’s femme fatale rejects any posture of submission but rather empowered through her own means, this empowerment stems only from her sexualization and she holds the upper hand only in lust and love (Freitas 5).

croppeddvbfragranceThe femme fatale finds her cultural counterpoint in the Don Juan of the industries’ hyper-sexualized advertising. He is presented as a hunter, rather a trapper. Yet he makes only a small investment in each prey, shooting a smile as an arrow (Freitas 4). This is perfectly visualized in Beckham’s intimately BECKHAM NIGHT. Beckham is pictured here as a man that associates with high society, holding the female model in his submission, yet lacking an explicitly sexual position, intimating independence and emotionally detachment. He is strong and empowered with his arm locked around her neck which seems to give her a sort of intoxicated pleasure, which once again sells women’s sexuality short as it highlights her need for a man to desire her and the ease at which she submits to him.

daisy-marc-jacobs-fragrance-adThe second dominant construct in fragrance advertisement is that of the ‘natural woman’ and the ‘natural man.’ The ‘natural woman’ is portrayed as a flower-child or sportswoman, one that casts aside the artificiality of corporatism and society and uses light, fresh fragrances. She is featured in Marc Jacob’s DAISY, where the dark evening gown and club setting of the femme fatale are exchanged for lighter colors and outdoor flower fields with breezes and sunlight that envelop her (Freitas 7)The ‘natural woman’ finds her male equivalent in, of course, the ‘natural man.’ The ‘natural man’ will not be found in a bed of flowers. In Dolce & Gabanna SPORT, all feminine items are done away with. The young fragile girl is replaced by a chiseled male model, simply wearing a pair of shorts and displaying his impressive, muscular torso. The ‘natural man’ poses against the ancient stone of a Hellenistic stadium that compliments his skin tone and visually immerses his body in rock through strategic composition and color manipulation. Like the ‘natural woman,’ the evening light of the Don Juan is replaced with a bright noon sun. The ‘natural woman’ then is one who is young and innocent, in perfect harmony with nature, and who claims no power over man with the retraction of explicit sexuality.

original_theonesportThe dichotomy for women is clear: either power through sex or innocence through nature. Femininity and masculinity exist in very rigid structures, where both genders are hyper-sexualized and lack fluidity. Women are emotional beings who desire the allure of men. Men are detached and fulfil the ‘tall, dark, and handsome’ cliché, with little room left for other else. Artists take constructs solidified by mass marketing and present them as a heterosexual paradigm of womanhood and manhood. These adverts elevate enticement, sex, and lust, rather than knowledge or health as desirable. They present paradigms to a highly impressionable, materialistic post-modern America, who seek to use their scents to meek this market’s one-dimensional definition of desirable.

A Scent of Corruption. 18 November 2007.

Freitas, Elsa. “Gendered adverts: an analysis of female and male images in contemporary perfume ads.” Comunicação e Sociedade, vol. 21, 2012, pp. 95 – 107.  May 2011.

Voogt, Peter. Boys will be Boys. Gerrit Rietveld Academie. 2014.