Friday, 10 October 2008

Why Perfume Adverts Stink

You know what I find weird? Television adverts for perfume. Has it never occurred to anyone that there is no way to illustrate a scent through the medium of TV? Has anyone ever watched a thirty second short for Chanel or Calvin Klein and thought “I’ll have me some of that”? If you’re buying aftershave for someone, you go into the shop and ask the assistant, maybe test a few different alternatives, and buy the product based on its one saleable attribute; smell. What you don’t do is make your decision off the back of some George Clooney lookalike arsing about making coffee in the buff.

I am of course, talking about the immortal promo for Davidoff Cool Water (an inspired name, that – I’ve always wanted to associate my musk with the neutral smell of H2O). When this advert comes on (I know, I know, they've changed it for the one with the handsome bit of rough out of Lost now, but he's not so funny to write about), I always think: someone wrote this? Probably not just one person, probably a team of highly paid marketing staff. Imagine the pitch – “So, black and white, it’s got to be black and white to show it’s a classy advert, and there’s a man, right, because we’re aiming this product at men. It’s implied that he’s wearing our scent, although as this is purely a visual medium, he could smell of stale rat’s piss for all we know. Anyway, he’s naked, that’s a nice angle, it’ll keep the female viewers’ attention. What’s he doing? I don’t know…what do normal people do at home? I don’t know because I’m in advertising, and therefore have sawdust where my brain should be. Err…making coffee? Boy, this is hard when you’ve done as much coke as I have this morning. I know, maybe he kicks a cushion around a bit, just so we know he likes football, ergo, isn’t some sort of weird pervert. And then of course, we can have a girl come in at the end, and run the age-old message: buy our product, and attractive women will want to have sex with you.”

Of course, I shouldn’t just single out Davidoff for its bizarreness. In fact, by perfume ad standards it’s fairly tame. Take the homoerotic masturbatory insanity of those Gaultier shorts – ‘Sailors! Ballet! Nipples! Tattoos! Perfume!’ My personal all time favourite was the one for Chance by Chanel, which began “I see…I see a city”, immediately drawing the casual viewer in with its mysterious hints at prophecies and soothsayers. It goes on to reveal that in this city are people, one of whom is a man (what are the odds?), before shrieking, “it’s your chance! Take it! Take it! TAKE IT!” with increasing volume and desperation, at which point the photogenic young couple suddenly find themselves in a gondola adrift in the middle of the ocean, all sense of plausibility and narrative logic seemingly abandoned. I like to add a footnote at this point, “and buy our cologne”, as I feel the advert as it stands really doesn’t do enough to get this across. I feel let down by this abrupt ending. How do the couple get back to land? Do they starve to death or drown? It doesn’t tie up the loose ends. It is unsatisfying. And, perhaps most importantly, WHAT THE HELL DOES IT HAVE TO DO WITH PERFUME?

It’s not like feminine unguents are not the only culprits. Bad advertising is one of my pet peeves, so I’m sure I’ll return to the topic in later weeks, to talk about some of the horrors that the world of commercials holds in store for its most lucrative contracts; namely, cars and alcohol. Liquor is, it seems, as baffling a prospect for marketing people as scent – what is one selling exactly? Can you illustrate the experience through pictures and sounds? It sort of puts me in mind of that David Chappelle sketch about Samuel L. Jackson Beer (“IT’LL GET YOU DRUNK!!!”). Car manufacturers have no excuse, however, for abandoning the saleable merits of their products in favour of the more abstract ‘giant dancing robot’ approach that they all seem to have taken of late. But Adam Buxton has already skewered that satire kebab much more brilliantly than I am capable of, so I won’t devote any more time to it here.

There is one other trend in perfume marketing at the moment, which is celebrity endorsement. However I can’t really see how this is any different. Maybe you want to smell like P Diddy or Paris Hilton (and how sad/weird is that?), but how do you know that by buying their perfume you do? There’s no way to empirically verify this (short of busting through a ring of beefy security guards to get a sniff of Beyonce’s neck – volunteers, anyone?), but I’m willing to bet that they don’t splash on the stuff every morning, and I’m even more certain that the secret of their success is not their odour (although if I was going to be catty I might say that in Miss Hilton’s case I suppose it must be something).

All this is why I’ve grown to love the simplicity of Lynx adverts. Okay, it may smell of stale soap, but at least it doesn’t pull any punches, commercial-wise. SPRAY ON, GET MORE, it booms, as thousands of scantily-clad women charge towards a cheerfully spraying male. Okay, so it’s probably sexist, and it’s not exactly awash with delicate visual metaphor, but it boils down the message of the Davidoff advert much more succinctly, and it’s much more enjoyable for your average deodorant customer to watch.

There are two very good reasons why these terrible adverts are here to stay. The first, and most obvious, is that most advert directors want to be doing something bigger than pretentious TV spots. They want pretentious TV shows, pretentious movies. They want to make another fucking Lost In Translation. And they're not going to be given the chance to do that until they get themselves a big ol' showreel of adverts that really pop. But the second reason may be less obvious to you: These guys want their adverts to be bad. They want you pissed off and scratching your head, asking your TV set "What the hell was that you just showed me?" Bad or good, in advertising it don't matter unless it's memorable.

Name a car insurance company. Five seconds. Got one? Is it esure? Is Michael Winner's smug, leering face making your blood boil so you can hardly read this? Those ads were so bad they made you angry, right? Esure doesn't care. You remembered who they were. And all because they made the Most Annoying Advert EverTM. That's the big, dirty secret. These guys want you mad. They want you mad so you act irrational, they want you irrational so you'll buy their stuff. Doesn't the whole thing just make you furious? Good. Now buy my book.

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