Written by Ashley Davies


Smells like pure bullshit

As Christmas approaches, ad breaks are littered with frankly weird commercials for scents that lack all sense. They might be pretty, says Ashley Davies, but they’re also bollocks.

dewy rose

Whenever I watch a perfume ad I get thoroughly lost. Not in an intoxicating reverie of romance, passion and fantasy, but puzzling over what the jolly old heck the people behind these commercials think about women.

The briefing sessions between the clients and the ad agencies must go something like this:

Agency guy: “So, what are you hoping to achieve here?”

Client: “I don’t really care, as long as a stunning woman looks like she’s been lobotomised – or at the very least has been sprinkling horse meds in the Nutribullet.”

Agency guy, nodding, steepling fingers: “Yar, yar. I hear you, yar. You’ll be wanting her to behave like a spoilt little girl who craves all the drama, yar, despite this being a product targeted at adults, yar?”

Client makes a gun shape with his finger: “Correctamundo.”

Agency guy, going through a checklist: “Right, right. OK. And would you like billowing silk to feature in the film? Handsome, smug-looking dude in an undone bow tie? Some kind of pursuit? Spinning camerawork? Sultry version of an unexpected song?”

Client: “Boom.”

Agency guy: “And do you want the film to make sense?”

Client: “You crack me up, you do.”

“The Chanel No 5 ad starring Audrey Tautou gives me the fear. She’s on a train corridor and a passing man stops behind her and gives her a good, slow sniff.”

If it was up to me, fragrance commercials would find a dreamy way simply to tell me what the damn stuff smells like – or at a push to suggest I might end up smelling like I imagine Rachel Weisz or Rosamund Pike do (and believe me, I spend time wondering how they smell). I do understand why this is not possible – although I can’t tell you how much I’d love to see a grainy, sexy Calvin Klein-esque film in which a strong, confident whale vomits and we follow the resultant ambergris being turned into some pricey scent.

Why, when squillions of pounds are spent on these lavish fragrance productions, are they usually utter bollocks? Pretty bollocks, mind, but bollocks nonetheless. They seem to be appealing to a little girl’s idea of what being a woman might be.

And why are the women on screen pretty much always presented as one-dimensional characters on the verge of a breakdown? This new L’Oréal ad isn’t for perfume but it’s a good example of perfectly good actors and models looking completely mashed for no good reason to sell a product.

I rewatched a few fragrance ads to see what they were trying to say, starting with Chanel, which offers the glitziest productions.

In one for No 5, Baz Lurhmann depicts Nicole Kidman as “the world’s most famous woman”, who goes missing and looks a bit mad. The narrator is a guy who doesn’t know who she is. She says: “I’m a dancer. I love to dance,” and laughs weirdly. He tells us: “I knew who she was – to me.” They spend some stolen time together and she has to go back to her celebrity lifestyle.

The message: you can have a very quick affair if you wear this perfume.

One of the most irritating ones is for Prada Candy, in which a model is practising scales on the piano with a handsome bloke. She announces that she wants to be “wild” and “gay” and grabs him, makes him dance with her and gets eccentric, slightly violent even. She’s a manic pixie dream girl with moneyed Parisienne stylings. Then they go back to playing the piano.

The message: wear this perfume if you can’t tell the difference between negative and positive attention.

The long version of the Coco Mademoiselle ticks loads of the cliche boxes. Keira Knightley wakes up alone and gorgeous and immediately reaches for her scent, suggesting she did some terrible night farting and is worried about room service coming in and judging her.

Then, in a skintight nude-coloured outfit she climbs on her motorbike and then does that thing where she surprises the male bikers at the traffic lights by pulling away faster than they do. Wow, what a lady! She’s so assertive! We thought she was going to stall and ask for help!

“I can’t tell you how much I’d love to see a grainy, sexy Calvin Klein-esque film in which a strong, confident whale vomits and we follow the resultant ambergris being turned into some pricey scent.”

Then she’s at a photoshoot and the photographer falls in love with her. She makes love to the camera and ends up wearing only a sheet. He goes to lock the door so they can get it on properly and – poof! – she’s gone. Off again on her bike.

The message: if you change your mind about a shag at the last minute you can get dressed super-quick if you wear this perfume.

The Chanel No 5 ad starring Audrey Tautou gives me the fear. She’s on a train corridor and a passing man stops behind her and gives her a good, slow sniff. Although she doesn’t see him doing this she looks a bit scared. Then they’re both sleeping in their separate compartments. She’s still looking a bit scared, pretty and of course a bit mad, and he nearly knocks on her door because he’s horny, but doesn’t. Maybe he’s still on parole. There are a few narrow misses on the way to Istanbul and in the end he comes up behind her in another station and sniffs her neck again. And she likes it.

The message: if you wear this perfume you are giving strangers carte blanche to sniff your body – and maybe worse.

In a recent J’adore ad, Charlize Theron is striding powerfully in a glitzy setting, all in gold. Her voiceover says: “The past can be beautiful. A memory, a dream. But it’s no place to live. And now is the time.” (I pray to God she was shaking her head with incredulity as she read this tosh out loud in the recording booth while her agent held up a piece of paper with a massive dollar sign on it.)

She pulls off her beads, kicks off her shiny heels and starts climbing up some shiny fabric (billowing silk – tick!), looking like a beautiful athlete having a breakdown. “The only way out is up,” says the voiceover, apparently unaware of the TOWIE connotations. She climbs out of the top of a building. “It’s a new world. The future is gold. J’adore. Dior.” Then she walks strongly and touches her hair. And the music sounds like what they play when a blank-faced boy is dumped on Made In Chelsea.

The message: wear this perfume if you want to break up with your husband or get a new job.

For me, the most perplexing commercial is for Rihanna’s Reb’l Fleur. To the strains of music reminiscent of that uncomfortable one-off spa session you got from Groupon, she awakens in a sort of flower fashioned from salmon-pink ostrich feathers, then wanders into a garden dressed like she’s on a walk of shame. Words on screen say, “Bad feels so good.”

A bloke in a tux (tick!) appears and puts his hands over her eyes (and then some other people who we don’t see are putting their hands on his hands too!) and she acts all aroused, then a couple of bottles of her fragrance are rubbed on her upper thighs, suggesting we’ve got some personal hygiene issues going on here, and making us all wonder who on earth wants to smell like this person. Then it all goes backwards and she goes back to her feather place.

The message: if you wear this perfume you could have group sex.

In Baz Lurhmann’s defence, he does take a stab at some kind of narrative in his long commercial for Chanel No 5, in which Lo-Fang is singing a sultry, lo-fi version of The One That I Want from Grease. Giselle Bundchen is surfing (looking divine and blankly worried), and a handsome man from Game of Thrones leaves a note for her, the outside of which says: “To my heart I must be true.”

Giselle continues to look divine and blankly worried, but, after spending three seconds with her kid and passing her back to nanny, she has to go to work (her job is modelling, which is clever of Baz) and she can’t bring herself to read the inside of the note. She nearly cries, but does this prettily. Then she reads the note and it says: “You’re the one that I want”, and she meets him at the opera or something like classy like that, and they kiss. So there’s a sense of drama but it all works out OK in the end because of course he loves her.

The message: your husband might be thinking of leaving you but if you wear this perfume and are a gorgeous model who also surfs and has a nanny he probably won’t.


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Written by Ashley Davies

Ashley Davies is an Edinburgh-based writer and editor and the human behind animal satire website thelabreport.co.uk.