Somewhere in my attic lies a binder with print ads for unisex perfumes. It's a rather singular collection of images from fashion magazines that I used for my graduate thesis in 1997. I was interested in the way people were portrayed in those ads: the famous cK one and cK Be series, featuring young models shot in black and white, seemed to announce some sort of iconographical revolution in the world of perfumery. I even considered exploring the connection between images and fragrances, but I quickly decided it would only complicate things. Later I found out that someone else had actually taken up that challenge: Mariette Julien's L'image publicitaire des parfums (1997) is the first study dedicated to the semiotics of perfume ads. It raises a very difficult question indeed: how does one visualize the essence of a perfume in a print ad?
The basic premise of the book is that perfume ads contain symbols and signs that belong to the realm of olfactory communication. When you compare perfumes and their respective ads — the author collected and analyzed 300 advertisements published between 1986 and 1996 — you end up with a whole set of 'olfactive markers': visual messages that in one way or another reflect the perfume's odorant properties. A simple example of an olfactive marker is the blue sea in Davidoff's Cool Water ads: besides triggering various iconographical associations (like the sense of freedom suggested by the wideness of the sea), it actually conveys the concept of 'freshness' that is promoted as a characteristic of the fragrance itself.
A big problem that Julien immediately recognizes, is that there is an incoherence between the way perfumes smell, and how they're portrayed in promotional campaigns. The reason for this discrepancy is simple: perfumes and ads are often created simultaneously. This means that during the development stage, the perfumer doesn't see the ad, and the graphic artist doesn't smell the perfume: the client's fragrance brief is their common point of reference. In itself this doesn't necessarily affect the analysis of a perfume ad, but it shows the trickyness of this whole excercise.
Sensuality, sophistication, and tradition are basic elements on which perfume ads are built. The balance between these elements depends on what Julien calls the "concept" of a perfume (basically the fragrance family): an oriental fragrance, for instance, is more likely to be associated with sensuality and evening wear; therefore in print ads for orientals we often see closed rooms and dimmed lights, rather than a sandy coast in the morning sun (I'm simplifying here, but you get the idea).
Julien sees three distinct personalities in perfume ads — sensual, sophisticated, and romantic — and pairs them to specific fragrance concepts (floral, chypre, fougère, oriental, leather). Again, the choices she makes here leave much room for debate; more problematic, in my opinion, is that the author doesn't take in account that those correspondences are subject to change through time (which is very important when referring to old perfumes). Another inherent problem of Julien's approach is that her assumptions can never be properly objectified; in that sense, the book raises more questions than it provides answers.
L'image publicitaire des parfums was published ten years ago, and in the meantime the olfactory landscape has changed considerably. Contrary to what Julien claims, perfume ads are no longer created to last for many years; that alone gave room for more unconventional and experimental ads than before. And while most male perfume ads in the author's selection were actually directed to women (in 1990, three out of four male perfumes were purchased by women), the portrayal of male characters in perfume ads has changed considerably in the past decade. More men buy their own perfume nowadays, and they require a different marketing approach.
Mariette Julien wrote an important book indeed, as it's the first original attempt to unravel the basic mechanisms in olfactory communication. The method (semiotics) is inherently static, and the long string of assumptions keeping it all together is fragile. And yet this is as close to the truth about perfume and advertising as you can possibly get.
L'image publicitaire des parfums
Paris/Montreal: Harmattan (1997)
paperback, 276 pages
Mariette Julien is a professor of communications at UQUAM (Université du Québec à Montréal).