Perfume ads

Perfume ads

… are scents-less acts of beauty. At their best, they’re tiny surrealist works of art. And was the Opium ad of Sophie Dahl pleasuring herself really all that degrading to women?

In December 2010 the traditional festive furore of scintillating scent adverts did itself proud, with a crazed selection of dreamy romance, fairytale frolicking and inexplicable writhing around.

I’m a not-so-secret admirer of beautiful perfume ads. I love the mythical, abstract quality of promoting something present yet ethereal; there’s a certain amount of ‘anything goes’ artistic recklessness to many of them, as advertisers dig deep into the realm of aspirational fantasy to sell something that cannot actually be seen.

Some, sadly, miss the mark by miles, Yves Saint Laurent’s recent ad for Belle d’Opium shows what appears to be a sexually frustrated acolyte jigging around a Moroccan temple, whilst the Angel advert starring a by-turns melancholy and flirtatious Naomi Watts on a rooftop seems to contrive that Wonderland’s Alice is going through a serious mid-life crisis.

Chanel has long been the benchmark for quality ads, taking romantic drama and for-kicks fantasia to the brink, leaving a few boggle-eyed box-watchers exclaiming ‘What? That was about…perfume?’ The mini-film that featured Nicole Kidman running away from the pressures of fame and happily cavorting with a man she’d just met in a taxi was fairly obscure, but recent campaigns with Kiera Knightly and the breathtakingly beautiful Audrey Tautou were easier on the brain – and who could forget Estella Warren as Little Red Riding Hood in one of the most popular Chanel adverts, with that haunting theme from Edward Scissorhands by beloved alternative composer, Danny Elfman.

I suppose what I love about all this glorious pomp is how totally indulgent it is. A well-executed perfume advert is a little piece of art; there is almost no point to it other than to be ravishing and mysterious (apart from hoping that the frankly improbable nature of it all will tempt you and your wallet to the scent counter), drawing us into enchanted realms of chance, love and make-believe.

Visionary and often surrealist, perfume ads are a daydreamer’s, well… dream. I often wonder what designing them must be like as a job – is one given free artistic rein? Or are you handed the money and told, ‘Right, I want eyes across a crowded room, I want identical twins, I want a diamond-encrusted voodoo doll and knee-high wildflowers made of paper, I want white cats in top hats and while you’re at it, find me a scantily-clad woman flying a plane.’

Some have left their mark in more controversial ways. The 2000 Opium advert featuring Sophie Dahl seemingly pleasuring herself in the midst of an ecstatic swoon provoked outrage in the UK (whilst winning an award in Spain, go figure). The British Advertising Standards Authority ordered the posters to be withdrawn on the grounds that they were too sexually suggestive, degrading to women, and likely to cause “serious or widespread offence”. Personally I think she looks like she’s having a jolly nice time, and Dahl herself said: “I think the photograph is beautiful… it was seen as being anti-women, when in fact I think it is very empowering to women.”

Whatever the societal backlash of such blatant fantasy-baiting, in our present grey atmosphere of cuts, redundancies, dole-queues and suicidal graduates, I say roll on lavish frivolity and magical escapism, and long live our pointless perfume propaganda.