Posted on September 02, 2016, 9:58 am
24 mins


I’ve seen much ado about Spike Jonze’s new perfume ad for Kenzo, and with good reason. It seems to take stale perfume ad tropes in a new direction, but more accurately it just gleefully veers off the rails while fitting neatly in his oeuvre. I think of it as a sequel to his music video for “Weapon of Choice,” 16 years later.

“KENZO WORLD” is pure spectacle, but it’s a very smart one. It mashes the fantasies of the perfume ad genre with hallucinatory rage into something that is nearly parody. In truth, fashion world insiders know that perfume ads are ridiculous most of the time. They know that the scenarios are exaggerated fantasies, approaching absurdity, even when it all looks dead serious. Meanwhile, the directors (from Scorsese, to Lynch to Jonze) get to do something off-kilter and fun for themselves. A perfume ad campaign is often incredibly expensive (and it shows), so one should hope people are having a little fun with it.

Spike Jonze obviously had A LOT of fun with “KENZO WORLD,” but he also used it to comment on the perfume ad genre itself and the fantasies it projects, and how frustrated they are in the world around us. So what are these fantasies and why have they come about?

The formula for a perfume ad

“Smell is a potent wizard,” wrote Helen Keller, “that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” It’s also the most rarefied of senses, so perfume ads attempt to moor their product to something more immediately sensible. It’s a game of associations by which a fragrance is attached to: a state of mind; a sense of well-being; a character. The sum total of these things is…a brand.

Fragrances can, indeed, enhance our well-being, and have been dearly valued for that reason. I do not mean the smell of pies cooling on the window, lavendered sheets in French country inns and incense in temples and chapels. That is gilding the lily. More expediently, fragrances concealed unfortunate natural odors. In the age of deodorants and hot showers, personal fragrances are now expressly a luxury good. That’s a hurdle in a slow economy.

But there are social hurdles, too. Most of us live and commute in close quarters with a surfeit of synthetic chemicals and neuroses about them. That can make one quite notorious if one fills a room with a potent perfume. There are many anecdotes of entire rooms filling nauseously with the smell of Chanel No. 5 in its early years, thanks to the legions wearing it. So much for fragrance as a personal touch…

The culture is now less hospitable to perfume, and it has shown in declining sales over the last decade. As much as a perfume ad might direct our attention from these issues, it apparently isn’t enough. The industry is in decline, and competition is fierce. Unlike other industries, however, you can’t measure the performance of a fragrance. It’s entirely subjective, and this has made the race to the top a matter of prestige and identity alone.

Without metrics to distinguish competing brands, a perfume ad can unmoor from physical reality and no one really notices. That does not make the perfume ad more manipulative than ads for a cellular service, glass cleaner or toothpaste. The way those ads use data selectively makes them more predatory than any perfume ad…and almost never fun.

Sometimes the imagery in a perfume ad is overtly dream-like. Sometimes, it aims straight for the groin. There are many ways of categorizing the approach of an ad, but I see five trends of particular relevance to the industry. It’s worth looking at examples of each to see what Jonze is lampooning while also responding to the fatigue of an audience that feels captive, surveilled and frustrated.

The Cinematic Fantasy

Auteur David Lynch is known for taking viewers on dream-like (or even nightmarish) journeys. By 1988, he was a cult hero for his surreal film-noir Blue Velvet (1986), whose iconic song was, aptly, “In Dreams.” 1988 was also the year that he was pitching Twin Peaks to TV execs and making Lynchian perfume ads for Calvin Klein.

In the 90s, parts of the Calvin Klein brand would be more explicitly associated with a minimalist, listless, Gen-X praise of individualism. The unifying thread was the black-and-white film. However, Obsession and other fragrances kept their cinemtaic mode to speak to a more established demographic. These mini-films (as Lynch prefers to see them) rely on cultural touchstones, artistry and aspiration.

Of course, none of that has anything to do with fragrances directly. One never sees the product used, and even its squat bottle becomes nothing but a play of light and dark in the final shot. The effect is one of pure cinema, the realm of dreams and image-making. It is an evocation that invites viewers to make their own associations, to see the fragrance as a means of making their own lives more filmic, dramatic, meaningful.

Lynch’s mode was actually less jarring than a 1987 Obsession ad, which outright declares that “In the kingdom of passion, the ruler is Obsession” among an angular, avant-garde set. That’s a bit of a stretch. Lynch was literate, but not pretentious. The ambiguity of this mode has made it ripe for parody over the years, but one still sees it in marketing for a range of products to this day.

The Romance Fantasy

If the whole point of the fragrance is to attract rather than repel, inevitably there must be romance. But even when the pheromones are in sync, humans need a little more guarantee. The perfume ad that appeals to the need for romance follows a very general script, dictated by popular notions of love. That is, true love is destined, and the fragrance—as invisible and powerful as the cosmic forces that ordain the union—is symbolic of it.

Chanel No. 5 has made this an essential part of its branding. In one example, Brad Pitt delivers a vow of lifelong devotion to the viewer against a cave-like backdrop. Audrey Tautou goes on a colorful journey to Istanbul and along the way is inexorably drawn to a stranger. Meanwhile, for Dolce & Gabanna, Martin Scorsese pairs Matthew McConaughey and Scarlett Johansson. Their banter reveals a past romance, and insinuates that they will find a way back to blissful togetherness, now that they have both arrived on their own terms but are nonetheless dissatisfied. Très moderne.

But for pure idyll, look no further than the ad for Ralph Lauren’s Romance, which features a real-life couple cavorting in every picturesque, bucolic scenario one can imagine (complete with an original song by Seal). One never doubts that the couple is genuinely in love, but the overall effect is mawkish. Perfume ads are no more manipulative than any other form of marketing. But because this romantic variety appeals directly to our fundamental need for human connection, this mode is perhaps the most duplicitous.

The Erotic Fantasy

There’s a refreshing honesty to the unbridled sex appeal of the purely erotic perfume ad. Smells certainly can make or break a tryst. If anything, the overtly sexual species of perfume ad becomes a farce, and being funny is still sexy.

Even that can’t redeem the base late ’90s campaign for Candies in retrospect. Salacious print ads featuring Dennis Rodman and Alyssa Milano appealed to the demographic that was stoked to party with MTV’s venerable mummy Kurt Loder during spring break. And during the commercial breaks between wet t-shirt contests, one could get the incredibly awkward, soft-core porn exploits of Milano and Mark McGrath in what appeared to be roadside motels. The TV spots even ended with the gendered bottles beside each other, jiggling mechanically. They clearly knew their audience, down to the point when the male partner sprays his male member with the cologne. (I said certain perfume ads aim for the groin, and I meant it.) If only a fragrance could double as spermicide.

In the perfume ad for Dunhill Black, a more aspirational virility and power rule, and the fragrance is the wingman. The exhilaration of coitus is paired with a speeding car, quick cuts of streaming spermatic lights, and Henry Cavill looking invidiously over the bare shoulder of his partner at the camera. This is a perfume ad by the male gaze and for the male gaze, in which the male is still the star.

Natalie Portman for Miss Dior Cherie is a little more coy. The breathless singing of Jane Birkin with Serge Gainsbourg plays (Je T’aime) as Portman cavorts, undresses, sniffs roses and necks with her male partner. It is hard to find fault with this idealized portrayal because it implies only a moment’s pleasure. That is the most honest thing a perfume ad can guarantee.

The Freedom Fantasy

As much as fragrance is meant to attract, it has historically set people apart. Costly fragrances have been reserved for royalty, but even in a less hierarchical world, the perfume ad can appeal to a sense of sovereignty. The degree to which it suggests supremacy versus mere agency may vary, but a sense of freedom and escape is key to certain perfume ad campaigns.

For Davidoff’s Adventure, Ewan MacGregor goes abroad in search of himself. The opening shots frame it as a serious interview. But then it’s just him and the open road, a walking stick insect, a hairpin turn and the world below immersed in cloud. He discovers himself, and his bottle of Adventure is his lone companion.

For Lancôme’s La Vie Est Belle, Julia Roberts interrupts an intimate dinner party to disintegrate the walls and join a larger cocktail party. It’s okay, though. No one was having a good time anyways. And yet her need to be adored by an ever widening social circle is insatiable. She dissolves the whole building to join a garden party overlooking the city. She walks right past everyone and smiles at the skyline of Paris. When will your hunger be sated, Julia? How many buildings must you destroy before you know peace?

Across the channel in London, it apparently didn’t work out for Henry Cavill and the woman in the last ad. It’s time to make a quick and dramatic getaway. He fondles his way through a giant Union Jack to a helipad, whence he departs to realms unknown. Godspeed, you playboy of the western world.

But how can I parse the joyless, juvenile absurdity of Keira Knightley’s characterization of the Coco Mademoiselle avatar? She is intended to be a trickster goddess, thwarting male desires with her unrestrained agility while “It’s A Man’s World” plays in the background. She’s a fashion model who invites and then thwarts the overtures of her photographer (Alberto Ammann). Anyone who knows anything about an editorial shoot will guffaw at the obnoxious boudoir scene that leads to their mutual lack of professionalism. The intended message is emancipation (through wealth and beauty), but in the final assessment it is a mash of soap operas and action films. Saddest of all, though the the Mademoiselle toys with others desires, on further reflection she never appears free.

The Transcendence Fantasy

Leaving behind the earthier perfume ads, one encounters the sacral approach that turns the abstract nature of smell into a transcendent act. In many cases, this mode expresses itself as mere jubilance, which one finds in ads for cellular services and soft drinks and casual clothing. Among perfumes, Estee Lauder and Clinique adopt this in a general way through bounding women and blushing brides.

But the queen of perfume ads in this mode is Charlize Theron, the face of Dior’s J’adore. The brand of this one fragrance is fully dedicated to an alchemical presentation. Gold suffuses it. The color of the elixir, the beaded adornments of the bottle, like an alembic. Even the name ends with the Latinate sound of gold: Or.

The color of gold suffuses many a perfume ad, from Tautou’s fated rendezvous in Istanbul to Spike Jonze’s mad-cap retort. Gold is light and warmth, and in the esoteric system it is a sign of perfection, both material and spiritual. The elixir even perfects the body, bringing immortality.

Hence, we do not bat an eye when in a commercial for J’adore, Theron is greeted by Grace Kelly, ogled by Marlene Dietrich, and distracted by Marilyn Monroe, who joyfully proclaims her adoration for J’adore. The elixir is powerful enough to exhume these spirits into their most iconic forms.

When Theron walks through sacred architecture and climbs a golden sheet through an oculus in the dome above, shedding shoes and golden pearls and attachments to the past on her way, we may raise an eyebrow. And when she summits the dome and peers out across a futuristic skyline with no apparent purpose but as an Olympian overseer, we can only nod at the triumph of the will. “It’s not heaven. It’s a new world. The future is gold,” she declares. Tell that to King Midas.

When in another short film Theron narrates the craft of the perfume among vignettes of floating flowers, blown glass, handbeaded collars and etched knobs, only the most credulous consumer will assume that their bottle was so lovingly crafted. Still, the echo of such fire-forged perfection plays on the mind. After all, the creation of the elixir is “the most desired secret ever.”

Here the perfume ad invites a worshipful state, as a prelude to one’s own perfection. As a side note, my only surprise in searching for these ads online was that I didn’t find a conspiracy theorist linking Dior to the Illuminati. To Mega Theron.

The Perfume Ad Goes Mad

So now we return to the crux of the matter: Spike Jonze’s twisted take on all of this. In “KENZO WORLD,” each aforementioned trope gets a nod and is swiftly rebuked.

The cinematic fantasy requires a certain familiarity, and so we begin with a soundless view of actress Margaret Qualley, laughing along with a crowd at a nondescript formal occasion. It asks us to insert ourselves…and we do as she leaves. For the remainder of the short film, we will identify to some degree with the emotions on screen. The expectation of a desirable state is thwarted, however, by the fact that our star is in a fugue state.

The erotic mode gets its due in Qualley’s tête-à-tête with a vascular sculpture of a man’s head. She gets up close and licks the bridge of its nose before tromping off to find a complete body—a tall dark and handsome stranger on his cell phone. Romantic expectations might suggest an equally intimate moment, but instead she attacks and sends him to the floor. In the flash of strobe lights, he reaches for her hand before the scene cuts.

Suddenly she’s willfully blasting things apart with laser beams from her hands and then trying to control the spasms of her body. There is power without control, and then there is visibility without an audience. Qualley marches onto a theatrical stage, spotlit before an empty auditorium. Individualized at last (or at least visually isolated), she dances gracefully, then faints off the proscenium and teleports to the front of the building. She gives a furious burst of acrobatic skills before confronting…

An eye. An ominously floating eye made of flowers. The ideal of the perfume ad, the unity of vision and scent is complete in one all-seeing symbol. And she bursts right through it.

The eye is still shattering into fragrant fragments when she touches down, disheveled and still possessed and intoxicated, not so much scented as incensed to the end.

Are we sold?

What you just watched is still an ad. It is not a defiant stand against the ways in which a perfume ad (or any ad) may manipulate us; Jonze speaks to our dissatisfaction with this and he illuminates their techniques and the absurdity of it all. But there is no escaping it. Though Qualley busts out of the building and through that all-seeing eye at the end, the manipulations will not stop.

That makes it quite timely. Political campaigns have been built on the same logic with excellent results: appeal to emotions, not tangible things; show visions of peace and security (even if its the Orwellian “War is Peace” doublespeak); and then just get angry. My hope is that with work like this, we see how these aesthetic gestures rule our world and consolidate power, well knowing that they have always done so, from the sacred to the counter culture.

“KENZO WORLD” is not didactic about it; it still remains pure cinema, and pure Jonze. I admire the artistic rebellion here so long as I forget that I am being sold another bottle of smell. That is not an indictment of the genre or the industry in toto. Perfume ads reflect on our most fundamental desires, even if the products are luxuries. May we never neglect our sense of smell, or desire, or adventure, passion, etc.

To praise “KENZO WORLD” beyond this is only to rage against the means in which we are sold other bottles of smell, cars, policies, toilet tissue, soft drinks, etc. Seeing Qualley go off the rails is a giddy thrill, that for a moment suggests liberation from consumerism and bourgeois ritual. But soon enough, we’ll all be like Christopher Walken in “Weapon of Choice”—dancing and soaring, then slumping back where we started, wondering if this is really all there is.


T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.