As you may recall, dear reader, we’ve been talking here at Feminine Things about the male gaze in perfume advertising. The first category we explored was the ubiquitous erotica. These ads appeal purely to sex and tend to quantify women as objects to be used for male pleasure. There are other approaches, though. Today we will explore ads that could be described as appealing to the “exotic,” including those ads that cross the erotic and exotic in ways that not only objectify their subjects in order to appeal to the male gaze, but that also trade upon stereotypes in order to portray people and places in the context of a majority view, exploit differences related to race, culture, and national origin.
Let’s start with this Miss Dior Cherie ad. In general, not a terribly exploitive ad. Yes, the model is ridiculously skinny, her skirt is unnecessarily short, but generally not a terrible ad. The appeal of the ad is to be found in the whimsical foreignness of it all. A woman held aloft by balloon (because she weighs nothing, apparently), floating above the skyline of Paris in a lovely party dress. Again, we have an inactive woman, someone who is being acted upon (balloons), rather than being active. The ad implies travel to far away places, exploration of the unknown, youthful fun exuberant discovery of the world and of the self. While this ad does have some appeal to women like me, who like to think of all the wonderful places in the world they’ve never been but dream of going, it also appeals to the male gaze in so far as there has been a historical practice of exploiting women of minority cultures and using their ‘exotic’ appeal (i.e. different from what you get at home, buddy) in order to excuse the sexual and physical abuse and exploitation of women in general, and minority women in particular.
For example, let’s talk about this other Miss Dior Cherie ad. Here, you’ve got another troublingly skinny girl in a party dress, standing barefoot (implied by the shoe in hand) on the wide grassy lawn of a large palatial estate. There is a lot of overlap with another category in this one (fantasy – more on that later), but I look at this and what I see appealing is the depiction of another life, a life remote and foreign. How many of us have partied til the sun came up at a friend’s country estate and then, after running barefoot over the dew covered lawns, are driven home in a Rolls? The skimpy dress, the implication from the removed shoe that this woman is willing to (and already in the process of) undress, the come hither gaze – all imply this exotic woman is ready for sex. One of the things I find most fascinating, though, is the placement of her right arm. Not a lot of people stand around with their arm crooked like that, but many people place their hand behind their head in a similar position when they are lying down or sleeping. By posing the standing model in a position one normally would associate more with lying and passivity rather than standing or being active, one places the viewer (again) in the subconscious position of viewing, for consumption, an image of a partially dressed woman in a passive and ready-for-bedding position.
Another ad that plays into similar stereotypes in more obvious ways is this Euphoria ad. You’ve got a woman who once again is giving you the come hither gaze, and (thanks to photoshop) is simultaneously caressing her own lips with her eyelids closed while her ‘dress’/bed sheet flows around her. I tend to think of this face as “on the verge of fake orgasm” face. Now I love perfume. I love perfume more than most people I know. But never once in my life has a perfume enticed me to make that face, and I can only assume that this model was (a) probably not actually wearing Euphoria at the time of her photo shoot, and (b) would not have been driven to make that face in response to wearing Euphoria, even if she was wearing it. The woman is not of identifiable ethnic, racial, or national origin and she is superimposed over a lake and trees at sunset. The land is indistinguishable and covered in shadow, emphasizing its otherness. You cannot identify where it is that this beautiful, exotic woman is from, but she has apparently traveled a long way to have sex with the viewer in nothing but a mauve bed sheet. How brave of her! I definitely want to smell like that.
And now we get to two of the most ridiculous exotic/erotic ads. First up, Prada L’Eau Ambree. When my girlfriends come over to hang out in the afternoon, and I go to share my love of perfume with them, I tend to do this by spraying them on their neck and then just nuzzling the crap out of them. Yep. I just spray the perfume on and then stick my nose right in there to enjoy it…
What irritates me about this ad is that not only does it play into my least favorite exploitative male fantasy – girl on girl action – but it uses a series of almost identical women (Are they identical? Is it the same model?) so that they can leverage in the whole ‘look, lesbian quadruplets!’ thing. FN1 Plus, the model second from the left appears to be losing the top of her dress. Chic women basically falling all over each other blends the exotic and erotic in a way that is subtle because it uses a specific kind of exoticism – sexual exoticism. It plays on the idea that certain kinds of sexual ‘taboos’ (as mainstream culture deems them) are especially attractive to – you guessed it – men, and that playing on those makes you more attractive to men by playing to idea of sexual voyeurism, the male gaze, and female objectification. FN2
Lastly, I give you the perfume ad equivalent of a United of Benetton ad: the Dolce & Gabbana scent ads. A bevy of physically fit and naked men and women of multiple ethic/racial backgrounds all staring longingly at the viewer. They seem to be arraigned in such a way as to cover any number of possible sexual fantasies: the two women on the bottom left, the two men on the top left, the couple on the top right embracing, the solo male on the bottom left. Whatever you are attracted to, whatever gives you an exotic, erotic thrill, it’s implied in this ad. I’d give them more credit for their multi-ethnic approach if it weren’t so obviously done for sexual exploitation and the benefit of the viewer. FN3 But here, like the rainbow of bottles, D&G is offering up a rainbow of sexual partners, all of whom look so eager to get with you they should be advertising for a swingers' website instead of a line of scent.
One interesting thing, though, is that the male models are shown to be just as passive as the female models in this ad. It certainly raises some debatable points about whether this simply casts men in the same passive role in order to appeal to an expanded 'male gaze' that includes gay men's desires, or if it cuts against the norm by allowing -- though gay men -- women to access images of sexually appealing men, thus subverting traditional gendered voyeurism in advertising aesthetics. My personal preference is to see both men and women pictured as active and self-actualized rather than passive and objectified, but I also recognize that even my stated desire can be limiting to the ways in which men and women can be displayed. And I'm generally in favor of a multiplicity of expression for both male and female identified individuals, even if that means that both men and women retain the right to display themselves in passive roles as part of their own sexual exploration (i.e. as bottoms/subs).
Again, I will take this moment to lament the lack of ads that actually demonstrate anything about the scents they purport to sell. These ads, particularly the bottom three, are actually selling sex, not perfume. Perfume here is simply mentioned in conjunction with the heavy implication of sex, and the advertisers hope that, overwhelmed with a desire to either (a) have sex with the person pictured or (b) be desirable for sex like the person in the picture, you'll buy the scent hoping you'll be associated with the ad.
What I find interesting about this approach to selling scent is that it fails utterly. While depicting a sheet swaddled model in a seductive pose right next to a car or in a bed might help you associate the act of seeing that car or sitting on that bed with sex and therefore provide some of the aforementioned aspired connection, it's not like anyone carries the bottle of scent they wear around with them. You don't display it on a chain around your neck. If someone thinks you smell good, they aren't necessarily going to associate the imagery of the ad with the scent because the act of smelling the scent isn't associated with the images in the ad -- they're too removed.
This gap might be addressed by putting scent strips on the ads, but that only allows the buyer to associate the image with the scent, not others who might smell you (unless they really excellent olfactory and visual memories). The only thing the advertiser can be hoping for is that you, the buyer, will hope to associate yourself with these images, and given that they tend to convey messages that people, particularly women, are passive objects waiting to be used, often for the sexual pleasure of the viewer, we all end up encoded with subtle messaging about the nature of women. When you add markers that indicate diversity of ethnicity, race, or national origin to these images, you imply some similar messaging about non-majority individuals.
For other posts in this series, see:
~ Gender, Language, and Scent
~ Perfume Marketing and Feminist Aesthetics, Pt. 1: Perfume, Advertising, And the Male Gaze
~ Some More Thoughts on "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" and Advertising of Scents for 'Men'
~ Perfume Marketing and Feminist Aesthetics, Pt. 2: Sex/Erotica and the Male Gaze in Perfume Advertising
~ Advertising Critique: Prada Infusion d'Iris
FN1 I have never really understood the whole ‘twins/triplets/etc.’ thing, but I know it’s stereotypical enough that I found a fake demotivational poster about it. Seriously. If you’ve never heard of this, just google “male fantasy + twins.” DO NOT use the image search. Trust me.
FN2 Unless you live under a rock, you know that there’s been this whole trend in popular culture that describes straight girls making out with one another for the benefit of men/in order to manipulate men. From Gilmore Girls’ Rory and Paris having a terribly awkward kiss on Spring Break, to Winona Ryder trying to reignite her career post-shoplifting debacle by kissing Rachel on Friends, everyone has done this sad sack of a storyline. Just this past week’s episode of Glee (which I love, despite the running Santana/Brittany have sex but ARE NOT GAY!!! gag) had a scene wherein Brittany and Santana ask Finn out on a date with them and at the restaurant, Santana explains, “Let us give you an introduction into the way that we work. You buy us dinner and we make out in front of you. It’s like the best deal ever.”
As a woman who is attracted to and has dated both male-identified and female-identified individuals, this becomes an ongoing problem for women who might pass for straight but are intimate with women. It plays on the worst stereotypes of bi/omnisexuals: that they are ‘slutty’ or ‘easy’ or ‘oversexed’ or ‘indiscriminate’ and always ‘ready to go’ sexually. Worse, these straight women’s performances (and that’s what they are) confuse women who are genuinely trying to explore their sexuality and are not simply making out with girls for a thrill or the attention of men.
FN3 Seriously, has anyone noticed how incredible WHITE perfume ads are? I almost never see individuals of color unless (a) it’s a celebrity hawking a (usually name branded) scent or (b) a model of color is used in order to increase exotic sexual appeal. It’s appalling. But that's a whole other post entirely...