Saturday, April 17, 2010

Perfume Marketing and Feminist Aesthetics, Pt. 3: The Exotic and how it relates to the Male Gaze and Majority View in Perfume Advertising

Wow. It’s been two weeks since I talked about the various categories Angela and I sorted mainstream perfume advertising into. I’ll try to be more on top of getting the series pieces out. For those of you just joining us, it might be useful to refer to the previous posts, which you can find listed at the bottom of this post.

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...


SignatureScent said...

Really fascinating. I very rarely find that perfume advertising appeals to me. For instance many of my friends wear Daisy - I'm guessing because of the huge amount spent on advertising. But Daisy has barely appeared on my radar in advertising terms.

Great to read about the different genres of fragrnce advertising.

ScentScelf said...

I'll mention something else that I notice about the passive presentation of the woman in the ad with the balloons...look at how her head lolls. Sleep? The final sleep? I know, I stretch a bit...but only a bit...after all, that is a rope reaching up above her head...strange fruit hanging from those balloons. (Which brings everything around to your final footnote, btw; how pale is she?)

There's also the whole exotic subset of the woman as animal, which connotes all the +/- of the untamed creature...what a ride, but perhaps asking for the whip in certain circumstances...which would be interesting for some thinkers, and disturbing for the animal rights folk. Just saying. Either way, the "creature" woman is not entirely responsible for her own actions now, is she? (Okay, be fair; Guerlain Por Homme goes all out on that theme, with a dude in the creature role.) Another way of taking agency away from the object, nonetheless.

I am LOL at your description of the semi-orgasmic perfume face. And then I am all "hmmmm," because I think maybe I *have* been that way once or twice. Perhaps more often it puts me in a place where I'm interested in putting that look on my face, but still, in the interest of full disclosure... :) What would be really funny would be to see an ad campaign that combined that face with a scent packaged in one of those bottles that certain blog commenters have equated with, erm, how do you say--self pleasuring tools?

I've got to thank you once again for prompting comments from me unlike any other I've posted in over a week...since your last post on the gaze, I think. :)

The Left Coast Nose said...

Oh my goodness... You've gotten around to saying so many excellent things...

Just two points today-- I've always been puzzled by the twins thing too, but your dissection of the Prada quads image nudged something small out of the back of my head: Replication connotes psychological immersion. And the more times a thing is replicated, the more all-encompassing it is. (Remember how terrifying the reams of paper with "All work and no play make Jack a dull boy" typed on them was in The Shining.)

I read the Prada as as saying: This stuff smells so good it really takes over your whole mind! Like, all four sides of you/her/whoever smells you/her/whomever.)

(Just a side-note, not a whole note-- I could not agree more about the sloppy imprecision of sex= smell this in so many ads. Again, I ask: Why not tell us a story?)

And finally, the D&G ads-- I have such a post in me about D&G. But all I have to say here is these ads say to me: these beautiful, multi-colored people are about to have sex with one another, as long as they can be staring directly at their own faces in a mirror as they do it.

I mean really: could there be more of a disconnect between the fact of their bodies being beautiful and naked in the presence of lots of other beautiful naked people-- and then ALL OF THEM staring directly into a camera? So. Weird.
Rock on, D!

Prosetry said...

But never once in my life has a perfume enticed me to make that face

I might have made that face a little when I smelled Jubilation 25 for the first time.

Thank you for putting to words exactly why I found that Miss Dior Cherie ad so irritating. Everyone I know is charmed by its whimsy, me included, but I've always felt this underlying irritation at it. I think it's possibly to do with how the whimsy of it infantalizes her, and how her childlikeness is somehow aesthetically pleasing, and how unfortunate that is. Women aren't children.

Also, when the D&G collection came out earlier this year, I found that ad on the back of Teen Vogue. It was completely startling to me that they thought an ad with an orgy of naked celebrities would be appropriate for the back cover of a teen magazine.

Diana said...

SignatureScent, I totally agree w/r/t Daisy. I find the advertising so weird and distasteful, I just can't get myself to even try Daisy. It's one of those scents I'm turned off enough by in terms of marketing that it isn't a scent I'd want to associate myself with.

Thanks for the encouragement.

Diana said...

Scelf, yeah I actually should have looked explicitly for ads that portrayed women as animals. Because those ads so often implicate race by being the rare ads that use non-Anglo models, I was more saving that up for a well-time tirade about race and scent advertising, but it should have been included, however briefly, here.

I also have to say that, if so many of ya'll have had an orgasmic face over scent, clearly I am not smelling enough stuff. ;P No really -- I probably have made that face, but I surely wouldn't want photographic evidence of it plastered in women's magazines! (And it CERTAINLY WAS *NOT* over Euphoria, which I'd describe as passable.)

Based on your suggestion, I'm now picturing places like Toys in Babeland (NSFW) doing ads for their self-pleasuring wares with ad copy that read like perfume copy. I can just see it now...

"This device captures the essence of relaxation once only known to those who live high up in the Himalayas, committed to an experience of the world borne from total focus on the interactions of flesh with nature, moving as the earth itself moves, shuddering and..."

You get the idea. :)

Diana said...

Replication connotes psychological immersion.

This makes sense, actually. I've never thought about this being the root of the 'multiple of same' idea, but that makes a kind of perverse sense that works for me.

The D&G ads -- yes, totally ridiculous. Thanks for the continuing input and support!

Diana said...

I think it's possibly to do with how the whimsy of it infantalizes her, and how her childlikeness is somehow aesthetically pleasing, and how unfortunate that is. Women aren't children.

YES YES YES! And that infantalization of otherwise totally capable and fully grown people just reinforces ideas of women as incapable of self-care (or, more darkly, self-defense). It undercuts their autonomy, their power, their authority, their mental maturity, their decision making. Yick and double yick. Definitely NOT the way to sell me a scent.

tina said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Beautiful Things said...

Fascinating post. The one thing perfume adverts don't seem to imply is, 'wear this perfume, it smells lovely'.

Anonymous said...

Great article! Really well written and very insightful.

Anonymous said...

That lesbian-for-straight-male-eyes ad with the quadruplets also reminds me of greco-roman reliefs - perhaps the sapphic imagery is also part of this exotic angle?