Saturday, April 2, 2011

Perfume, Marketing, and Feminist Aesthetics: Kate Walsh's Boyfriend


So many things to say. So few of them good.

Let’s start with my Boyfriend-related SA encounter. I dropped by my local Sephora for the sole purpose of trying Kate Walsh's Boyfriend. I asked the super attentive SA where it was, and she led me over to the display, which I’d manage to miss completely.

Grabbing the bottle and a scent strip, she turned to me while spraying. “People either love it or hate it,” she said wafting the strip and handing it to me. As I sprayed a little on me, she continued. “Personally, I don’t like it. But it’s mostly the story about it, you know?”

Store Display.
I nodded. I did know. The story is so well known, it is part of the formal marketing campaign for the scent:
 For Kate, that story involves a breakup five years ago, after which she realized how much she missed his scent. "So I went to a fragrance counter and bought a men's fragrance and went, 'Wait a minute, you don’t need a boyfriend to have a Boyfriend! Ding ding ding!' FN1.
The SA wrinkled her nose. “Yeah. It shouldn’t be called Boyfriend. It should be called Stalker.” And then we laughed. Mostly to keep from crying, I think. Which gets me to my biggest beef with Boyfriend.

Let’s look at the marketing language proffered by Sephora to attract buyers toward Boyfriend:
You don't need a boyfriend to have Boyfriend, the new fragrance created by "Private Practice" star Kate Walsh. Inspired by the longing felt for her boyfriend's warm scent, Boyfriend combines muguet, dark plum, myrrh, and night blooming jasmine to create a seductive floral fragrance. Topped off with amber and woody musk, this intoxicating scent includes all the notes that make your eyes roll—just like him.
Does Kate Walsh realize that she is, in fact, implying that you need a boyfriend – some kind of boyfriend? Because obviously you can’t break up with a guy because the relationship was bad and you didn’t really love each other and still be a whole person! You MUST have a man substitute. Like say, one of these. Also, I love how the ad copy downplays the “we just broke up” aspect of the story, which actually makes the ad copy worse. Because even when you have a boyfriend, you might need a temporary substitute for the rare seconds you are left to your tender, desperate, vulnerable feminine lonesome.

"The Boyfriend Kit"
And we MUST talk about the matching product kit and the fake message contained therein. There is a message from your fake, substitute, Boyfriend-scented, paramour-apparition that says: “See you tonight wear the red dress! <3 BF.” Because it isn’t bad enough that you either (a) have a boyfriend and must have some representation of him with you at all times or (b) don’t have a boyfriend but still cling to the shards of your last failed attempt at fairytale bliss to the point that you carry a bottle of scent around as a substitute. You also need fake love notes. That’s the level of self-esteem we’re aiming for here –  generically produced fake love notes, because a woman alone certainly cannot be fulfilled. In fact, she might as well be simply dead. And hey! They can bury her in the red dress her fake Boyfriend loved so much, right next to her dignity, pride, self-esteem, and personal achievements.

 And the names on the bottle and the bag. OMG, the bottle. All those dude names. Why? And they are so generic. (Not unlike the scent itself. More on that to follow.) And let’s just face it people – white. With the exception of Pablo, this is some primarily anglo name mess going on. Because our fake ideal Boyfriend isn’t just boring and average, he’s also white. FN2.

At this point, you’re probably wondering why I have basically flipped out at what is more or less simply a failed marketing attempt. I’ll tell you why. Messages that a woman is not whole without a man are a societal disease, underpinning a violent epidemic. And I’m not speaking in hyperbole:
  • One in four women (25%) has experienced domestic violence in her lifetime.FN3
  • While women are less likely than men to be victims of violent crimes overall, women are 5 to 8 times more likely than men to be victimized by an intimate partner. FN4
  • Estimates range from 960,000 incidents of violence against a current or former spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend each year to 4 million women who are physically abused by their husbands or live-in partners each year. FN4
  • The health-related costs of intimate partner violence exceed $5.8 billion each year. Of that amount, nearly $4.1 billion are for direct medical and mental health care services, and nearly $1.8 billion are for the indirect costs of lost productivity or wages. FN5
  • On average, more than three women and one man are murdered by their intimate partners in this country every day. FN6
That means that every day while I’m a work, a woman in America dies at the hands of someone who is or was her Boyfriend. Every night, while I’m sleeping, another woman dies at the hands of someone who is or was her Boyfriend. And while I’m going to Starbucks and watching television and having dinner and seeing my friends, another woman will die, thanks to her Boyfriend. She is probably dying right now, while I am writing this to you.

Boyfriend, the offensive bottle.
So I have a problem with messages that tell women they can’t make it without a man. They must have a boyfriend. They will be incomplete. They will not be whole. Because these same messages are the ones that help keep women in bad relationships, that discouraging them from leaving before the cycle of violence escalates, that makes us, as a society, blind to seeing her and helping her. Think of what we as a country could do with $5.8 billion if we didn’t need to spend it on heathcare for DV victims. Think of how much more these victims could do if they didn’t lose $1.8 billion annually in lost productivity and wages. For one, they might have the financial means to escape their abusers.

All of this makes me feel rageful toward this insipid fragrance, which I might add only smells like a light and generally unimpressive take of an Oriental of the Shalimar-flavoring. FN7.  The scent itself is sort of boring.  It's generally kind of sweet, meaning all I got from it was the vanilla and amber (which I normally like), but it had a weird smell underneath that was supposed to be wood, and on me came across like shoving your face into a bucket of used, scentless dryer sheets.  It was a static-y buzz that was supposed to be the masculine aspect, I think, but on me the scent came off as generic and cloying, and it lasted like that for about four hours.  It's not quite what I'd expect from, say, a Bath & Body Works scent (in the way that there seems to be no subtly or balance, but rather all sirens and air horns, in their creations) but it is only a step above that, which makes it a not-great scent with an incredibly unfortunate presentation. Additionally, it does not smell particularly ‘masculine,’ in the way that scents are generally directed toward male-identified people or female-identified people.

And that’s before I get to the fact the entire Boyfriend marketing scheme is incredibly heterosexist and ignores the fact that men have Boyfriends whose scent they might miss or that women might miss the scent of the women they date. But in Kate Walsh’s world, I guess this isn’t a problem, since you know, only women can shop on the women’s side of Sephora and only men can shop on the men’s side; consequently I guess if you miss your same-sex partner you can just, I don’t know, buy the scent they actually wore.

And that brings me to my last point: as both a person who aspires to a world unlimited by gender expression, and as a person who just spent about $100 buying a bunch of lovely cheap thrill type scents made and marketed for men, it offends me to think I can’t just go buy and wear whatever scent I love, for whatever reason. Will my credit card be rejected by the Sephora SA if I’m like, “I’m here to buy a bottle of Ralph Lauren Polo for myself, because I like it and it reminds me of my brother who is currently stationed in Iraq?” No. And if I buy a bottle of L'Artisan Timbuktu because it reminds me of my grandfather, who died in 1998, I don’t think the perfume police are going to show up and take my bottle away. Scents matter. Scent memory is an important part of how we experience the world. And when we love a scent for some deeply personal and emotional reason, a generic substitutional icon is not going to meet those needs.

At the end of the day, a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Or, to put it another way, a woman, or anyone else for that matter, has as little need of Boyfriend as my kittens need of a lawn mower.

P.S. Memo to Kate Walsh – fire your publicist. FN8. FN9.

For other posts related to perfume, marketing, and gender, 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
Perfume Marketing and Feminist Aesthetics, Pt. 3: The Exotic and how it relates to the Male Gaze and Majority View in Perfume Advertising
~ Advertising Critique: Prada Infusion d'Iris

FN1. From this article at BellaSugar.

FN2.The SA and I actually joked that perhaps this lost Boyfriend of Walsh's was gay, given the overall feminine presentation of the scent, and that perhaps Pablo was the man Boyfriend left her for, giving him bottle naming rights despite his potentially non-Anglo heritage.

FN3. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The National Institute of Justice, Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence, July 2000. The Commonwealth Fund, Health Concerns Across a Woman’s Lifespan: 1998 Survey of Women’s Health, 1999.

FN4. Violence by Intimates: Analysis of Data on Crimes by Current or Former Spouses, Boyfriends, and Girlfriends, U.S. Department of Justice, March, 1998.

FN5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Costs of Intimate Partner Violence Against Women in the United States, April 2003.

FN6. Bureau of Justice Statistics Crime Data Brief, Intimate Partner Violence, 1993-2001, February 2003. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Intimate Partner Violence in the U.S. 1993-2004, 2006.

FN7. This comparison is actually an insult to Shalimar.

FN8. I generally like you and think you are a talented actress. No one paid to protect your image should have let you do this to yourself.

FN9. P.S. I know you think this is all about women's empower, like "Yeah! We don't need you, men! We have this bottle of scent we bought with our own money to replace you." That is not, in fact, radical or empowering.  It says that there's still a hole that needs filling, which is the message that causes problems in the first place.  It's approximately as feminist as the concept of a momma grizzly.


Ines said...

I saw your comment (I forgot where)that you were going to talk about Boyfriend and I thought it might be a post on the implications of the name. :)
I'm personally not bothered so much about the implications even though I can't say they weren't the first thing that I noticed.
I know if we want to change the consciousness of people regarding certain problems, you do need to start from the little things and stick with the idea through everything you do.
I think I'm lazy when it comes to opening people's eyes to the possibilites life offers - most of the time they are unappreciative and well, tend to attack verbally when you say stuff people don't want to hear and I'm really not one for confrontations.

Btw, I'm now even more interested to try Boyfriend and smell for myself what it smells like as opinions are all over the place.

star said...

Um, but did you like the scent? Inquiring minds want to know!

cKate said...

Love this piece - great example of the really terrifying/rage-worthy marketing out there. I'm no expert, but this also may be one of the fiercest perfume reviews out there!

hotlanta linda said...

THANK YOU!! You inspire my ears to listen to Helen Reddy and Annie Lenox :-)

Diana said...


Yeah I give it 1-1.5 nods for the scent, maybe 2, but a zero for the aesthetics. And I really did go in to try, because I was genuinely curious if it would really be a true masculine. I would have loved if it had smelled like a spin on Brut or Old Spice or something, which might have been (a) unique to the market (b) genuinely interesting (c) made all this marketing mess mildly less offensive. If this perfume actually challenged what we call masculine or feminine, it if had hard marketed as a feminine even if it was in the unisex-to-masculine range, that would have been better. Instead, it's exactly as disappointing as I expected. Sweet and boring.

Makes me look forward to the GaGa scent. It may be a mess, but I bet it won't be boring.

Diana said...


No, it was a snooze. I say go try it because Sephora is happy to let you spray it, but if you want a vanilla/amber scent, there are MUCH better scents out there to choose from. For instance, beautiful beautiful Shalimar, which I continue to fail to write it's well-deserved solo post, and which you can get in the EdTP for way cheap.

Diana said...

Thanks cKate.

Diana said...

Hotlanta Linda--

I love both Helen Reddy and Annie Lennox! I've been listening to Annie Lennox newest album ("Songs of Mass Destruction," not the Christmas one) a lot this week, but my favorite is the
"Live in Central Park" album, which makes me yearn to see her live.

Anonymous said...

It's certainly a strange inspiration for a scent. Wait 5 years after break-up, become well-known (tho' not known to me over here), use "broken heart" as way into celebuscent market?

If I had to make a scent inspired by my OH, it would be a mess of cigarette smoke, mint gum (to mask smoke), fresh air (courtesy of trips outside to smoke) and slightly sweaty socks (from running up and down stairs to smoke outside). Nothing like Kate Walsh's weird Boyfriend concoction because this scent would be based upon a real living person living with another real living person, and not a pie-in-the-sky fantasy-construct.

Very strange and creepy approach to marketing and life. Phoney notes from a non-existent boyfriend?? Eek. Whoever thought that up needs a restraining order slapped on them. Good grief.

I hope that the marketing people find alternative jobs because they aren't going to get far in their present ones on this showing. Creepy and ill-thought out.

shuddering, Anna in Edinburgh

Becca said...

Women in general are lucky to have you advocating for us <3 All I can think after reading this post is "hell yes!"

Diana said...

Anna, I am glad you have escaped Grey's Anatomy which I think is some not all that interesting melodramatic tv.

mess of cigarette smoke, mint gum (to mask smoke), fresh air (courtesy of trips outside to smoke) and slightly sweaty socks (from running up and down stairs to smoke outside).

Hahahahha! Yeah, my SO would smell like sandalwood (he wears straight sandalwood and has for years) and nagchampa incense ash (he burns it all the time in our house) and may be a little cheap, stale beer (depending on what he'd had to do at work that night). Definitely not like amber and scentless stale dyer sheets, and pity on the man that did.

Unfortunately, I suspect the scent will do well and these marketers will live another professional day to inflict similar crap on us.

Diana said...

<3 you Becca. Definitely will call, either tonight or tomorrow.