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Fragrance brands will continue to push the boundaries because ultimately; sex sells

By Andrew McDougall , 23-Nov-2011
Last updated on 23-Nov-2011 at 18:17 GMT

Since the dawn of advertising it has utilised sexual imagery in to sell products, and when it comes to fragrance products it seems money certainly talks as companies are prepared to take the risk and push the boundaries, due to the age-old idea that ‘sex sells’.

In recent years adverts for fragrances and other cosmetic products have featured increasingly provocative images all designed to elicit sexual responses from as many people as possible, to shock or to appeal to repressed sexual desires, which are thought to carry a stronger emotional load; all for the purpose of the sale.

Increased tolerance and tempering censorship

Nowadays it appears we have developed a tolerance to this kind of imagery, for example it is almost expected to see a nude figure accompanying a fragrance bottle in a perfume ad; just look at Eva Mendes in the Calvin Klein Secret Obsession ad or the various male and female models in the latest Diesel fragrance campaign; the list goes on.

We also find that with different countries and different regulatory bodies, what may be banned or censored in the US, may be allowed in Europe or Asia etc, and vice versa.

Sex in advertising builds on the premise that people are curious about sexuality and if you look at advertising in beauty as well as other industries, the story would suggest that sex sells products.

Different approaches

From a marketing point of view, the way sexuality is approached can have many different interpretations. In beauty adverts it normally refers to the bond that exists between people and is portrayed through physical feelings or emotions.

It is these different messages and interpretations of sexuality in adverts that then become the focal point, depending on the target demographic, who is exposed to the ad, and the representation of people in the advert. It all rests on what is being ‘sold’.

The advert for Beyonce’s Heat fragrance, bounced the idea of the perfume’s name against the sexual connotations of the word ‘heat’, playing up the singer’s glamour with passion and sexual desire.

This resulted in a sweaty and pouty Beyonce writhing around in a small dress depicting the title of the perfume. However, just how necessary the sexual imagery was in the advert came under scrutiny and it ended up being banned in several countries because of its content.

Unilever has also gone under the microscope with the adverts for its Lynx brand which have been branded as ‘objectifying women’. The adverts/products target young adult males in a ‘tongue-in-cheek’ fashion inferring that product use can lead to the attraction of beautiful women.

Here the advert is selling a ‘concept’ in order to entice the user to buy the product, but is this sex selling or being exploited?

Historically, advertising has used women in erotic roles and poses more often than men, although in more recent beauty and fashion ads young men have increasingly been used in a similar manner.

Money talks

New Jersey-based advertising and market research firm Gallup & Robinson has reported that in more than 50 years of testing advertising effectiveness, it has found the use of the erotic images to be a significantly above-average technique in communicating with the marketplace.

"...although one of the more dangerous [tactics] for the advertiser. Weighted down with taboos and volatile attitudes, sex is a Code Red advertising technique ... handle with care ... seller beware; all of which makes it even more intriguing” … hence the popular idea that ‘sex sells’.

Nowadays, adverts for fragrances feature provocative images of well-defined women and men in revealing outfits and postures, but has this become the norm or should there be more regulation in place to censor what we are exposed to? Moreover, is there a need for this amount of exposure?

Last week it appeared Coty brand Marc Jacobs had gone too far in its advert for the Oh Lola perfume, in which 17 year old actress Dakota Fanning was seen sitting on the floor wearing a summer dress with an oversized perfume bottle held in her lap.

The advert was banned in the UK for being ‘sexually provocative’ and when viewing the advert, particularly in the knowledge of Dakota Fanning, an actress who came to fame as a child star in Man on Fire and War Of The Worlds, it can be described as uncomfortable.

However the advert was not banned in Australia, suggesting that this set of rules defining what is indecent, is not a definitive guide. What some may deem inappropriate is not for others, and although a shocking or sexual image may not be to the liking of everyone, it generates a buzz around a brand or product.

You may not agree with it, but unfortunately money talks, and sex makes money, and as long as that continues so will the use of sex in adverts for perfumes, amongst other consumer products.

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