From the New York Times:
When Did Perfume Stop Being About Sex?
Its decades-long grip on the global fragrance industry is slipping. You can thank changing views on sexual orientation and gender.
By Rachel Strugatz
June 23, 2022
… The whole marketing ideal has changed: Most designers and brands aren’t using sex to sell perfume — and people aren’t buying perfume to have sex.
For decades, the marketing around perfume made seduction a priority. Fragrance was a bottled way to help someone find a mate, a construct that feels incredibly irrelevant since we now have dating apps, a more efficient and consistent way to find a partner than having someone catch your scent and fall in love with you.
And thus, in the age of Tinder, women are rapturously happy.
Oh, wait, they aren’t.
“It just feels really old fashioned and kind of offensive,” Ms. Wells said. “Now we all feel like, ‘This advertiser is going to tell me how I’m supposed to feel or that I want to have sex because of their fragrance or that I want to become an object because of their fragrance?’”
No, women want to snag a man, and, being more conscious of fragrance than men, they hope that perfume helps. Most of the time it doesn’t, to the excess profit of perfumiers, but sometimes it does. Because the potential payoff of a devoted husband is so high, while the forecastable correlation is so low (you can look up how fast a Tesla is from 0-60, but whether a particular scent will spark chemistry with a particular man is extremely unpredictable), perfumes are notorious for their huge investment in advertising.
For example, when I take my dog to the park, I’m always pointing out dogs that she should play with because they strike me as physically compatible with her: “Hey, that dog looks like another energetic one-year-old 55-pounder—you’d have fun with him.” But dogs exist in a social universe of body language and, especially, smells that are closed off to owners rather than looks, so my dog might be entranced by an 8-year-old 12-pounder who might not look like much but has got that smell.
Today, brands talk about fragrance in terms of places and how it will make the wearer feel. Smaller, niche perfume brands like Byredo or Le Labo are advertised as “gender neutral.” These brands don’t play to outdated gender constructs and singular messaging about sex and sexual orientation. It’s not a competition for which perfume is the sexiest; it’s about which one can elicit the strongest emotional connection.
According to Rachel Herz, a neuroscientist and the author of “The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell,” perfume went from marketing “direct themes” like power or sex to encouraging a “personal journey.”
This journey could be one about self-empowerment or being the best “you,” which is what Glossier sells with Glossier You. According to its website, the scent will “grow with you no matter where you are in your personal evolution” because it’s “not a finished product. It needs you.”
Other fragrances take customers on a different journey. Harlem Nights from World of Chris Collins takes wearers to a speakeasy with notes of musk and rum that evoke cigars, top-shelf liquor and 1920s nightlife.
Are there colognes for men who love the smell of napalm in the morning?
So, when did perfume stop being about sex?
Culture, above all else, has had the most far-reaching effects on the perfume industry, especially in the last five years.
Traditionally, perfumes were designed for men or women — rarely both — buoyed by multimillion-dollar campaigns depicting traditional gender norms or hypersexualized images. Remember the Calvin Klein Eternity ads from the 1980s with Christy Turlington and Ed Burns? What about that sultry Gucci Guilty campaign from 2010 with Evan Rachel Wood and Chris Evans? Both seem heteronormative in today’s cultural climate.
A younger generation with more fluid interpretations of what constitutes gender, sexual orientation and romantic relationships is leading the conversation. “Gender neutral” and “genderless” have become mainstream concepts, integral to fashion, makeup and fragrance, and no longer on the fringes.
An uptick in unisex and genderless fragrance followed. In fact, many of the niche and artisanal labels that have gained widespread appeal have never assigned gender to their fragrances. Byredo has marketed its scents as unisex since Ben Gorham founded the line in 2006. The same goes for Le Labo, Escentric Molecules, D.S. & Durga, Malin + Goetz and Aesop.
“Your gender, your nationality, your sexual orientation — it doesn’t matter,” said Chris Collins, the founder and chief executive of World of Chris Collins. All 12 of the four-year-old brand’s scents are genderless. “There should not be a distinction,” he said.
For global fragrance powerhouses, gender and romance are still quintessential to mainstream appeal. While Dior’s ad campaigns are not overtly sexual, the brand presents distinct feminine ideals through Miss Dior’s ladylike campaigns, which have featured Natalie Portman since 2011, as well as those gilded J’Adore Dior ads, in which Charlize Theron has channeled a Greek goddess for 18 years.
“Romance is not necessarily passé,” Ms. Herz said. It’s the representations of romance that are more abstract, she explained, because “things are less defined heterosexually” than they were a decade ago.
The top response from a 2015 survey asking Scentbird customers why they wore fragrance was “how it made me feel.” Attracting the opposite sex was No. 6 or 7, Ms. ten Brink said.
Others use fragrance as a vehicle for self-expression. Carys Bassett, an I.T. consultant and cybersecurity specialist from Bath, England, wears perfume to stand out, like a statement coat or shoes.
This reminds me of interviews with 1970s Playboy centerfolds who always said they did the photo shoot to express who they really are (i.e., a really hot babe).
… “Artisanal scents have always been more about the scent and the notes and the ingredients, and less about the image,” said Larissa Jensen, a beauty industry analyst at the NPD Group. Fragrance bottles with lemons, oranges or lavender are the “visual descriptors” drawing people in, she said. “You’re not looking at an ad that has just a man’s naked butt.”
I could totally see having pictures of lemons, oranges, and lavenders on a label rather than a man’s naked butt.
… She discovered independent perfume makers like the Sage Goddess and the online community House of Oshun, whose founder, Lulu Eye Love, makes her favorite scent, Shut Up and Kiss Me.
Half the time, I worry that the human race will die out due to dumb fads. And the other half of the time I figure that among the customers of Shut Up and Kiss Me, life finds a way.