Thursday, 31 December 2015

Semiotic Spritz Part 6: Readers' Daughters: Marc Jacobs' Oh, Lola!

Continuing with the theme of banned perfume advertisements, in 2011 Marc Jacobs (Coty UK Ltd.) fell foul of the Advertising Standards Authority with their ad for Oh, Lola! featuring the then 17 year old Dakota Fanning. The ASA judged the image ‘irresponsible’ for ‘sexualis[ing] a child’. The authority explained that, in their view Fanning ‘looked under the age of 16’ and that ‘the length of her dress, her leg and the position of the perfume bottle drew attention to her sexuality’. On this basis, it was ruled the advert must not appear again in its current form.
Although the ASA only received four complaints in respect to the image (a far cry from the 900 complaints received in connection with YSL’s infamous Opium ad), its publication effectively coincided with the Bailey Review’s – a report commissioned by the government that sought to address the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood. A key recommendation of the review - and one that conceivably had a direct bearing on the ASA’s ruling - was that in all types of advertising regulation, a person under the age of 16 be defined as a child. That the ASA has shown itself less concerned with models’ actual ages than whether they appear to be under 16 displays a commitment to holding advertisers to the spirit of the code rather than the mere letter.
Addressing the ASA’s criticisms, Coty UK apparently conceded the placement of the oversized flacon between the model’s thighs was provoking. They did not however, believe the styling of the ad suggested the model was underage nor that it was inappropriately sexualising.
Coty, of course, needed only to respond to the points raised by the advertising authority and their account holds no surprises. What is unexpected however, is that in summing their case the ASA made no reference to the perfume’s name nor the advert’s overall aesthetic:
Oh, Lola! is, on the one hand a play on words, simultaneously punning eau and oh la la! On the other hand, it carries strong associations with Nabokov’s tale of Dolores Haze, AKA Lo, Lola, Lolita. Unlike Penhaligon’s who put themselves in the uncomfortable position of denying their perfume Tralala bore any connection with the identically named character in Hubert Selby Jr.’s controversial novel Last Exit to Brooklyn (thereby contradicting earlier claims made by Meadham Kirchhoff), Marc Jacobs was unambiguous on the literary inspiration for Oh, Lola! Speaking to the latter’s connection with its predecessor, Lola (Marc Jacobs, 2009), the designer explained ‘This Lola is more of a Lolita than a Lola, but we weren’t going to call the fragrance Lolita. Lola is more seductive; Oh, Lola is sensual, but she’s sweeter’ (Jacobs, quoted in WWD June 2011). In a discussion centered on the sexualisation of a minor in a perfume advert, it is surely germane that the perfume’s namegiver is virtually synonymous with paedophilia.
But beyond the model’s apparent age, her attire, the way she holds the bottle or even the fragrance’s name, it is the advert’s retro aesthetic that holds the real key to its unsettling power. Much like American Apparel’s 2012 ad that was banned on identical grounds, the image coopts the faux-laroid trend popularised on social media with its grainy texture, saturated colours, heavy shadow and solid white frame.

(Read the ASA's ruling here)

A good deal has been written about the popularity of vintage-style filters and we needn’t try too hard to guess what this desire to impose a false sense of history on photos through analogue simulation says about our relation to digital technology. The effect though of these temporally dislocated images is haunting; haunting in the Derridean sense that the ontology of the hic et nunc is challenged by the presence/absence of spectral figures that are out of time and out of place.
We’re invited to view the photo of Fanning as an authentic object, an objet trouvé even, such as might have lain undisturbed for decades in some dusty shoebox. Striving for candor, Juergen Teller’s photograph rejects the sort of amnesic nostalgia invoked by most faux-vintage snaps. Its problematic however, inheres in the fact that it uses this as a cover for sentimentality towards abuses of the worst kind.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Semiotic Spritz Part 5: The Third Opium War

Such was the moral panic that surrounded YSL’s 2000 campaign for Opium featuring Sophie Dahl, the image – which ultimately attracted more than 900 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, was ordered to be removed from billboards on the grounds that it was ‘sexually suggestive’ and ‘likely to cause widespread offence’. The ASA however, did not uphold the three complaints made against the same advert as appearing in magazines.
According to Tom Ford, the then newly appointed Creative Director at YSL, Steven Meisel's shot was conceived as a ‘tasteful nude in the tradition of high art’ (The Age, Dec. 2000). In particular, Ford is said to have drawn inspiration from Delacroix’s painting La Femme aux Bas Blancs (1825). The established codes of western Art are represented in Dahl’s reclining, glabrous, alabaster figure and the jewels that adorn her body serve to emphasise her nakedness. In this way, Ford’s image does recall several of Delacroix’s works, including La Femme Caressant un Perroquet (1827). Interestingly, this same group of paintings also provided the likely foundation for Baudelaire’s Les Bijoux (1857), which poem was similarly banned for being an outrage to public morality:

La très chère était nue, et, connaissant mon coeur,
Elle n'avait gardé que ses bijoux sonores…

My adored was nude and, knowing my heart,
Wore only her sonorous jewels…

Yet, it is important to note that Dahl is no passive Odalisque and much of the visual language of the advert can be traced more immediately to the 1977 publicity for Opium that featured Jerry Hall. From the flaming red accents suggestive of poppies to the ‘hungrily parted legs’ (quoting Libby Brooks in The Guardian, Dec., 2000; note also the 'Y' shape), these juxtaposed symbols of death and sex have become recurrent in the perfume’s campaigns.

(Jerry Hall for Opium)

Like Hall, Dahl’s significance was as a model and the advert further draws on the codes of fashion (YSL is, after all, a fashion house). When sandwiched between the glossy covers of Vogue, much of the effort required to situate the text was removed and the ASA was confident this would reduce potential anxiety. Still, Dahl’s singular version of heroin-chic was highly subversive and the image made strange bedfellows with the drawn, waif-like, androgynous figures that surrounded it. Indeed, as a woman intended to look like she had had ‘too much of everything; too much food, too much sex, too much love’ (again quoting Ford in The Observer, Dec., 2000), Dahl’s body has instead been read as ‘porn-chic’.
Apprehensions around the reframing of sexual representations in popular culture are, of course, nothing new; for President Nixon, pornography was an anarchic force, a threat to social order and liberty that must be contained. While there was never any suggestion YSL’s advert breached UK obscenity laws (archaic as they are), the iterating image of a woman apparently caught in a moment of exquisite self-pleasure was taken as evidence of a creeping permissiveness and prompted many to invoke Lovejoy’s Law by pleading ‘won’t someone think of the children?’.
It would seem then that the locus of the text’s disruptive power was its trivial (in the Latin sense) situation, existing at the intersection of Art, Fashion and Pornography. When we consider that the image emerged at a time when millennial anxieties had resulted in increased concern for the maintenance of boundaries, we can better understand how the conditions were set just so for the advert’s ban.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Pretty in Pink Review

Eschewing the modern trend for lighting up rose notes like neon signs against dark, woody backgrounds, Pretty in Pink offers a fresh, feminine take on the most classical of themes.
My personal benchmark for pink rose soliflores has long been Serge Lutens’ Sa Majesté la Rose (Christopher Sheldrake, 2000) whose unapologetic opening strongly recalls waxy citronella candles. By comparison, Pretty in Pink’s hesperidic head notes feel restrained and balanced, but there’s an appreciable citric tartness all the same, as well as a toppy musk that lends the composition a slightly retrospective vibe. Running through the entire perfume is a pronounced, Floralozone like ozonic note: initially, this carries the rose aloft with its breezy freshness, but come the deep dry down phase when the rose has faded, I find it has a bit of a bleaching effect on the pale woods and musks. Proof nonetheless that there’s always room for a good rose scent.

Nose: Chris Bartlett
House: Pell Wall Perfumes
Release date: 2011
Notes (per Fragrantica): bergamot, mint, neroli, rose, lily, violet leaf, lily of the valley, jasmine, vanilla, sandalwood, musks, spices.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Bois d'Ascèse Review

Earlier this year, fast-food giant Burger King announced they were releasing a limited edition ‘Flame-Grilled Fragrance’. Said to evoke the scent of a cooked patty, it promised customers the experience of ‘feel[ing] like they’re in a restaurant any time’. The fragrance was only sold in Japan, and there only for one day (April 1st, natch.). How it smelt, I’ll probably never know, but should I ever be struck by the urge to appropriate the odour of barbequed meat, Naomi Goodsir’s Bois d’Ascèse presents as a very viable solution.
The composition is built around a massively smoky, phenolic cade/birchtar complex with some additional sweet woody accents coming from Iso E and perhaps guaiac. At such high concentration, this accord is unapologetic in its grilled meatiness. The top includes some terpy citrus notes that introduce an incense contrast. The latter however, only really becomes apparent in the deep dry-down when much of the smoke has cleared. What remains then is actually quite sensual and animalic, being a soft mix of incense, musks, resins and moss (replacer).

House: Naomi Goodsir
Perfumer: Julien Rasquinet
Release date: 2012
Notes (per Fragrantica): whisky, tobacco, cinnamon, amber, labdanum, oakmoss, cedar, incense.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Semiotic Spritz Part 4: Paco Rabanne's Olympéa: Wet Dreams (Are Made Of This)

It was film critic Laura Mulvey who coined the phrase ‘male gaze’ in her 1975 essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. Mulvey’s intention was to lay bare the gender-power asymmetry in film and expose the ways in which females are objectified by the camera’s outlook, which is most typically that of a heterosexual man. To gaze, it is argued, implies more than to look: it orders power and sexuality and renders women passive objects that exist for men’s consumption. Whilst perfume adverts are no different in this connection from other forms of visual media, Alexandre Courtès' recent film for Paco Rabanne’s Olympéa presents us with a remarkable fetishisation of the male gaze.
The advert’s narrative traces the course of a straight, adolescent male’s wet dream, its setting on ancient Mt.Olympos evoking mythic forms and providing ample opportunities for Freudian shots of columns and arches:
Making her way through Greek temple ruins, the anachronistically attired Olympéa actively participates in her own spectaclisation, clapping her hands to attract the attention of the godly male figures that line her path. With each new pair of eyes that devour her image, the intensity of gaze increases, achieving climax when finally she arrives at a cavernous pool penetrated by shafts of light. Pausing as she enters its waters, Olympéa turns to meet our voyeuristic stare and by this act, violates the rule of visual domination - much in the way of Manet's scandalous Olympia (1863). Suddenly it is we who are subjected to the gaze’s power and experience all the embarrassment of a Peeping Tom who has just been discovered. The emotional jolt that results is captured in the final shower scene showing two naked males who, caught unawares by a knowing Olympéa, clutch at their genitals. As the conclusion of the dream, this also represents the moment the dreamer awakens to his nocturnal emission.
In directing this advert, Courtès reportedly wanted ‘…to express a notion of power without the use of force’; to showcase a ‘strong and beautiful woman that walks with confidence and poise’ and who ‘didn’t have to choose between beauty and intelligence, because she has it all’. Brava! Olympéa, we’re invited to exclaim. Not for her the slavish task of emptying hydriai over men! Not for her the adoption of subordinated postures before gazing males! And yet, for all this (and Kanye West’s blaring insistence), just how empowered is Olympéa?

Her power is directly proportional to her ability to achieve objectification through a performance of beauty; to the degree that she can embody the object of sight for a man’s pleasure, she is capable of subverting his gaze. This dynamic affords Olympéa the potential to employ a jūdō like power against her oppressor, but Courtès is keen to assure us it in no way represents a serious challenge to the male order:
Through a gross exaggeration of relative size, the social situation of women in Courtès’ film is expressed through their diminutive stature. Driving a Matchbox car that is dwarfed even by a ghetto blaster, Olympéa is nothing but a figurine; a play thing for otherwise bored males. In the Head/Body economy of this world, a decapitated woman is still all body (cf. critiques of ‘headless’ women in advertising), and a decapitated man is still all head. This we are reminded of by the disembodied, male rock-face that watches over the pool in which Olympéa bathes - a terrifying, totalitarian symbol of gendered dominance.

And so it is that, by coopting elements from popular ‘women’s empowerment’ movements, Courtès is able to reinforce a repressive, Patriarchal ideology.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Métal Hurlant Review

I’ve so far been very positive in my assessment of Pierre Guillaume’s Collection Croisière and Métal Hurlant poses no exception. Inherent in the idea of a cruise is a crossing and the two words share an etymological link. Beyond the perfumes’ transportive powers however, lies a shared intersecting of unusual themes. In Métal Hurlant, this novel crossing involves leather and herbal notes.
The herbal complex is arranged around patchouli with agrestic, linalool/linalyl acetate type accents and hints of licorice. This is extended with some powerful (but not overpowering) woody-amber odorants that really enliven the Suede(ral) dominated base.   
The accompanying PR suggests the perfume is intended to evoke the wild energy of a Harley tearing up an open road with the listed notes including rubber tyre, chrome and gasoline accords. Whilst the composition does indeed call to mind the idea of a greasy biker jacket, a (no doubt deliberate) synthetic vibe prevents Métal Hurlant from ever achieving that second-skin wearability of, say, Chanel’s Cuir de Russie.

Nose: Pierre Guillaume
House: Pierre Guillaume La Collection Croisière
Release date: 2015
Notes (per Basenotes): fresh paint accord, rubber tyre accord, leather, chrome, gasoline accord, musks.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Semiotic Spritz Part 3: Dior's J'Adore: Of Horses and Carriages

Launched in 1999, J’adore’s crowning moment arrived in 2011 when it replaced No.5 as the top-selling female fragrance in France. Since then, its star may have dimmed a bit, being partially eclipsed by Lancôme’s La Vie est Belle (2012), but J’adore remains Dior’s highest selling perfume and was 2014’s second best selling perfume overall. As such, it is unsurprising that the LVMH owned brand should continue to invest heavily in its promotion.
The above advert’s most salient symbol is gold: there’s gold writing, a gold flacon and a gold model set against a gold background. It’s right there in the name, too: J’adore, ‘(d’)or’ being French for gold(en). A cursory reading of the text then, suggests it aims to communicate a message of conspicuous luxury. In our blinged-out, rhinestone-encrusted age however, Dior knows it needs to go beyond gaudy appeals to aspirationalism to retain its market share:
By illuminating the letter ‘o’, a matrimonial symbol viz. a gold ring is brought into direct contact with the concept of love as expressed by the perfume’s name (‘I love’, in English).
Viewed another way, the ‘o’ is suggestive of a halo which, combined with reference to marriage (historically a sacred institution) creates a religious subtext with a devotional imperative. These messages are reinforced through a strong continuity of image that has seen ‘screen goddess’ Charlize Theron hang on as the face of J’adore for over a decade.
In terms of its marketing strategy then, it would appear that rather than attempting to woo new consumers away from caremellic gourmands, Dior is instead looking to encourage loyalty amongst J’adore’s existing customer base by evoking traditional themes of fidelity.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Semiotic Spritz Part 2: Dior Sauvage: Welcome to Marlboro Country

Dior’s Sauvage was launched in 2015. The perfume was created by François Demachy and the advertising campaign shot by director and photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino. For a review of the fragrance itself, see here.

‘If no medium has been in closer communion with the mass mind than advertising, then’ mused the aptly named Elliott West ‘no popular tradition is more deeply entrenched in American culture than the western’. Indeed, since the early 1900s, images of wild broncos and tumbleweeds have been used to sell everything from prunes to station wagons. Of all the symbols we associate with the Western myth however, none achieved such enduring commercial appeal as the Marlboro Man.
The Stetson-wearing, cigarette puffing cowboy was conceived by the Leo Burnett agency in 1954 in response to a challenging brief from Philip Morris Tobacco. The company wished to re-introduce their Marlboro cigarette to the American market. The problem was, the cigarette had previously been marketed to females (‘Mild as May’) and the new filter it was sporting, whilst reassuring a newly nervous smoking public, was considered effeminate. Burnett’s answer was the Marlboro Man, or rather, the Tattooed Man, as the campaign was originally called. The advert sought to align the product with the very epitome of White American masculinity and showed a weathered outdoorsman holding a Marlboro cigarette in his prominently inked hand. As a potent signifier, the latter remained a feature of the brand’s campaign for many years, even when the Marlboro Man himself changed.
In a piece of pure intertextuality, Johnny Depp reprises the Tattooed/Marlboro Man role for Sauvage, and like his predecessor, is charged with convincing his audience there’s nothing girly about the product he’s selling. How successful he is in this remains to be seen, but if advertising serves as any kind of mirror, it’s instructive to ponder what dusting off this image for Dior’s campaign reveals about our collective anxieties today.
The ideology of ‘rugged individualism’ which the Marlboro Man embodied was famously propounded by Herbert Hoover. Against a backdrop of the Great Depression, the then President repeated this phrase over and again, aiming to shore up faith in the American Dream which had never before seemed so elusive to so many. Fast forward to 2015, and in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, we are once more being told to right ourselves through toil and graft – this time by a wild (sauvage) looking Depp, whose rolled up shirtsleeves show him ready to ‘get to work’.
The text carries with it more than a suspicion of violence: consider, for example, Depp’s black and blue clothing which, beyond entering into syntagmatic relation with the flacon, reminds us of bruising. This being the Wild West though, we oughtn’t to be surprised, for out in these frontier spaces, urban codes do not adhere. And therein lies its deep attraction: the West represents a touchstone of authenticity for our variously alienated, fractured, disembedded selves.
Insofar as Dior’s Sauvage advert accurately captures the Zeitgeist, it is well designed and executed. Perhaps even more importantly though, it manages to create for the fragrance an identity quite distinct from Chanel’s Bleu (2010) whose scent is really not dissimilar.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Semiotic Spritz Part 1: Unwrapping Viktor & Rolf's Bonbon.

Bonbon is a feminine fragrance launched by the fashion house Viktor & Rolf in 2014. The perfume was created by Cécile Matton and Serge Majoullier (Mane). The publicity features the model Edita Vilkeviciute and was shot by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin

Ethyl maltol is a popular aroma chemical used in modern perfumery and is strongly redolent of caramel. Thierry Mugler’s Angel (1992) was the first fine fragrance to include an overdose of this molecule in its formula and since then, perfumers have been employing ever higher percentages to satisfy the sweet-toothed cravings of Western markets.
Like Prada’s Candy (2011) which similarly relies heavily on ethyl maltol for its gourmand vibe, Bonbon initially keys consumers into its confectionery-like scent profile through a direct and easy to decode name. Unlike Candy however, Bonbon - at least for French speakers - is polysemic and permits of an especially rich set of associations to be exploited:
In its adverbial usage, bonbon means ‘expensive’. One might exclaim ça côute bonbon! (‘it costs a bomb!’) on seeing the price of a Viktor & Rolf dress and we note the perfume’s flacon is styled after a couture bow that simultaneously recalls the shape of an individually wrapped sweet.
Bonbon in French however, is also a slang term for ‘clitoris’ as knowingly referenced by the placement of an eye-catchingly oversized bottle in front of the model’s pubic region. Yet even for those on whom this linguistic play is lost, the proximal connection of the product with a source of erogenous pleasure is sufficient to establish a meaningful relationship.
The erotic charge this image generates around the fragrance is furthered by the model’s nakedness. Covering the nipple of her exposed left breast is a painted ribbon and bow which design repeats across her torso and arms. Through their use of this visual metaphor, van Lamsweerde and Matadin overcome the tricky problem of how to represent the invisible state of being perfumed.
If we consider the model’s overall disposition, we’re struck by an apparent incongruity: her sitting cross-legged on the floor is typically child-like whilst her well-developed body and mature face are those of a twentysomething. The infantilisation of females in advertising is, of course, nothing new: in his seminal work Gender Advertisements (1979), Irving Goffman noted that women and children were depicted on the floor much more frequently than men -  a process he viewed as  ‘ritualized subordination’. Goffman also had cause to discuss the common ‘fingers-to-the-mouth’ pose, which gesture too is reminiscent of a child’s behaviour and suggests anxiety, uncertainty and an overall lack of agency. Consonant with the advert’s high connotative index though, this hand placement encourages further chaining: firstly, the model’s finger points indexically at her mouth – the organ associated with taste, thereby linking to the perfume’s gourmand theme; secondly, and more generally, the act of self touch objectifies the body, suggesting it is a precious object or even, in the present case, a gift, wrapped up in bows and ribbons.
As a key oppositional feature, the contrast between the immature and the mature is elaborated through the advert’s colour scheme. Here, the grey background and pink foregrounded elements enter into paradigmatic relation, juxtaposing innocence (or at least abstinence) with express sexuality.
Finally, it is interesting to muse on the use of linguistic signs that, prima facie, are limited to communicating only the bare facts about the product. The name ‘Bonbon’ is privileged by its headline position and large size. The white on grey sans-serif typeface is contemporary and grown-up in feel, legible and transmits this key datum with a directness that is served by the model’s gaze. The interplay between text and figure can also be observed in the way that the word ‘Bonbon’, when taken together with the seated model, suggests in outline a bonbon/bow shape. Scanning downwards, we find at the bottom of the advert a description of the perfume as ‘the new feminine fragrance’. Its small font size however, indicates this information to be of only minor significance. Ultimately, all these signs culminate in a single super-sign, ‘Viktor & Rolf’, the brand's name which, as Jean Baudrillard reminded us, is the only real message.