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.