Thinking Across the Senses: Decoding Perfume Advertising

17 May 2017 | By Sign Salad

In essence (no pun intended) perfume is consumed through the nose; yet working across TV, print and consumer touchpoints, perfume brands tend to represent their products in forms consumers can see and hear, instead of smell. Think of Rihanna’s perfume van, which combined the symbols of grown-up femininity (smoky eyes, satin) with those of childlike mischief (bright pink, an ice cream van) to convey the “superflirty” smell of her perfume, ‘RiRi’.


What can a semiotic reading reveal about one such perfume ad, which recently made waves online? Shot by Spike Jonze and starring Margaret Qualley, this Kenzo World ad went viral for its so-called ‘freakiness’— where in the space of four minutes, Qualley breaks out of a posh ballroom, dances like a person possessed, shoots lightning from her fingertips, and even takes down an innocent bystander. Combined with a soundtrack that features unintelligible gibberish hollered over high-speed, Caribbean-influenced EDM, the entire effect created is one of frenzied—even animalistic— power and intensity.


At first glance, the ad seems to eschew the figures and tropes that commonly populate perfume commercials (and parodies of the genre). Qualley seems as far as you could get from the usual, blandly elegant perfume ad protagonist, who wears an expression of ecstasy, and utters breathy catchphrases to the sound of soft orchestral music. Instead, her dance seems to articulate a different cultural standard of femininity— one that encompasses strength and radical agency, rather than framing perfume-wearers as the passive, sexualised subjects of an implied male gaze.

But what happens if we step back, and take a look at the ad’s overall narrative framework? Instantly, it becomes clear that for all its visual punchiness, Kenzo’s ad rehashes a theme that has long been a staple in the perfume industry: where a wealthy woman (Qualley) breaks free from the strictures of her upper-class lifestyle, attaining personal freedom. Think of this Dior ad, where Charlize Theron discards the traditional symbols of restrictive, bourgeois femininity—high heels and a pearl necklace— to climb out of a ballroom. In this ad for Lancôme, Julia Roberts literally snaps the chains that bind her to a luxe— and by implication, stuffy— party, where the upper crust of society is swanning around in black tie.


Like these ads, Kenzo’s commercial taps into a contradiction that has long permeated our culture’s understanding of what luxury means. We live in a post-Downton Abbey world that, increasingly, associates luxury with oppressive, hierarchical conventions that stifle self-expression. Correspondingly, we have begun to embrace luxury products that— paradoxically— seem to offer an escape from the high life’s many rules and regulations. Think of Moschino’s cheeky Candy Crush range, for instance, or any one of the high/low fashion trends currently in vogue.


Like so many other brands, Kenzo plays into these ideas by framing their perfume as a luxury good that, paradoxically, lets its wearer shrug off the boredom of a high society life. The Kenzo World story is thus not a new one, but simply an old idea dressed in a punchier guise. No surprises, then, that the scent itself smells far less revolutionary than consumers had hoped— as one reviewer put it, ‘despite the exhilarating vision of Margaret Qualley… dancing like a crazy person… Kenzo World still smells entirely bound by convention.’ With its fruity opening notes, ‘nondescript’ floral heart, and mild musky base, the perfume smells exactly like our analysis of Jonze’s ad might lead us to believe: that is, like something that is essentially familiar, for all its radical posturing.

– Shze Hui Tjoa, Semiotician

One Comment

  1. Posted 17 May 2017 at 6.02 pm | Permalink


    My own reading of Kenzo’s spot was very much in alignment: a catchy repackaging of a familiar narrative and message by the Framework agency and Spike Jonze.

    For me, Qualley’s raving before the all-seeing-eye conjured classical associations with the Pythia – those prophetic priestesses in the temple of Apollo who would similarly rave in apparent trance. As I suggested in my blog piece, these women who were arguably the most powerful in the ancient Greek world provide quite a compelling model of strength and sagacity.

    If linking is permitted, my post may be read here:


Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *


Popular tags...

semiotics UK news advertising fashion consumption talk consumers design Christmas branding retail politics digital awards humans pets post-feminist film google government publishing jewellery global masculinity Lynx sonic semiotics packaging tobacco branding adapting innovation Australia trademark logo Jesus food eating Unilever business seminar chauvinism irony Yorkie failure failing success Judith Halberstam Tim Harford corporate culture Kathryn Schulz