The Pure Advert: Analysing Perfume

Much television advertising shows us images of commodities in ways calculated to make them desirable: cars driving on impossibly empty roads, soft drinks that are too good to be true, phones that will organise and improve your life. Some products, like cosmetics, cannot be shown directly and have to be represented through their effects. For this reason we have shampoo adverts which show hair becoming shiny and skincare adverts which show the effect healthy skin has on the opposite sex (and it is always, so far, the opposite sex). All these adverts are, in one way or another, forms of wish-fulfillment. This tells us that we are in the world of dreams, since Freud has shown us that, in all cases, ‘a dream is the fulfilment of a wish’. It is a world Walter Benjamin associates with the growth of commodity fetishism in modern life, a phenomenon of which advertising is an organic outgrowth.

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One product is so ephemeral, though, that neither it nor its effects can be adequately represented. This product is perfume. Perfume is nothing but a scent, a trace, and therefore utterly resistant to visual presentation. Even shampoo and spot-cream can be illustrated through the material effect they produce on the body, but the only thing perfume alters is our smell, or aura. How then, is perfume to be advertised? The answer is through the language of dreams themselves. If all advertising is a kind of dream, perfume adverts takes that logic and extends it so that there is no product at all at their centre. All that remains is image and sensation. Adverts like those for Chanel No. 5 with Audrey Tautou or Dolce and Gabbana with Keira Knightley offer up a confusion of identity, space and meaning which matches what we encounter in dreams. Such adverts often show people in bed, as in the case of Audrey Tautou, who appears to fall asleep in the Chanel advert. While any bed is sexual, here the bed gestures more specifically towards a dream of sexuality. Watching this advert, we are invited to ask: is the man real, or is he a figment of her (or our) imagination? This is a question that might equally be asked of perfume, which is already almost nothing.

If all dreams and all adverts are circulations of desire and fulfilments of wishes, we might be tempted to say that the fulfillment offered here is sexual. Yet this is not the case, at least not in the way it first appears. Keira Knightley only tempts her man with a dab of perfume to the neck before she walks away, leaving him behind. Audrey Tautou may end the advert being kissed by the man she has been searching for, but there is no sense that this is any more real than the rest of the dream-like sequence: the man is no more solid now than when he appears as an image on her camera a little earlier. Instead, to understand the wish that is being fulfilled we have to return to Freud, who proposes several forms which might be taken by wish-fulfillment in dream, one of which is the ‘wish to sleep’. This is a powerful force in all dreams, but especially sexual ones: ‘The operation of the wish to continue sleeping is most easily to be seen in arousal dreams, which modify external stimuli in such a way as to make them compatible with a continuance of sleep’. It is this that we see in the perfume advert; the wish being fulfilled is not that desire is satisfied, but that it is extended so we can continue to sleep.  This makes the perfume advert the purest of all adverts, since it reveals something fundamental about the way all advertising works. Advertising constantly works against something Freud pointed out over a hundred years ago: ‘throughout our whole sleeping state we know just as certainly that we are dreaming as we know that we are sleeping’. All advertising is at once the revelation and the repression of this fact, but nowhere does either operate more powerfully than in the perfume advert.

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