Perspective: Message in a Bottle

Men's cologne ads have always been about sex on some level

For a long time now, the advertising of men’s colognes has featured two key ingredients: men, plus that universally presumed (if not scientifically proven) wisdom that a nice-smelling fella’s going to get the ladies. But while these two components can be found in the cologne ads on these pages, the ads themselves are nothing alike. And that, according to Marian Bendeth, founder of fragrance consultancy Sixth Scents, points to another truism in men’s fragrance marketing: It’s devolved from a knowing cleverness about sex to the rawness of a porn shoot. “Marketers have lost the whole meaning of why men wear fragrances and moved away from reality in fragrance ads,” she said. “Today, cologne is positioned solely around beautiful, young people—and you only sell it with sex.”

It wasn’t always this way. Take the 1983 ad for Paco Rabanne, above. The scent was enjoying its 10th year of success as the first of the aromatic fougères—a blockbuster category of ferny, deep-woods smells that included the perennial dude confidence juice, Drakkar Noir. The guy in this ad is handsome and shirtless, but there’s more to him than a decent set of pecs. Check out his pad (he’s an artist), his face (he might be—gasp!—as old as 34) and especially the story line. It’s the morning after a one night stand, but our hero is a little worried about his competition. These components, Bendeth observed, weren’t just helping the early ’80s man find his place in the confusing milieu of liberated women and the sexual revolution (in the heterosexual world, still largely untroubled by AIDS), but they spoke to why men actually buy cologne: to define their individuality, to be cool, to bolster their courage. “Paco Rabanne’s marketers were spelling it out for you,” Bendeth said, “creating a scenario and a story that you could relate to.” Indeed, the ad’s tagline invites the viewer to create his own scenario just like the one in the picture: “What is remembered is up to you.” It was as though the swarthy Paco himself were whispering all the way from Paris, “C’mon, champ, you can do it—just spray some of this stuff on.”

So how to explain the 2012 ad (opposite) for Loyalty, the cologne from clothing chain Express? We’ve got our shirtless guy and his girl. Unfortunately, that’s all we have. Bendeth believes the ad is a textbook example of how cologne’s role in the complexity of human sexuality has been reduced to a beefcake shot. “Both ads are based around sexuality,” she said, “But in one there’s intimacy, conversation, wooing and bonding. The second shows just numbness and narcissism. He’s oblivious to her.”

Which is more than a little ironic. Why would a product historically marketed to assist guys with their carnal conquests paint a picture of indifference to that very success? Bendeth speculates that the ads are emblematic of the times—not just a youth-obsessed culture, but the conceit it so often encourages. “It used to be OK to show the human side,” she said. “Today, there’s just a sense of entitlement.”