Why Are Perfume and Cologne Commercials So Strange? (Explained)

I’m sure you’ve seen your fair share of weird fragrance commercials.

Perfume and cologne commercials are often over the top because advertisers want to connect with viewers’ emotions within a short period of time. Two of the best ways to do this is through fantasy and drama.

If you’ve ever wondered why fragrance commercials have to be so strange, keep reading to learn about everything I discovered in my research on this topic.

Why Are Perfume and Cologne Commercials So Strange

What’s the Purpose of Fragrance Commercials?

Commercials in general are a form of messaging that allows companies to share information with you about their products or services.

In a 2016 Bloomberg article, they reported that “$800 million dollars are spent on fragrance marketing each year.”

The dollars spent were all-encompassing: television ads, in-store samples, magazine ads, billboards. But television ads are the most expensive.

In 2021, it was reported that the perfume and cosmetic industry spent about 3.47 billion USD on advertisements.

Fragrance companies spend lots of money to communicate their messages to potential customers through print ads, as in magazines and newspapers or on billboards. You may also hear a fragrance advertised on a radio show. But it’s the visual fragrance advertisements on television that are annoyingly corny and often over-sexualized.

Their overall goal is to get you to buy into whatever fragrance they’re selling. But convincing customers to purchase a fragrance that they can’t even smell is challenging. 

Exactly What Message are They Communicating?

Advertisements are a way of educating consumers. Brands aim to use these communications to increase your awareness about their products. But what are fragrance companies truly communicating?

Perfume Isn’t Pizza or a Vacuum

When you look at food ads, you might see an actor lift up a slice of pizza. At that moment, you don’t care about the actor in the commercial. If you really love cheesy pizza, you’re going to be laser-focused on watching those strings of cheese stretch, and then slowly break apart.

You might be drooling and if your stomach is growling, then you might pick up the phone and place an order for delivery or hop in your car to pick up a pie.

Say you’re in the market for a new vacuum cleaner. You might notice a commercial that compares two popular vacuum brands. One vacuum in the commercial seems to have stronger suction than the other brand. 

As the actor continues to use the vacuum, you may also notice how it appears to be easy to maneuver and carry. 

Some products are an easier sell because advertisers can clearly demonstrate why buying that particular item would be beneficial for you.

The same isn’t true for perfume or cologne.

The Perfume Demonstration Dilemma

Watching random actor spraying on perfume in a commercial doesn’t communicate much of anything. All that you know for sure from watching that is that there’s a sprayer on the perfume bottle. 

Perfume is more difficult to sell because there isn’t a direct way for advertisers to demonstrate how using it would be of benefit to you. 

In order to connect with the viewer, they have to resort to tapping into your emotions.

Since our sense of smell is deeply connected with our emotions and sensuality, advertisers “demonstrate” the use of fragrances by displaying how it can make you or those around you feel.

Scent, emotions, and memory are strongly interconnected. This Harvard Gazette article explains how your body responds to scents by sending a direct message to your limbic system. This is the home of your amygdala, the center of your emotions, and your hippocampus – your memory center. 

There’s a reason why “pumpkin spice everything” is now a seasonal necessity. Many of us have strong emotions tied to walking into a house that smells like a freshly baked pumpkin pie. That spice combination reminds us of warmth, love, and joy. 

The article goes on to explain that use of color further deepens our associations with a particular smell. Greens remind us of freshness while warm hues like orange can remind us of citrus scents. 

There’s no doubt that advertisers know this and have a strong sense and use of color in all of their advertisements. 

The Celebrity Edge Lowers the Barrier to Entry

Not only do most fragrance ads depict an attractive woman, man, or both. That person or couple is often someone the viewer is already familiar with. 

Celebrities have been the face of fragrances for decades at least. If you see someone like Charlize Theron, Beyonce, Harry Styles, or Natalie Portman endorsing a new perfume or cologne, you’re more likely to perk up when that commercial airs.

Familiarity with them also means that you might have an idea of their likes and dislikes. Advertisers know that that familiarity – however superficial – helps remove a barrier to entry.

It’s All About the Story Line

Perfume and cologne commercials are all about the story line. A short, highly sexualized snippet of fantasy that pulls you out of your reality and into the little world they want you to live in. 

They create an idea of what you can be or what might happen if you were to buy into the story they’ve created for you. But we all know that they’re the only ones to truly benefit from us giving into their story line. 

For women’s fragrances in particular, sexual satisfaction is demonstrated by closed eyelids. This is also referred to as, “the heavy eyelid,” as described exceptionally well in this video:

They incorporate a lot of symbolism and suggestive gesturing in order to indirectly communicate the sensual emotions you might experience when wearing their fragrances.

Wear this and you’ll be as beautiful and sophisticated as Julia Roberts. Spray this on and become as sultry as Shakira. Want to be powerful, daring, and free? Try this cologne. 

What they’re selling is a deceptive story line.

How often have you watched a perfume or cologne commercial that actually described its fragrance notes? You might come across a print ad or two that will offer an idea of what you can expect scent-wise. But with commercials, it’s all visual, over the top, and suggestive. 

You might be able to put together that a fragrance commercial filmed in a field of flowers might smell floral but to what extent might you pay attention to those details?

Escapism is the primary theme in fragrance commercials because those who’ll see these commercials on television are less happy with life in general.

That’s why these commercials are so highly suggestive. They convince you that you deserve nice things and that smelling nieces can make you more desirable in romantic relationships. People living dissatisfying lives can more easily be pulled into the story line, subsequently making a purchase. 

Short Investigation: Joy by Dior


Consider the commercial above that’s advertising the fragrance, Joy by Dior. In it, the advertisers tap into both happy and sensual emotions.

  • After looking into the wide expanse of an exotic skyline, Jennifer Lawrence free falls into a palatial pool that very few people in this world would ever have access to. And her lipstick and makeup are perfectly set as she rises to the surface and then turns to give you a mischievous smile.
  • She repeatedly throws her head back for those sensual heavy eyelid shots before resting and then offering a seductive invitation into her world.
  • Chasing jellyfish – a daring act that she has the liberty to engage.
  • As the night falls, her sexiness is enhanced by the starlit sky.
  • And then she’s waiting, floating, immersed in gentle waters and soft billowing fabrics.

Anyone who’s familiar with her acting may more readily purchase Joy in order to indirectly adopt characteristics of acting roles she’s played in the past.

Short Investigation: Hero by Burberry

Similarly, this advertisement starring the actor and US Marine veteran Adam Driver is an extreme display of male strength and heroism.

  • He’s pushing his body to the limits while racing what looks to be a Mustang or thoroughbred horse.
  • And then they dive into the water, seemingly unexhausted.
  • Being that Adam is a former Marine, there are a lot of cultural nods related to strength, dignity, honor, courage, and unfaltering commitment. 
  • At one point in the commercial, Adam’s body fades in a transition into the horse’s body – subtly suggesting that Adam is as physically strong as the horse.
  • More specifically, at the 0:55 time stamp, he appears to be a centaur – one with the horse, adding in a mythical element.

The Strangeness of Perfume and Cologne Commercials

Companies spend millions of dollars releasing commercial advertisements that incorporate imagery, color, symbolism, sensuality, celebrities, and cultural cues to connect with you, the viewer.

They take it a step further by using all of those elements to plant an idea of what might potentially happen if you were to use their product.

This communication formula has existed since the 1940s, making it more common and repetitive than we care to acknowledge. And it’s frighteningly intentional on the part of advertisers and fragrance companies.

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Hello and welcome to Fragrance Advice! My name is Grace Young, and I’ve been drawn to fragrances since I was a little girl. There's just something about scent that brings me so much joy! 

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