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The Scent of Success? Crazy Cologne Ads at Christmas!

“BE THE MAN OF TODAY!”, “ONLY THE BRAVE”, “GENTLEMEN ONLY”, “THE POWER OF COOL”, “ALL A MAN IS”, “HERO”. Don’t worry, I haven’t been substituted for an AI writing tool that’s gone awry – these are all advertising slogans for aftershaves and colognes, the sort of thing we’re bombarded with in the run-up to Christmas. It’s all totally absurd, isn’t it? But you can’t deny that it’s also disturbingly powerful and affecting.

At this time of year the perfumers like to ramp up their marketing for obvious reasons. You know this very well and you know how the ads typically go. It’s all chaps sauntering around in their underwear or prancing about in a sailor outfit – or perhaps moving moodily through a glitzy bar while simultaneously jogging past skyscrapers with cool determination and admiring a cityscape from a penthouse.

It might be a lot of random nonsense, but that’s because it doesn’t really need to make much sense. In fact, I’d even venture to suggest that the less sense these ads make the more effective they are at increasing sales. This is because we’re not really being sold a product at all – we’re being sold an image, an ideal, a lifestyle. If it comes across as phantasmagorical, as dream-like in its logic, it’s because it wants to do so. Who needs words, thoughts and a narrative? Just cut to the chase. Use rapid cuts to flick between shots of things men want to do, want to be and want to possess, and Bob’s your sweet smelling uncle.

And the psychological bit doesn’t end with us buying the product. It goes on into the wearing of it, right down to the very last drop. When we put on cologne, I don’t think we’re so much enjoying the smell as enjoying the way it makes us feel. We think we’re the sort of guy we see in the ad, or that we’re manifesting the sorts of ideals that the brand represents. Branding is powerful enough at the best of times – having Calvin Klein written on your pants makes you feel like Marky Mark Wahlberg, Odell Beckham Jr. or whoever it happens to be modelling them in the poster. But throw our sense of smell into the equation and the whole package is even more potent. We all know how smells can be associated with school days, with an awful job, with certain people; so too they can be associated with an image of success, power, wealth, bravery – whatever value you like, assuming that the marketing team is at all competent.

I’m not saying that the scent itself has no innate value at all. I’m sure there are certain qualities in, say, smokiness, muskiness, citrus top notes and so on, that make you feel a certain way or are simply pleasurable to inhale. However, on the whole, I’d say that the scent is fairly arbitrary when it comes to the whole game of both selling and using aftershave and colognes. 

All of which might suggest to you that I’m set against the whole thing. Nothing of the sort! It’s true that I happen not to wear fragrances. However, that’s only because I’ve tried them in the past and have found that they tend to give me a headache. Either that or they rudely interject when I’m eating – I don’t happen to like the combination of boiled egg and bergamot or sandalwood with my sandwich. But I do enjoy shower gels that smell good and have a scent that lingers on the skin briefly. And I have had the odd moment when I’ve enjoyed “musking up” with a fragrance.

I definitely get the appeal. It can give you extra confidence, even a kind of mental edge over day-to-day existence. It’s like adding the final layer of polish to your character, or putting on the costume of a role you like to play in life. (This is not unlike wearing a big shot outfit or watch to achieve a big shot mindset – the subject of my very first piece for this magazine, as it happens.) I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing this at all. I think we should all be inspired by the Christmas ads and the hilarious posters, enjoy wearing the scents and feeling like an absolute G. But maybe, just maybe, we should also have some self-awareness about it all and draw the line at those brands that demand your lifesavings for a tiny bottle of a nice smelling liquid.

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