Peter York on Ads: Alpha males wear scent too. So why go camp?

Hugo Boss
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The Independent Online

Who, actually, buys fragrances for men? To what extent are men fragranc-ed? What men are fragranced? And do the makers and sellers of fragrances for men know what a scrapingly Linda Snell of a word it is. Fragrance alone is bad enough. It's a back office wanting to be a front office, piss-elegant trade word. It's the fashion industry getting down to its flowcharts but hoping to be Bond Street.

Even though the Mitford semantics aren't worth a light now, "fragrance" still means air-freshener. It's Mary Archer meets David Brent. And male fragrance means David Brent on the pull at Christmas parties. It's a mystery because - and here's the central question we all want answered - if male fragrances were only for poofs, then their makers and their children would starve. There still aren't enough gay men to go round and sustain the sales of those absurd brands and generate the revenues that pay for that absurd advertising.

Two intermediate and mitigating thoughts here. If you were an international male fragrance marketeer (how could you live with yourself - how could you explain it at a dinner party?), you might point out that the whole thing is done for the ladies, God bless them. In their funny little hearts, they might just think that male fragrances could do the job and get their companions in touch with their feminine sides, or just make them more agreeable and less smelly. So male fragrances might be being bought by women who rather like the bottles and the silly words and the sillier advertising.

Julie Burchill, who is never wrong, once said that young women of spirit like nothing so much as the sight of two pretty men snogging, so it might just be that this side of male fragrance advertising appeals to them. The OTT homosexy side. The campy, vampy, pouty boys with lipgloss side of things might appeal to office ladies and Desperate Housewives. A bit like a hen-night trip to the Chippendales.

Or your senior vice-president, Male Fragrances Division (A Frenchman? An Australian? A boy from Basildon?), might just claim that the overwhelming volume of male fragrances are sold - directly or indirectly - to men who don't have these English inhibitions about the unmanliness, non U-ness and all-round foreign-ness of scent. Namely foreigners. Euro-men, South Americans. machismo and man-bags types. Shirts open practically to the waist. Clunky gold watches. Nobody told them it was wrong to wear fake pheromones (my grandmother, a Brit who'd spent her formative years in France without it changing a millimetre of her mindset once said gnomically that she hoped I wouldn't grow up like a Frenchman. "Why not, Granny?" - I rather liked the idea from what I'd seen at eight. Long Little Britain pause: "Frenchmen wear scent").

I'm not at all sure, even in 2006, that English women like men doused in that stuff. And I don't know about those Euro-markets, but apparently survey research supports the suspicion that the French don't wash that often.

But why is UK male fragrance advertising - and designer branded clothing advertising for that matter - quite so extravagantly camp? I like it, but it doesn't seem to make much economic sense.

Take the even so mid-market and comparatively laddish a brand as Hugo Boss (German originally, though God knows what kind of Japanese/Ukrainian/Inuit private equity house owns it now). Its new male fragrance ads are nothing but grown-up Tadzios with blonde hair coming out of the shower exchanging deep lingering looks with debauched-looking men in lifts. Or appearing to.

It's shot and intercut in such a way that men who look like gay archetypes seem to be relating to each other - no women in sight. It's a codified language, but that language absolutely isn't Tom Jones giving a lady the once-over. The voiceover is, of course, the ancient gravy-dark high-T, alpha male voice they use in America and Europe, but we don't use anymore in locally produced advertising. Patrick Allen double plus. And therefore totally retro and extremely camp. A voice with an assumed turtleneck and monks-buckled shoes.

I say this, you understand, in a very modern, non-judgemental and caring way. The camper the better, as far as I'm concerned. But do they actually know something, these male fragrance marketers? I think we should be told.

Peter@sru.co.uk

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