Peter York On Ads: It's all about the F word but the Beckhams aren't on the right scent

In the loveliness business the universal growth sector 'f' is a very big letter. It stands for fragrance the all-purpose word for all kinds of created smells. Of course it's a buttock-clenching commercial genteelism; of course it summons up Hyacinth Bucket, Mary Archer and the nastier kind of floral tribute. But the underlying logic is that it allows companies to blur the traditional distinctions between a grand old scent from Guerlain, which costs 59 for 75ml (invented in 1828), a lower-end celebrity scent and the chemical replicants in air fresheners.

While the great old scents really were devised by brilliant "noses" in Grasse, the overwhelming majority of commercial smells now from celebrity scents to lav' cover-up sprays derive from collaborations between brand marketers working in, say, New Malden or New Jersey, whose brands are owned in turn by Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, L'Oral or some other global leviathan talking to scientists who work in Basildon or the Chicago suburbs. It's that glamorous. Three or four big high-science businesses dominate the taste and smell trade. (They're physiologically aligned, so the people who gave you that soap star's shrieking miasma are working on the lamb shank crisp as we speak.)

Selling scent is a key job for celebrities. At any one time, there'll be hundreds of them at it, going on the world's talk shows, doing photo-shoots, providing employment for thousands.

Celebrities are instant brands. They've developed a level of awareness that would have cost tens, and sometimes hundreds, of millions to develop through advertising. And they come with a definable market segmentation. Marketers already know their key audiences the demographics, the aesthetics, the attitudes.

And of course they're researched to death. In the US, every minute of every day, someone is being quizzed about whether Sarah Jessica Parker is a potential friend, a likely office bitch or just an absolute dingbat, or whether Mrs Michael Douglas's fragrant loveliness arouses feelings of intimidation or identification among less gifted women.

Celebrity scent endorsers have ranged from the obvious star choices such as Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Collins to rock stars and fictional characters Miss Piggy, Barbie through to the multi-talented actor Alan Cumming. (Like Elton, Cumming married first a woman and then a man, so how exactly did they focus the target market?)

And then there are the Beckhams. Christmas is when the fragrance industry does most of its volume and practically all of its telly advertising. So the Beckhams are being ramped in a commercial for their "his and hers", "night and day" matrix of scents. It's called Intimately Beckham and looks arrestingly daft. We know the young mass- fragrance sell is about getting laid, but this takes it on several notches, showing this maturing couple with three children in a variety of pre and post situations.

The main ad is done by flashlight. There they are, snuggling up him bare-chested, her not doing the laying-on of hands and so forth. It's meant to evoke stolen paparazzi pictures but it's hideously art-directed and the poses are amazingly clunky. Then there are the bed shots. VB is in her nightie, but David isn't. Posh strikes some extraordinary poses. But the main one looks as if she's fighting off a strangler. You know what the ad's meant to say, but equally you know she's reciting, over and over, a very long shopping list.

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