Effectiveness Creative Celebrity Endorsement

Why perfume ads are leaving a bad smell with audiences

By Jon Evans

March 23, 2022 | 6 min read

Jon Evans, chief marketing officer at System1, is wondering why perfume ads are so weird. But maybe they are not quite weird enough...


Johnny Depp for Dior

You can tell a fragrance ad as soon as it starts. A hot A-list celebrity. An exotic location – the desert, a tropical paradise, an exclusive hotel. Smoldering looks, sudden edits and an impeccably obscure soundtrack. Maybe throw in a majestic animal for good measure.

Then when you think it’s all over... they’ll whisper a poetic yet contextually meaningless phrase, like “truth,” “show your bold side” or “today is the day,” and we’ll be presented with a fancy-looking bottle at the end.

Boom – £10m, please.

The formula

This odd formula is the norm for brands in the fragrance industry. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine what a fragrance advert that didn’t follow this formula might be like.

But although this peculiar blueprint is the standard, our data shows us that, often, perfume ads actually don’t resonate strongly with consumers.

Generally, the best adverts are the spots that inspire us, make us laugh and take us on a journey, encased in a strong narrative.

And through the testing of thousands of ads with consumers over the years, gauging emotional response to find out how the ads make people feel, we can safely say the perfume ones just don’t fit the ‘good ad’ mold. The only 5-star things about them are the hotels.

Perhaps celebrities are enough?

Celebrities can help brands to boost effectiveness if used in the right way, because, ultimately, people love to see their favorite stars on their screens.

But perfume ads often make a common mistake – placing too much weight on a celebrity’s face to front a campaign. When this is the case, the ad’s story arc often becomes an afterthought.

Brands splash these idols on the screen like a teenager with his first cologne bottle and hope that will be enough to stick. Yet, often, this can result in the message being lost. And ironically, the reason that perfume ads are so odd comes down to a lack of imagination.

Making Johnny Depp... a rockstar?

They think, ‘I’ve got a major celebrity like Johnny Depp, how can we use him in a quirky way?’ The recent Dior spot did just this, making him a mysterious ‘rockstar.’

Viewers were treated to an unusual sequence – Depp dramatically plays Wild Thing on his guitar, wolves jump up to see the rock god, then sniff his guitar and follow him into a desolate landscape.

In our testing, the spot scored a respectable 3.2 stars out of a possible 5.9, which is slightly better than the average fragrance ad – showing the formula can work, but there’s plenty of room for improvement.

This is not to say oddness can’t win over viewers. Three’s dancing pony is a case in point. Who would have thought a pony moonwalking across a clifftop to Fleetwood Mac’s Everywhere, advertising a phone company, would be such a hit (receiving 5.4 stars in testing)?

Crucially, instead of using oddness in a way that alienates viewers and leaves them confused, perfume brands should use it to connect with people and elicit a positive emotion such as joy.

The opportunity to stand out

Ultimately, we know that positive emotions help to connect with viewers, and the brands that can get that all-important emotional connection certainly benefit from long-term brand growth.

Naturally, our brains are wired to engage more with right-brain thinking. This means things that capture our broad attention, rather than the left brain, which relates more to narrow focus.

The fact is, we like to relate to human stories and we like emotion, and in advertising this translated to less close-up spinning shots of fragrance bottles, random locations and mythical beasts, and more beautiful storytelling in interesting settings with engaging characters.

While many brands may think the die is cast and the formula is set, it is not. If brands can be brave, break category codes and bring in the elements in advertising that people love and engage with emotionally, the opportunity to stand out in the sector is massive.

There’s hope yet

All that said, we can’t ignore the triumphs – which funnily enough don’t follow the classic formula – like Natalie Portman for Dior in its recent ‘Wake up for love’ spot.

Sure, she’s a big celeb, but we see and feel so much more with this ad. From the first moment we’re drawn in by her stare, then a simple statement of “wake up,” then pow! Music hits and we see Portman being free, happy, emotional, relatable and... well, human.

A truly different take on a fragrance ad, and a breath of fresh air. Something that makes me think there’s hope for the fragrance industry yet.

Effectiveness Creative Celebrity Endorsement

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