Have you ever wondered why glamorous, eye-candy advertisements for perfume are the norm? Today, perfume advertisements and commercials proliferate all media, and companies try to outdo each other with their storytelling. Yet, perfumes are still produced the slow, laborious, scientific way they have always been. And each perfume tells its own story, which is different for every person who wears it, and may have nothing to do at all with how it is advertised. It all started way back in Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome.
Print advertising is as old as printing itself, and the earliest printed advertisements for commercial products were written on papyrus or painted on walls.
The history of perfume advertising goes hand in hand with the history of advertising and industrial development. By the 18th century, the great, dynastic perfume houses of Europe had their classic creations, some having produced perfumes since the 1500s, but the ambitious, entrepreneurial businessmen of the British Empire and America took the lead in perfume advertising – as they did in other product advertising.
A timeline of perfume advertising
The highlights of perfume advertising in the UK, Europe and American from the late 1800s explain how today’s high-end perfume advertisements came about.
Perfume advertising was well established in the USA by the latter half of the 19th century. Cosmetics and perfume companies advertised themselves through the distribution of “trade cards” as well as advertisements in printed newspapers and magazines. Often, the cards were not for individual perfumes but for or for cosmetics that were infused with perfumes, or health products that also smelled nice.
Take Eau de Cologne, for instance, a spirit-citrus perfume launched 1709. The story behind this story, is that Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, one of the oldest pharmacies in the world, started two trends: celebrity endorsements and cologne.
“In 1533, Santa Maria Novella’s fame exploded when they were commissioned to create a signature fragrance for the young, fourteen-year old Catherine de Medici upon her marriage to Henry II of France. Known as “Acqua della Regina” or “Water of the Queen”, the resulting citrus-based cologne water of Calabrian bergamot could be interpreted as being the world’s first celebrity fragrance. It served to popularise the concept of perfume to the French royal court. The impact of “Water of the Queen” did not stop there.
When a young perfumer, Giovanni Paolo Feminis, moved to Cologne, Germany in 1725, he took the scent with him and re-produced it to great acclaim. It was named Eau de Cologne in honour of the city, thus heralding the birth of the perfume concentration known today. The original Acqua della Regina scent is still made today by Santa Maria Novella and really deserves the true credit for creating ‘eau de cologne.’” (Ivan Siarbolin, Part 3. Oldest fragrance brands, 200+ years, on LinkedIn.com, Feb. 11, 2017, rtrvd. 2018-07-13)
While the perfume for Catherine de Medici was a success, like most services rendered to royalty it was not generally known to the public, nor advertised. Fame for the pharmacy only followed centuries later in 1612, when they opened their doors to the public. The original Eau de Cologne was believed to have the power to ward off bubonic plague. By drinking the cologne, the citrus oil scent would be exuded through the pores, repelling fleas, carriers of the plague. (Do not try this at home!)
Trade cards in the USA – late 1800s
A trader in Eau de Cologne was the American, E.W. Hoyt, who produced Hoyt’s German Cologne in 1870, even though it didn’t come from Germany, or bear any resemblance to German cologne! Around 1871, Hoyt’s partner, Freeman Ballard Shedd, developed the concept of trade cards soaked with cologne and freely distributing the cards both as advertising and samples. During the history of Hoyt’s cologne, they created more than 50 unique cards.
Other famous perfume producers of the late 19th century in America who produced perfumed trade cards, include Theodore Ricksecker of New York City, who launched his first fragrance in 1868; the California Perfume Company that founded by David H. McConnell in 1892, and later became Avon; and W.J. Austen & Company, of Oswego, New York, which began operations in 1878 by manufacturing Austen’s Forest Flower Cologne.
Print adverts in the UK – late 1800s
In London in the late 19th century Thomas J. Barratt became known as “the father of modern advertising”. Working for the Pears’ Soap Company, Barratt created effective advertising campaigns for the company’s products, which involved associating Pears with domestic comfort and aspirations of modern cleanliness. Many advertisements in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, not just those of Pears, expounded the health aspects of personal care products and cosmetics – some making unbelievably grandiose claims. (Coca-Cola, for instance, was advertised as a “brain tonic”.)
Lillie Langtry, a British music hall singer and stage actress with a famous pale, creamy complexion, became the first female celebrity to endorse a commercial product in an advertisement, for Pears’ Soap in the 1890s – a brain wave of Thomas Barratt.
1900 – 1914s – Agencies grow big
By 1900 the advertising “agency” had become important, and advertising was firmly established as a profession. At first, agencies were brokers for advertisement space in newspapers. Advertising in the developing world was dominated by agencies in the British and French imperial powers, working out of London and Paris.
WWI – Psychology and propaganda
During the early part of the twentieth century, governments began to recognise the power of advertising to get their message across to their consumers, in other words, the civilians. This was particularly apparent during the First World War (1914 – 1918), when advertising was used to enlist soldiers and enforce government policies and procedures amongst the public. The same could be said of perfume advertising. By 1914, advertising was a large, well established industry and it continued to expand after the First World War. Psychology was growing in stature as a science during this period, and advertisers where quick to latch on to key ideas (the desire to belong, subconscious fears, nostalgia, patriotism, etc.) in order to reach their audience.
Directly after the war, with rationing and restrictions still in place, the emphasis remained on patriotic, pro-war effort advertisements, many rather like propaganda and none too subtle.
Post WWI – Focus on health
The post-WWI years were years of austerity, with many retailers and manufacturers pushing the messages of health, safety and cleanliness benefits of their products, rather than beauty of pleasure. Considering the numbers of injured soldiers returned from the war and the physical hardships suffered by entire populations, this was to be expected.
However, in Europe, the 1920s was the Golden Age of perfume development and established perfume houses took out full-page advertisements in popular women’s magazines, like Vogue and Harpers’ Bazaar, that catered to readers with aspirations. Advertising design reflected the popular art style of the time, Art Deco, which lasted from about 1910 to its apex in 1930.
The first global advertising campaigns – made possible by the worldwide expansion of advertising agencies – were for General Motors, which wanted to export its automobiles worldwide in the 1930s. However, the Great Depression, that lasted from 1929 to 1939, turned on the brakes in the advertising industry. It was the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world. Even if luxury goods were produced, people did not have the money to buy them.
WWII and after – From hardship to plenty
During WWII (1939 – 1945) there was the same reduction in advertising for luxury products like perfume, as during WWI. The emphases and needs were elsewhere.
After the war there was both a boom in consumer spending and a new medium: television. Millions of dollars annually were poured into the coffers of advertising agencies as manufacturers sought to inform newly prosperous consumers of the dazzling array of new goods they could purchase (washing machines, vacuum cleaners, food mixers, TV sets, etc.), that they never previously knew they needed. With the advent of television advertising and the boom in the feature film industry worldwide, film stars were being recruited to endorse products on TV, and in printed publications, and in product placement in films.
The 1950s were bonanza years for advertising, and it was at this stage that the men (mainly) behind the ads became media stars themselves.
The world today
From the fifties onwards, the full-page, full-colour ad, and the television commercial, complete with a celebrity or two, became the norm. Look at the header to this post from Caron Perfumes, and compare it to the fairly plain, product-focused advertisement from 1927, shown above. It’s not to say the girl isn’t eye-catching. You just have to make more of an effort to associate the girl with the merchandise. The more expensive-looking, visually attractive and esoteric, the better, it seems.
Recently, there have been mutterings on social media against perfume advertisements that have nothing to do with the actual perfumes they promote – not even in the descriptions of what the perfumes are made of, or what they smell like. However, if the promotions still make people interested enough in perfume to buy them, they will continue to look just like that. Just to remind you that all was not roses in the early days of TV perfume commercials, here is one for Halston perfumes, from 1981. O.M.G! The hair! The big mouths! The muzak! The glittery outfits! No, things have definitely improved.
- Punch Magazine images – author’s property
- House Vettii image courtesy of the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei
- Gianluca Farusi, Smell like Julius Caesar, in The European Journal for Science Teachers, Issue 21, Nov. 11, 2011 (https://www.scienceinschool.org/2011/issue21/caesar)
- Advertising cards and calendar collection. ca. 1870-1905. AVD accession number 1992.229
- Color plate catalog of perfumes, toilet waters, sachet powders, complexion creams … / California Perfume Company. New York : California Perfume Co. : Done by the Robert L. Stillson Co., [1916?] f Trade Cat .C153 1916a
- Cover, The American perfumer and essential oil review. [New York : Perfumer Publishing Co.], Vol. VII.,No. III. May, 1912
- Advertising cards and history: Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE, USA – Hagley Digital Archives, Published Collections: (A Brief Whiff of) Perfume in America