This morning I discovered a variation on fragrant publicity in the May 2012 Vanity Fair : a promo for Showtime’s The Borgias, in the form of a perfume ad with a scent strip insert.
The two-page spread features actress Holliday Grainger (Lucrezia Borgia) in medium close-up, appearing not terribly threatened by a hand clutching her throat. On the contrary, her own relaxed fingers, nearly smiling lips and conspiratorial gaze recall a merging of surrender and control often projected in perfume ad copy. Golden threaded and corked, the perfume’s beaker-like flacon and absinthe-green color bolster the theme of entwined danger and eroticism, evident here and in so many perfume concepts: Scandal, My Sin, and, of course, Poison. The image parodies perfume ads so closely, that I had to turn the page to learn Lucrezia was not the latest fragrance release.
“Experience at your own risk” reads Lucrezia’s ersatz ad copy, printed on the sealed fold of paper one must open to discover the fragrance.
Each time I present an academic paper or lecture on smell culture and nineteenth-century French literature, I hesitate over including scent samples, precisely because I find the whole thing risky. Slides or printed handouts of cited texts are business-as-usual in such venues. If I were analyzing a painting, drawing, or sculpture, I would project an image. When I discuss music or film, I include recordings or clips. But to “illustrate” a talk with scent samples always seems a bit dicey. It smacks of kitsch and scratch-and-sniff (about which I’ve written elsewhere), or worse, dog and pony show–a slur I once heard unjustly muttered in response to a brilliant presentation that involved a then flashy, new technology called hypertext.
The problem with olfaction and academic discourse concerns flash and novelty in a different way. Educators seldom talk about the benefits of olfactory aids. Smell maintains a long-standing second-class status in the hierarchy of the senses, at least in western culture. Smell lacks the gravitas of sound or image. On top of that, fragrance is both invasive and elusive. It has no regard for borders between personal and private space. Because odors are resistant to duplication and preservation, we lack an everyday technology for sharing or communicating about them. Scent strips in glycine envelopes are–in my hands–amateurish, and they could appear gimmicky. They certainly make a crowd giddy. Unlike a projected image, which draws all eyes to the screen for a tidy group viewing, the experience of smelling test strips involves fumbling, touching, moving, breathing (more often than not with eyes closed), and a solitary sensorial encounter, even when several people are sampling the same fragrance at the same time, from different blotters. There is something intimate, and by that I also mean un-academic, about the whole production.
Fragrance enhanced lectures are a sort of guilty pleasure, like the unfolding of a scent strip in a magazine. Participants sometimes ask if they may keep the testers. The answer is always yes. Once a colleague brought the whole batch home for his wife. She held on to them for at least a year, last I heard.
Will Showtime market Lucrezia perfume? It’s a not-so-dangerous floral blend; perfume collectors would kill for that bottle.
DIY photos taken from the pages of my magazine.