The Genteel
February 25, 2021


You know what we really don't need: more people selling us random shit. Like Kim Kardashian and her jewellery line. You know what we definitely don't need: Brad Pitt selling Chanel No. 5. It's been a few days now since the French luxury fashion house made the announcement that "world-renowned" Pitt will front the legendary fragrance.

Brad Pitt at the head of an illustrious perfume brand seems…odd. In the 1950s, the honour (un)officially fell to Marilyn Monroe, who promoted the scent as the only thing she wore to bed. In the 1970s, French actress Catherine Deneuve was enlisted to revive the luxury aspect of the brand lost in the preceding decade. Most recently, Nicole Kidman and Audrey Tautou have starred in the perfume's campaigns. So, what is it Chanel? Why Mr. Pitt?

But a male fronting this fragrance, with its reputation, is nothing short of a transparent marketing ploy.

It's way easier, and probably better for our sanity, to passively reduce this announcement to a non-issue. (Like, why are we even talking about this?) But there are opinions, and many of them are just as unsure of themselves as Chanel probably is about this whole thing. The Australian wrote, "Now Chanel No 5 is to be represented by a star with designer stubble, a muscular body and a virile reputation." Fashionista wrote: "While Brad certainly has a multi-generational appeal when it comes to the ladies, we can't help feeling that the 48-year-old dad is a rather strange choice for the classic scent." And The Guardian, well, attempted to provide context: "After all, we've already encountered fragrance and lip gloss-flogging blokes in MAC ads, on YouTube tutorials, and behind the makeup counter of our local Boots."

The return-on-investment metrics are simple: A-lister prestige, an impending mega-wedding that may very well outshine Will and Kate, legions of female fans, the possibility for Chanel to expand its male demo. Etc. But a male fronting this fragrance, with its reputation, is nothing short of a transparent marketing ploy. Where Pitt's cachet lies is unknown to me. He's handsome, but he's no Clooney. He's with Angelina Jolie…but he's with Angelina Jolie. I guess, throughout it all, the Pitt approval rating has never wavered. But, again, what kind of message does this send?

Coco Chanel debuted No. 5 in 1921 to reflect the spirit of the liberated flapper. The scent - described as "a woman's perfume, with the scent of a woman" - bridged the gap between high society women and, well, those who were often assumed of catering to their husbands. With a combination of jasmine, rose and ylang-ylang compounded with synthetics and aldehydes, known as the "seasoning," Chanel helped to create a unique blend that ignored the common single-flower recipe favoured by the haute. It was, quite literally, liberation from perfume tradition. And, eventually, it went global.

But feminism and fragrance advertising have always had a complicated relationship. Some feel perfume ads exhibit blatant ties to anti-feminism, and to know whether or not a male as the face of the world's most recognised brand/bottle/scent helps or hurts the cause - I'm just not sure. And this is where a spokesperson choice like Pitt becomes contentious. In the '70s and '80s, during progressive spurts in the fight for gender/sexual/social equality, perfume advertisements mimicked that very "liberation" mentality reminiscent of Chanel. Celebrating various types of strong, "new" women, the trouble with the juxtaposition of these fun and flirty ads - starring females - with the "seriousness of the feminist movement" meant that they were still targeted towards men, depicting the "best" type of girls. (After all, women still had relatively little spending power in comparison.) With Pitt on board, has it come full circle? Or have we pulled back the curtain just a little more?

Truth is: there is always more. To have Pitt promote the brand is one thing, but the true significance in the decision lies in what's to come: Pitt's actual performance for Chanel No. 5, be it in print work, commercial work and signings. For a seven-figure deal, we can expect all these things. Fragrance advertising - as it relates to men, but especially women - is about the intersection of fantasy, aesthetics and defining femininity as well as the "male gaze," or "forcing the viewer to see the image through the view of a male, despite the market's clear acknowledgment that most of the buying power rests in the hands of women." 

Marc Jacobs Daisy

Marc Jacobs' Daisy Perfume Ad.

Diana, the one-name academic behind the passionately insightful blog Feminine Things writes on this very topic:

"When we look at modern advertising, particularly print advertising, it is fraught with this kind of imagery. In this respect, fragrance is not all that much better or worse as an industry than almost any other industry. Still, and I mean this in the way I am troubled by the language issue, I am troubled by the fact that the world of scent is so specifically gendered and desperate to use the same tired tropes to sell something that, in the natural world, has no sense of gender. This played out and put on set of roles has nothing to do with whether something smells good or is worth wearing, and yet we just seem intent on selling and consuming, and therefore becoming, these same old roles. [Justin Timberlake] is posed at his soundboard, mixing his music that is his arena of accomplishment, gazing out at the viewer.

Meanwhile, Marc Jacob's [sic] advertisers felt the need to advertise Daisy by resting the giant bottle right on the virtually naked body of a woman laying prone in the grass, just waiting for the first man who stumbles into her to take what he wants; apparently Daisy will help make sure he stumbles into you."

And there's also Tom Ford's always-infamous ads that verge on soft-core porn (and the many designer scents), or repeat offender Marc Jacobs and his use of Dakota Fanning in a recent ad for Lola. And I could show you more, but…

Neroli Portofino Tom Ford
Ad campaign for Neroli Portofino by Tom Ford.

To me, it almost feels more important to address the element of choice, and give credit to those who believe strongly in a third-wave feminist ideology that doesn't necessarily frown upon beauty products or the ideals projected by them. In her book Glamour: Women, History, Feminism, Carol Dyhouse believes that the idea of glamour (and its by-products, like perfume) can be "a form of assertive femininity, an expression of power, defiance, transgression and aspiration." And on that note, I don't necessarily know if I accept the curt idea that the root of perfume indulgence is to attract or satisfy men but, as a man, I am also not subject to those pressures as they exist.

Basically, is this Pitt x Chanel thing progressive? Hardly. Is it smart? Maybe, but for bottom-line reasons. Regardless of motive, people are talking and blogging, and I guess that's worth every penny. And although any displeasure can be brushed off to mere conjecture at this point, magazines and billboards denote how this partnership will probably play out: "Brad Pitt. Chanel. Gotta get me/her some of that."

Perhaps you've heard about University of Cambridge student and model agency owner Ben Barry, whose research indicates that "women want models, regardless of age or size, to inspire them with glamour, artistry and creativity, as opposed to stimulating just aspiration." And that could mean Brad Pitt is a good thing. But Barry's research doesn't include this scenario. So are we trading one ideal for another? But when the The Guardian's Katie Puckrik writes, "What does the modern woman wear to bed? Brad Pitt." I can't help but think I'd rather just wake up alone. Or with Johnny Depp.



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