The Semiotics of Perfume and Social Context

I was surprised to see a bit of a debate going on a BBC site about my post on the semiotics of perfume. It’s a bit of a worry when I throw up some ideas in a kind of flippant way and then find them under scrutiny :)  This is a blog after all!

Anyway let’s get serious for a minute about this to address the critique in the debate.  In my first post I shared a taxonomy of fragrance types.  If we were thinking about it semiotically, then this taxonomy realises both the experiential meanings and the compositional meanings.  I talked about what elements were included in different “genres” of scent, and included an overview of what “notes” were the top notes, the middle notes and the base notes.

But clearly scent makes meaning at the interpersonal level – its how the scent makes the wearer feel (errr… and maybe to an extent the other smellers) that is at the heart of the perfume business.  We’re often told by advertisers how we are supposed to feel – young, sexy, fresh, innocent, beautiful, alluring, adventurous, mysterious, addicted, and so on.  I make it a bit of a practice to read the advertising to see what sort of connections and trends scent marketers are trying to make.  Some are sweet and innocent, some are all romance and fluff, others are explicitly sexual, and some are just pure controversy.  Here’s a mixture of all of the above:

I don’t know about any of you, but I am more disturbed by the crazy look in Sarah Jessica Parker’s eyes in her ad for “Covet” than I am by all of the sex and nudity.

I’m also fascinated with perfume bottles and what meanings they are meant to convey about the scent.

and of course there’s the whole celebrity marketing and branding of perfume these days – it must be a huge industry because even Donald Trump has his own fragrance:

So… I guess I am saying that we can’t really consider any kind of semiotics without thinking about the context in which the perfume is created, the culture surrounding the industry, the marketing behind it, and the social trends which are driving it in new directions.  I’d like to write some more on this but I have to go work on a grant proposal!

6 thoughts on “The Semiotics of Perfume and Social Context

  1. I agree – it makes sense (scents?) that if meaning is socially construed then the social context needs to be factored into any semiotics – that’s why Halliday had an interpersonal strand as well as intertextual within his systemic functional semiotics

  2. And as for:

    “how we use it to communicate and why Aramis sends Am swoon, thudding to the pavement in front of a very bewildered stranger…”

    I would say that has less to do with communication and more to do with a nasty allergic reaction…

  3. Years ago in NZ there was a perfume ad (can’t remember which one, sorry) showing a man bringing his wife perfume in a maternity hospital, with the comment “Make her feel like a woman again…” And I though giving birth was one kind of ultimate proof.🙂

  4. Ooooh Christy that is FANTASTIC, thank you for the link!!!!! Wow. I am impressed with SJP, crazed look and all🙂

    I like that critique Mary-Helen. I wonder whether somebody has done a critical analysis of perfume ad discourse. It would be fascinating and fun! Thanks🙂

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