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The Sweet Smells of Success

Men's Colognes Have Grown Up and So Has the Way They Sell the Smell
Kimberly Cihlar
From the Print Edition:
Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99

It's the middle of the afternoon, on a crowded city sidewalk. A swank, suave young Wall Street type careers by a gorgeous young lady, who faints dead away in the street. A moment later, the scenario is reenacted--same Romeo, different girl, same unsettling effect.What has caused each victim's vapors?

If you believe Madison Avenue's television hype from 20 odd years ago, it was the smell of the gentleman in question--well, more accurately his Hai Karate aftershave.

A very effective marketing scheme for its time, if only about as subtle as a martial arts blow to the head. Today, the arsenal of scents available to man in his olfactory assault on the fairer sex has not only grown, but been refined. Where once men tossed odorific grenades, they now wield weapons capable of eliciting subtle emotions. At least that's the promise of the profusion of recent designer-driven fragrances for men with names such as Envy, Extreme Polo Sport, Contradiction, Good Life and Opium.

It used to be enough to slap on some Hai Karate, add zest to your sideburns with Dad's Old Spice or dab a lemony, woodsy or soapy, but always masculine, cologne discreetly on the middle of your pocket square after the board meeting. The thinking was: real men don't smell--at least, not too good and especially not too often. Fragrance was "just the facts, ma'am"--the daily ritual normally worn as aftershave or deodorant, or, possibly, as an extravagant luxury, cologne on Saturday nights out. Now, scents for men come in a slew of different fragrances and packages.

While women have the advantage of possessing a better sense of smell than men, now they don't necessarily smell better, as the range of scented products with which men may splash, spritz, douse, roll, sprinkle, smooth, bathe, soften and pamper themselves widens. Jean Jacques Rousseau penned smell as "the sense of imagination." Fragrance can evoke memories, tickle a nostalgia for past events, people, places; it can excite and exhilarate; it can medicate the mind and soothe the psyche. Today's American man is waking up to this age-old concept.

The turning point for men's acceptance of fragrance, according to Annette Green, president of the Fragrance Foundation, which promotes the cause of good scents, came with the physical fitness revolution and the focus on sport lifestyles. "That gave a different perspective to smell and scent that was beyond fragrance, beyond sex appeal," she says. "Psychologically, men don't look at fragrance as a fashion accessory; either it makes them feel successful or energetic. Basically, men like things that do something for them."

One "something" that a scent packaged in The Gucci Envy for Men collection as a face energizer claims to do is provide a "pick-me-up for the face when there are signs of fatigue, from an all-night flight or all-night party." They were "formulated," the hype goes, "to address specific needs of men on the move." As Tom Ford, Gucci clothing designer-cum-fragrance connocter, has quipped, "Who has time? We all need quick fixes to look fabulous."

But that is not the most arcane of the promises of fragrance producers. Givenchy's new cologne, ¼, celebrates the sex appeal of brilliant men (e.g. Albert Einstein), pushing "intelligence as the new seducer." Ralph Lauren's male version of his women's perfume, Romance, credits men with an appreciation for something subtler than the old standby of male fragrance pitches: sex.

Scent has always triggered an emotion in humans and animals, much of it sexual. Marketing and advertising have long understood that and underscored the concept in a very obvious way. The Golden Rule was "sex sells." Remember "All my men wear English Leather...or they wear nothing at all!" purred by the TV blonde? That lesson hasn't been forgotten. Even as Gucci products are hawked as pick-me-ups, the com-pany reminds us that they make a "masculine fragrance that screams sex."

Fragrance has always been thought of as a sexual enhancer, something with which to attract the opposite sex. That theory actually does hold water (scented, naturally). Scientists have ascertained that all animals produce pheromones, or scents in the form of a chemical substance, designed to stimulate behavioral responses--usually some form of attraction or repulsion--within the same species. As the renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead once observed, "You could never have a relationship with someone whose smell you didn't like."

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