Perfume ads exemplify printed media's communicative authority / by Emilia Morano-Williams

Although digital advertising is diverting money away from print ads, research demonstrates that forming a bond between consumer/brand/product happens quicker when the message not mediated through a touch screen. If Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan was correct when he claimed that ‘the medium is the message’, digital media sends a message of distraction. Print, on the other hand, grounds meaning in a concrete, multivalent sensory world that connects the reader to material life. 

Online readers sense that the screen’s buzz compromises their attention. From the abundance of information to the strain on the eyes, screens homogenise the details they present. Breaking news and cat videos are reduced to pixels. Information is either visual or aural, though spoken messages are easily avoided with mute. Touch screen phones may claim tactile satisfaction, but it’s a monotonous tap that condenses diverse message to a single experience. Tap and read is the modern scratch and sniff; multivalent pathways of information collapse into a producing/consuming unit. Screens replace involvement with more, more, more information, increasing distraction while mitigating investment in presented messages.

Print media retains potential for communicating and disseminating meaning by appealing to the senses beyond the visual. While an artistic front-page can hardly compete with the availability, reproducibility and mutability of digital photos, print media has touch, smell, sound and taste. The feel of the pages, the aroma of the paper, the sonorous thud of a weighty issue, the metallic twang of fresh ink: print products supply readers with a dynamic sensory environment.

The perfume ad exemplifies print’s ability to stimulate the senses. Once integral to fashion and celebrity magazines, bland digital adverts have largely replaced them. Printed on weighty cardstock, the perfume ad announced its presence in the magazine. Browsing the newsstand, the reader could choose Vogue rather than Elle or Vanity Fair based on the number of inserts, visible at a simple flick of the spine as they were printed on narrow pages. The decreased width accommodated that all-important flap, under which might hide perfume ambrosia or the stench of decay. It was never clear which, though a vaguely floral odour permeated every magazine with the inserts. 

The roster rotated: an Estee Lauder scent appeared around Christmas (when they promoted their seasonal gift boxes available at Macy’s), Clinque Happy defined Seventeen and DKNY seemingly loved Lucky. Each season ushered in a new aroma, varying in one or two drops of synthetic compound from last year’s scent. But the promise for renewal remained. Peeling open the flap, the reader altered the width of the page, changed the scent of the magazine and integrated themselves into the message. Rubbing their wrist against four inches of condensed perfume, the magazine and advertisement imprinted themselves onto the reader’s body. The temptation was to sniff it straight away, but the smell developed while reading about Karl Lagerfeld’s latest creative endeavour. When the smell had settled itself properly into the pores, it remained a facsimile of the true scent. A trip to the perfume counter and chat with the salesperson was required to determine whether the aroma nestled in the pages of Marie Claire matched what sprayed from the bottle.

Touch, transformation, smell, visuals, conversation: perfume ads represent the immersive sensorial experience print advertising and media offers readers. This immersion is compelling in an age when every brand manipulates similar visual cues for communicating their brand. Successful digital ads naturalize themselves into the environment, hiding between real posts to produce no more emotion in the viewer than a non-sponsored image. Digital media produces alienation, not immersion.

Print immerses with more than perfume and beauty product samples. Nike’s inserts city-specific running maps, including recommendations for refuelling stops and tips for form. Immersive print ads aren’t limited to inserts. Play-doh’s self-mocking ads re-situate the viewer’s perception of their physical alienation and the company’s ability to bridge the gap between image and material. Apple’s multi-page watch ads translates their seamless aesthetic for the magazine’s form, incorporating the spine into their design. Sharpie juxtaposes a rumpled page with color and known cultural icons to create a visual joke that implies the product’s role in the material creative process . Whereas a digital ad needs to be crafted to invisibility and naturalization, the print’s physical presence retains communicative strength.

If print media is dead, then sensory stimulation seems doomed to becoming ever more homogenized and alienating. Digital media provides simple, visual images that are momentarily arresting before the viewer becomes distracted by a more shocking message. These messages might be impressive, but they fade away as quickly as they came. Print might require more time to produce, but it has a longer life cycle in readers’ lives and minds. What advertisers need is a way to present their message that takes into account the inherent diversity and characteristics of media consumption. Long live the perfume ad.