Atomising a generation. By Gray, Louise, New Statesman & Society, 09542361, 9/8/95, Vol. 8, Number 369

Time was when one could breeze through the perfume souks of any major department store, soaking up the advertising, and receive, in the process, a number of standardised messages. Perfumes, we were told, enhance our sense of masculinity or femininity; they speak of individuality. They are fabulous concoctions which operate in an unreal register. They act on our sense of allure, of mystery and of our desirability. This last one might be most significant, considering that issues of desirability arouse perennial anxiety. Smell, pheromones, chemical signals, may constitute important (if subtle) subliminals in the game of human attraction, but in an age where the relationship represents the sublime height of mortal endeavour, can anyone really leave anything to chance operations?

Hitherto, this question has been answered by a deafening rhetorical silence. But it is now being addressed by one of the most formally ingenious marketing campaigns yet conducted in the perfume * industry--CK One, the latest scent from the US-based Calvin Klein corporation. Its images can be seen on buses, television, posters and in magazines. Officially launched in the UK on 21 August, the campaign is already at saturation point. CK One is, in the corporation's own phrase, a "shared fragrance", for men and women (preferably aged 18-24). It is not, a Klein spokesperson accentuates, a unisex fragrance. If this distinction appears slightly Jesuitical, it is intentionally so. Consider this blurb from CK One's press pack: "We live in a time of enormous change and opportunity. Attitudes and values are shifting, rules are changing . . . A new perspective has permeated everything from fashion to politics to beauty. . . Glamour has a different meaning. There is no longer a need to enhance one's gender or conform to type. *. CK One. . . is as sexy as the truth". CK One is packaged in shades of grey: recycled cartons, brushed aluminum canisters and delicately smoked glass bottles. Whatever the grey contains, Klein is hip to green.

The truth, or perhaps, a truth, that a close reading of the Klein corporation's risible prose-poem-paean permits, is far less sexy. Forget for a moment that CK One's blend of(interalia) bergamot, fresh pineapple, nutmeg and musk, cleaves the air with the pungency of an olfactory hatchet or that its vaguely scientific name suggests chemical certainty. The truth is that recognising sexual desire brings in its wake frantic levels of anxiety, primarily for those in the, yes, you've guessed it, 18-24 year demographic bracket.

In biological terms, this is an age group spilling over with pheromones, the scentless chemical signal of humankind's ripeness for plucking. To return to Klein's PR: "If you know who you are. . . I f you won't take no for an answer. . . If you choose love over stability", than CK One is for you. But such reassuring messages are undermined by the ad campaign itself. Its main illustration--a bunch of carefully styled street kids led by super-model Kate Moss and motor mechanic turned model, Jenny Shimuzo, whose name, like that of other glamourous lesbians, has been linked with Madonna, represents the epitome of blurred genders. Primary and secondary sexual characteristics of the nine models are virtually absent. No body hair, no genital bumps, no breasts. If one blocks off the picture horizontally, separating torsos from legs, the picture becomes even more confusing. Interestingly enough, only Moss--whose seemingly pre-pubescent body goaded commentators two years ago into making comparisons with paedophiliac skin-flicks-- has any discernable gender. The photograph's composition accents androgyny and, by extension, an anxiety about any adult sexual contact, making the intimacy that CK One boasts of smell like a week-old red herring.

Blurred gender, blurred sexuality, blurred fragrance is of a piece with the fluidity currently espoused by theorists of "queerness", but it could equally suggest a defense mechanism against any sexual engagement. There is nothing about this photograph that suggests any form of desire, be it heterosexual, homosexual or some point in between--"Come close, but not too close", it seems to suggest.

It is no surprise that this stuff is being aimed at an age group whose sexual maturation has coincided with the advent of Aids. A generation ago, the major risks associated with sexual activity were pregnancy or a dose of something nasty. If, to paraphrase Susan Sontag's analysis, Aids functions as a metaphor that infects collective sexual fantasy, then Klein's marketing team understands the zeitgeist perfectly--to such an extent, that CK One's sales figures are breaking records.

Calvin Klein's office won't divulge the true campaign costs, but it boasts that since CK One's US launch last September, first quarter sales were in the order of $63 million--double Klein's own forecast- with some department stores setting up waiting lists. A good fragrance launch will rake in about $30 million in the same time period, though London sales seem set to repeat the North American levels.

There is one perverse twist. CK One's US buyers are mostly thirty something, 60 per cent female to 40 per cent male, of an age when they might be buying other Klein fragrances and the fantasies that products like Eternity, Escape or Obsession might offer. And in a separate campaign, the Klein corporation has recently dropped (and been forced to justify via a full-page explanation in the New York Times) a jeans ad campaign whose gusset-shots of teenage models have drawn accusations of child pornography.

While such protests are part of a wider concern with the imaging promoted by the fashion industry, CK One's effectual erosion of sexual difference is, certainly, a more benign manifestation than anorexic models. However, the conclusion is inescapable: in promoting virtual sex, CK One's implicit message is one of virtual intimacy. "CK One", the ads do not say, "for those who know that non-involvement is safer". Anomie has reached the atomisers.


Copyright of New Statesman & Society is the property of New Statesman Ltd.