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When a Man Buys Perfume : What's Behind His Choice of Fragrance

December 07, 1986|PADDY CALISTRO

Man gives woman perfume. Woman's heart skips beat. Romance flourishes under mistletoe. With variations on this scenario in mind, men will spend close to $1 billion on scented gifts during this holiday season. But do giver and receiver understand what makes a man choose a specific scent? Probably not.

Not only are men less experienced at selecting scent (women are responsible for more than 70% of fragrance sales during the rest of the year), but men also are at a cultural disadvantage: A man isn't likely to spray White Shoulders on one wrist and Joy on the other and head back to the office, waiting to see which smells better hours later. Most of the time, men turn to women for guidance. A wife or girlfriend will mention what fragrance she wears, and the man will buy it. If she doesn't, he'll ask a saleswoman for help.

Traditionally, men have shied away from new scents, playing it safe with familiar fragrances such as Chanel No. 5, Shalimar, L'Air du Temps and others that have been around for decades. And men tend to select perfumes that they've smelled before, especially those that evoke a pleasant memory. "About 10% to 20% of the men will buy what their mothers wore," notes Jonathan King, director of marketing for PPF International, a firm that creates fragrances for others to manufacture and market.

Smells leave an impression. In most cases, a mother's scent is equated with loving, caring and security. But perhaps at least as influential as Oedipal forces are powerful, provocative ads. Some men purchase a new scent based on its erotic image. Calvin Klein's controversial Obsession advertising, for example, implies that the fragrance inspires sexual fantasies. Ironically, the fragrance itself seems more innocent than sophisticated. "The spicy notes in Obsession are intended to be sweet and familiar," PPF International's King observes.

Christian Dior's Poison, whose commercials show a woman taming a panther with her allure, also flaunts its sex appeal. "In every market where the commercial runs, men are all over the counters the next day," says Susan Biehn, senior vice president of advertising and creative services at Dior Perfumes. But again, the scent itself conjures the familiar, this time using fruity notes. "We were very close to fruit as children; in fact, most of us had apple juice and applesauce all over ourselves. These fruity scents take us back to our childhood," King says. Even when ads attract men with sexy visuals, what clinches the sale may be a reminder of the past--perhaps a hint of mom's apple pie.

Some men will boldly ask a stranger--in an elevator, for example--what fragrance she's wearing. Some have been known to follow a scent through a maze of hallways, find its source and demand the fragrance's name, not hers. "We should never underestimate that what draws someone to a scent is smelling it on someone," says Avery Gilbert, a research psychologist at Monell Chemical Senses Center, a Philadelphia institute that studies the relationship between odor and behavior.

But one of the reasons men choose particular scents has nothing to do with sex appeal or subconscious influences. Many are looking for a gift that shows how much they will spend on a special woman. "Men are the biggest consumers of expensive fragrance gift packages at holiday time," acknowledges Giorgio founder Fred Hayman, whose company sells baskets full of Giorgio products for as much as $500. At Nina Ricci, Senior Vice President of Marketing Barbara Kotlikoff says men buy pricey Lalique bottles of the scent far more often than women do. "Men are attracted to the value of the purchase and the romance of it," Kotlikoff says.

Thomas E. Virtue, president of Roure Bertrand Dupont, the essence house commissioned to create Obsession and Poison, says that all these factors may influence a man to buy a certain fragrance for a woman, but no one knows for certain how he makes his decision. "What we do know," he says, "is that if a fragrance evokes unpleasant memories, he definitely won't buy it."

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