New Saoirse Ronan perfume ad has a whiff of feminist bandwagon

The ad campaign for new 'feminist perfume' Calvin Klein Women has more scent than substance

Saoirse Ronan is a gifted actress, and naturally, Irish people are even fonder of her for being an Irish woman who has risen to tremendous success.

Ronan has been in the news for the last couple of days because she is to co-star with fellow actress Lupita Nyong'o, herself an incredibly successful and influential force within the industry, in a campaign for the newest Calvin Klein fragrance, Calvin Klein Women.

The move is a smart one by the brand. Both Ronan and Nyong'o are influential women with reputations for independence and choosing intelligent roles. Huge, star studded campaign aside, this is a big launch for Calvin Klein in another sense - it is the first perfume release since the brand took on Raf Simons as Chief Creative Officer, so in a sense through this campaign the brand is indicating where it is headed.

In the ads for the new fragrance, Calvin Klein Women, both Nyong'o and Ronan are featured wearing makeup that focuses on the skin, so that the result is a natural look; it has a lovely, pared back and fresh feel. Each image is presented in triptych along with two women they chose as inspirational to them. Nyong'o is featured with Eartha Kitt and Katharine Hepburn, while Ronan's photograph sits alongside images of Sissy Spacek and Nina Simone.


Of the campaign, Raf Simons said “With this fragrance, we wanted to put the concept of plurality center stage. The campaign is an exploration of femininity - a group of women bonded by a common thread; the desire to have the power to create their own identity, and to support and lead the way for those that come after them.”

He continues “Calvin Klein Women is inspired by the transmission of strength and inspiration from one woman to the next; by plurality combined with individuality; freedom of expression; and the notion that the collective is as vital as the individual.”

Monetisable ideology

What Simons is describing, by a slightly circuitous route, is feminism. Here, Calvin Klein presents us with a feminist perfume, and the above quotes are extremely unsubtle ways of saying ‘buy our feminist fragrance’. I love a good fragrance, but the current culture of monetisable ideology is distasteful, and while the campaign is very nice, one wonders if it wouldn’t be better suited to something raising funds for women’s and girls’ charities. Whether you are a feminist or not, in the year of the #MeToo movement, when many women have detected a distinct shift in their perception, and some have become more attuned to the current political climate than they may have been before, this campaign is trite, and looks disingenuous.

Fragrance is a unique sub-category within the beauty industry. Every product on the market claims to have reinvented the wheel, a claim both beauty journalists and consumers sort of politely ignore before trying the product to find out for themselves. Fragrance is a whole other story. The campaigns are always flighty, conceptual, sometimes a little big for their boots, and they usually inflate the emotional and evocative elements of scent. They also always generalise uniqueness. Most of us have a favourite perfume. It might even be the scent those who care about us associate with our presence, and that's lovely. However, there is an element of mass producing a product and then marketing it toward consumers so that it appears to be making a unique statement specifically about that individual. That's okay. No one who wears Flowerbomb or Chanel No 5 buys it in the belief that no one else is wearing it, and the fragrance 'belongs' to them. It just feels that way when we find a great fragrance, love it, and declare it 'the one'. As consumers, we know what is happening and we don't mind.

Advertising stunt

The problem with this campaign is that it is yet another advertising stunt, and its commitment to the ideas it is utilising is shallow and smacks of bandwagoning. Though Ronan and Nyong'o both may be admirable people, this female integrity is precisely what Calvin Klein is purchasing from them by featuring the two in this campaign. This is another iteration of Kendall Jenner's infamous Pepsi advert; which was pulled last year after it depicted Jenner in a manner that appeared to trivialise protest and social justice causes. The backlash was immediate. Viewers detected without difficulty that the ad was essentially a form of profit-driven virtue signalling, hijacking the beliefs of individuals and the politicisation of culture without making any actual gesture toward the political position it is monetising.

In this campaign, Calvin Klein is diluting the politics of feminists and sympathetic women, and attempting to sell those beliefs back to them in a bottle. If the brand has an actual commitment to feminism, why can't we see it? If Irish dental brand Spotlight Whitening, a company infinitely smaller than a behemoth like Calvin Klein, can create a children's tooth paste and quietly donate all of the proceeds from that product to ISPCC Childline, then huge global brands can put their money where they pretend their principles are, or leave the politics out of selling fragrance.

Despite the almost universal online praise for this campaign, and the fact that the ads are nice and the product is lovely, this is a cynical manoeuvre for profit. Theoretically, there is nothing wrong with this, but most of us prefer our beauty without the politics, and feminism is a touchy subject. However, if a brand is going to create a campaign like this, signalling is insufficient. Feminism is fast becoming a for-profit trend, more particularly within the fashion industry. It is one that savvy consumers or people who are interested in more than redundant signalling really should not buy into. In this new fragrance campaign, Calvin Klein Women is all scent and no substance.