Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Lynx Effect - Episode 3 Of The BBC's Perfume Documentary

If divisiveness is a measure of the quality of a piece of work, then Ian Denyer’s final entry in his Perfume documentary is probably the best of the series. Whilst presenting the story of the revived Grossmith’s initial forays into the glittering shopping malls of the Middle East, it charts the development of a new Axe (aka Lynx) body spray for the Brazilian market and touches on the extent to which perceptions of scents are affected by cultural conditioning. In other words, after tackling ideas of tradition in episode 1 and exploring perfumery as a form of self-expression in episode 2, it broadens the scope of its central topic and questions viewers’ definitions of it.

Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that last week’s broadcast has been met with strongly contrasting opinions from people who feel the hour didn’t devote sufficient time to what they consider to be relevant issues. But the truth is that the world of perfume encompasses an industry that is much larger – and much more lucrative – than the one which produces the fine fragrances advertised in magazines and sprayed to death by pushy sales assistants. It’s also a world that, currently, doesn’t appear to have as many devotees in Europe as it does in other sectors of the globe. So as far as I’m concerned, the decision to focus the episode on how Europe and America try to woo the rest of the world is laudable.

When seen in this light, Ann Gottlieb’s apparent readiness to accept the endorsement of one small focus group of young Brazilian men – after a first group rejected her product! – provides a fascinating (and depressing) glimpse into the machinery that drives the world’s real perfume power houses. The sight of Grossmith’s Simon Brooke greeting a Bahraini businessman with a box of Victorian-esque, Orient-inspired scents and a cry of, “I've brought some treasure to show you," (a statement on which you could probably write an entire post-colonial thesis) furthers the endless story of shifts in global power relations. And the image of washing detergents being tested by Givaudan makes you realise, with a sinking heart, that the smells of future childhoods, future love affairs and future pangs of nostalgia are being decided in a soulless lab where creativity has to give in to the demands of budgets and bottom lines.

Compelling though the episode may be, it isn’t without its shortcomings. For a start, the insistence on viewing ‘the rest’ of the world from a Western standpoint feels uncomfortable at times. Granted, it is impossible to present any situation from a wholly objective, God-like vantage point and one could argue that the Western position is as valid as any other, but it would have been helpful to see, for instance, an acknowledgement of the fact that Arabian culture has probably been using perfume longer than any other on earth.

A greater problem is posed by the seam between the Gottlieb and Grossmith stories. Indeed, there are several moments when the differences between the two narratives are highlighted to such an extent that you begin to question the validity of comparing them. Thankfully, a sense of wholeness is restored by the time the end credits appear and Denyer delivers his parting shot: the none-too-comfortable suggestion that, ultimately, perfume/fragrance/smell (whatever you wish to call it) is a powerful social tool which we use to make statements about the ways in which we wish to be included in – or excluded from – the various manifestations of life around us. After all, the very last word uttered in the series is ‘aspiration’.


Overall, the three Perfume films deserve a firm thumbs up. Despite their flaws, they have achieved a feat many in the broadcasting industry considered impossible: they’ve taken the subject of perfume, placed it against a fairly wide context and presented it on one of the most prestigious television channels in the world. I know of several viewers with no previous interest in scent who found themselves enthralled by insights and revelations which they’d never even considered before. For this we should all be grateful to Ian Denyer and to the BBC commissioning body that funded his project and enabled him to place his camera inside what is a notoriously secretive, insular environment.



  1. That's a very good summary of the series.

    The third episode was all about the Big Sell but it was the smaller, more anecdotal moments - the hand-wringing, greasy smiles and the 'treasure from England' exclamation in front of the Arabs that made me cringe and attempt to hide behind the cushions on my sofa!

    I guess there's something deeply embarrassing and irksome about 'selling stuff' in general!

  2. I think the very idea that Axe/Lynx would be successful after those 'focus groups' is hilarious. The problem being that Gottlieb didn't have the first clue about Brazilian culture and spending power. (Although, to be fair, she did notice the fact that Brazilians don't have the sexual hangups that Europeans and Americans tend to have). The fact is that the Brazilians with money i.e. those that are likely to buy 'cosmetics' shop at 'designer name' shops. Go into a mall in Brazil and you'll find outlets for Calvin Klein, Christian Dior, etc. Brazilians buy imported stuff with a 'name'. They don't buy local and they don't buy cheap - viz the person who talked about a woman getting her scent from clean sheets. Yes, the Brazilian market is huge - and there is scope for other SA countries - but you need to know the culture, not take a view that simply doesn't gel with reality.

  3. Thank you so much for your write-up. First of all I should say that it was wonderful to get a documentary, and three parts too, on our favourite subject!

    In a way I think both threads of the third part contained cringe-worthy elements, although I was prejudiced against the Lynx/Axe part as soon as I heard about it. I could hardly bear to watch and listen to the entire charade.

    I've said it before and I'll say it again: I am so glad to have several lifetimes' worth of vintage beauties to keep me going because pretty soon everyone will smell of bland loo cleaner.....everyone else, that is, apart from we perfume lovers!

  4. i was probably thrilled the most by these 2 ml samples that were anounced as a gift;-)

  5. I loved this series. I think it managed to appeal both to people who never thought they cared about perfume and to the enthusiast. I just wished there had been 6 episodes. I would love to know the viewing figures.

  6. Agree with your points, I think it was very good overall and fascinating at times (as well as cringy at others!). I hope many others like the viewers you know, watched and got an idea of why we love perfume so much and that there is more to it than they might think. I did see Matthew Wright on Channel 5 utterly incredulous that the subject of perfume could sustain 3 episodes. Oh, how little does he know!

  7. Thanks for highlighting the ending like that. To see it written in words, it seems even more profound and completely on the mark.

    Watching the Axe/Lynx development was very insightful. I actually admire Gottlieb's ethic. I can't say I respect the product all that much but she seems very astute is clearly working in such a competitive side to the industry - I can only imagine the pressure she is under.

  8. Kev, thanks very much, and yes, I think you're absolutely right: we don't like to be confronted with the prosaic, overtly materialistic aspects of our beloved world of scents.

  9. Phil, thanks for that. The cultural mixing is tricky, isn't it? Gottlieb was supposedly trying to find something that 'clicked' with Brazilians, yet, as you say, she was approaching the situation as a foreigner. Why couldn't Axe have hired a local adviser...?

  10. Fiordiligi, thank you. Is it awful to confess that the Axe segments didn't make me cringe, exactly? I suppose they just made me realise - in a very numbing way - that the perfumery I love is quite low down the list of priorities of most fragrance companies.

    And yes, the thought that the likes of us need never buy any more perfume is wonderful.

  11. Mika, I wonder if the gift made it back to the royal family.

  12. London, me too. I have no idea of viewing figures are made public.

  13. Tara, who's Matthew Wright? They should have asked me to go on, I would've told them there's enough material for thirty episodes :-D

  14. Liam, I suspect Gottlieb is brilliant at what she does. And she was behind the development of classics like Eternity and Obsession, so I'd say she deserves quite a lot of respect.

  15. Persolaise, if people really use 100ml of fragrance within less than a week, i reckon these vials wouldn't survive before arriving to the palace;-)Mika.

  16. As I recall the royal family's representative turned down the samples. I think they were embarassingly small. Give a bottle at least -- perhaps not Baccarat, but considering the potential, two 2ml samples is petty.

    I really enjoyed the series and appreciate the BBC for funding it
    (of couse one could look at it as serious product placement).


  17. Mika, you may be right... but you know what, having spent more than a decade living in the Middle East, I found the '100 ml per week' statement highly dubious. That's almost 15 ml a day!

  18. Lindaloo, I'll be very interested to see if the series is sold abroad and whether it's successful in other markets.


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