July 5, 2010

What do teenagers smell like?

Depending on where and when you grew up, you likely have an answer for this, one that you are willing to defend with forehead-vein popping passion. For my mother, the answer is Jōvan Musk, an earthy drugstore concoction that brings her back to her Forenza sweater wearing days in the mid-80s. For me, a whiff of Victoria's Secret Love Spell puts me right back into a middle school hallway, dragging my feet to the whine of Dashboard Confessional. Other popular teenage fragrance choices from various eras include: Drakkar Noir, Love's Baby Soft, and Bath & Body Works' Sun Ripened Raspberry. Some more timeless scents include: sweat, and parents'-basement-sofa-handjob.

Somewhere around the time that I entered high school, Axe body spray started to gain popularity, which signified a paradigm shift in my teenage experience, at least from an olfactory point of view. Suddenly, boys locker rooms became torture-chambers for the musk-averse. With the aerosol applicator, it was now easier than ever to apply the long-held teen beauty mantra of "more-is-more."

Something that I find to be interesting about these newly-marketed fragrances is the unique nomenclature used to appeal to teens. While previous fragrance names tended toward descriptive, such as musk, strawberry, or powder fresh, today's names try to lure in teens with appeals to emotion.

Take, for instance, some of the names from the Axe line of body sprays, which include Phoenix, Essence, and Dark Temptation. None of these names actually speak to what the spray smells like. The same can be said for sprays from Old Spice's line, which include names like Swagger and After Hours. Bod Man, a lower-end brand, includes scents with names like $$$ and Really Ripped Abs. As a whole, the rhetoric for naming fragrances marketed toward teen boys tends toward fantasy. Words used are evocative of the forces of nature, contrarianism, and stereotypes of masculinity. I made this word cloud out of all of the names of male teen fragrances in my CVS:

Fragrances aimed at teenage girls are the same in that their names also do little to describe the actual smells of the products. Their titles, however, focus more on promoting ideals of fantasy and romance, than on adventure and badass-ery. Deodorants, meant to mask the smell of your sweat, are named things like Classic Romance and Sweet Surrender. Travel fantasies are called to mind with names like Capri Breeze and Island Falls. Again, none of these things point to a specific scent, but a feeling that teens will get from purchasing the product.
I'm not sure what sort of comment there is to make here about adolescent culture. I find it to be ironic that marketers are trying to tie aspiration and fantasy into a product that is meant to cover up your stink. Then again, maybe this speaks to a perception that exists saying that, to address my generation, it is no longer enough to simply produce a quality product. My peers and I have been groomed to buy into a lifestyle, so a simple deodorant may no longer suffice.


  1. I never really put too much thought into the names of products before. It's a bit interesting to think of the marketing techniques used by companies now. Although, I usually shop by scent and color. Typical guy thing, I suppose. "That color's nice. I'll take that one"

  2. I really hope you guys weren't giving each other handjobs in middle school.

    But, on fragrance--I was never a perfume girl, although I did dabble in "Bottled Emotion" in elementary/middle school--if you'd remember that. I'm old. :/

    I get a huge kick out of the names of men's deodorants and the differences between mens and womens packaging. I also love the renaming of 'loofah' to 'shower tool'.

  3. As someone who is allergic to scent the proliferation of these products literally makes me sick. I wish people would just wash, wear some unscented deodorant and live with the fact that people smell like people.

  4. Ack. I do have to agree on one thing: the discovery of Axe by males of my age group marked a new and decidedly more unpleasant olfactory experience in my life. Especially with those males who believed that 4 or 5 squirts (spritz would hardly be an effective and fitting term for its use, seeing as it's used...liberally, to say the least) of Axe or In2U or Old Spice were an acceptable substitute for regular hygiene.

    I do have to say that I see what you mean with the perfume and body spray names (Curious? Circus? Vice?), though I'd like to make it known that my personal favorite is just named Vanilla Sugar and does, in fact, smell like vanilla sugar.

  5. Really enjoy your posts. Wouldn't you want to be a fly on the wall of the marketing/advertising conference rooms as they discuss (presumably with straight faces) the options for product names?

  6. Here's my perception:

    Companies don't just want you to feel like you're purchasing a product (a lipstick, a deodorant, whatever) they want you to feel as you are purchasing a experience and a lifestyle. I'm not just purchasing that covergirl lipgloss, I'm buying the experience of twirling around, being happy, etc. The general message is: "You can be happy with OUR PRODUCT that YOU BUY."

  7. Very interesting analysis. Your posts are always thought-provoking, even if they're just about the tiniest things. Out of curiosity, is that exhausting sometimes? Haha. I guess some are just born to naturally question things. I've never thought about the type of scent I buy myself, but I suppose that just illustrates how much we've been "groomed to buy into a lifestyle", as you put it.

    Sidenote: Badass-ery is a great word.

  8. I'm a chronic overthinker. This sort of stuff comes naturally, so it's really nice to have an outlet for it.

  9. Is it just me, or do all Axe/Lynx "deodorants" smell the same?

    For some reason, i think they smell blue, if you can imagine such a synaesthete reaction.

  10. I love when synesthesia pops up in conversation (comment above). Makes me feel something like "normal" :)

    Anyway, the guys in my junior high went through a phase of using axe. On the bus. It was suffocating and the bus driver put a stop to that pretty quickly. In high school though the girls' locker room was awful because everyone felt the need to coat themselves in heavily scented lotion before gym class.

  11. I was of the bath and body works school of fragrance during my teen years, and I can still smell Kirby Hawkins' CK1 in my dreams...but the AXE body spray thing has gone overboard. My first encounter with this new breed of eau de cologne was when a teenager I was working with felt the need to reapply a little too close to my air supply. I immediately had trouble breathing and broke out in hives. And no, I do not have asthma or allergies. That stuff is just too potent. And in my opinion, has a better chance of causing bodily harm to the other sex than attracting it.

  12. I have two or three fragrances from when I was in my early teens, all gifts, they were called "Be Cool", "Next2Nothing." and then there was the Naomi Campbell "Cat Deluxe".
    I never cared and I was too afraid about putting on too much, or just smelling horrible, so I didn't use them much. The reason I was scared was the smell reeking from every boy after gym class, one of them was particularly bad(still is, I can smell him when he's in the same bus as me).
    When it comes to deodorant I always use fairly cheap ones without a strong scent of perfume. I really don't need my armpits to smell of anything at all.

    Also the whole "lets sell a package" marketing idea just sucks, it's not deceiving for a second. Most products are just products.

  13. I wonder if anyone pays attention to all the crap the put in these things and how harmful they are to your body and the environment???

  14. It would be really interesting to hear your thoughts on CKOne, the male/female fragrance that was popular when I was in early high school. It was quite a ubiquitous scent for a while, and stands in pretty stark contrast to your analysis of the names/marketing of scents these days. In retrospect, it was pretty innovative & refreshing to have a gender-neutral fragrance that ended up being so popular.
    It disturbs me that so many of the scents these days are labeled to invoke sexuality, both for girls & boys. 15 years ago we had things like Cool Waters, Polo, the Gap line, Plumeria, etc. I remember absolutely nothing about sexuality involved in scent marketing to teens back then.

  15. I don't recall any body sprays being too prominent at my school... but the lingering smell of cigarettes made the first period in the morning and sometimes after lunch stomach-churning.

  16. Yet another interesting post! I read everything you posted on The Seventeen Magazine Project, and am now excited about reading Teenagerie. Keep it up!

  17. I feel like this mainly applies to drugstore products. Of course higher end products also are trying to sell you a "lifestyle" of sorts. I really don't know anyone who uses drugstore cologne or perfume though (and I am a teen). I think my peers recognize that it's usually completely revolting.

    I don't think it's too surprising that drugstore brands would give their colognes and body sprays names such as "Defense" and "Rock-Hard". I'm sure the target market is lower-income families or people who are a bit clueless about such things as personal hygiene and smelling nice. So, of course they would reach for something that seems to promise to make them into a hotter version of themselves. At the end of the day, it's just good marketing strategy.

  18. It's worth noting that adult perfume and cologne brands employ the same sort of abstraction in naming their products, but (at least the high end ones) tend to be a little more creative and less one-track in their naming: Burberry Brit, Nina Ricci's L'Air du Temps, Alexander McQueen's Kingdom. The ultimate abstraction, of course, is Chanel No. 5, which is seen as so clearly luxurious it doesn't need a suggestive name. I think this tendency speaks to the intellect-based division that you've found in teenage-vs-adult marketing.

    Then again, my favorite scent is Viktor & Rolf's Flowerbomb, which is one of the most playful and most literal names I've ever seen attached to a fragrance, so nothing's ever true across the board.

  19. "Swept Away" and "Sweet Surrender" are pretty bothersome anti-empowerment messages for young women.
    Creepy, actually.
    Another bothersome layer to this scent wave is how the FDA doesn't regulate cosmetics (yup) and they are frighteningly toxic. Go spend an afternoon looking up everything from toothpaste to deodorant to shampoo to... you get the picture....on the environmental working group's cosmetic database: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/
    You'll never wash again, let alone spray Axe.

  20. i'm proud to say that my deodorant is called "fresh clean"

  21. just an idea but: do people ever consider that when you buy your deodorant/sprays that it appeals to the smell that you like, not considering the smell that your partner likes....just a whacky idea but shouldnt men buy women perfumes because that is the scent that women like and vice versa?

  22. There's a difference between how I like to smell and how I like my boyfriend to smell, @jonathankeiles. I don't particularly want to smell like Old Spice, but I like that he does; similarly, I'm sure he doesn't really want to smell like vanilla, but likes that I do.

    Also re: Axe, it was at its height of popularity while I was in middle school and I knew this kid who would just absolutely douse himself in it. Seriously, I think he may've been flammable for at least ten minutes after gym class. The problem is, not only does Axe smell terrible anyway, but this kid was one of those who used it as some kind of miracle Shower-In-A-Can or something, and his "natural" scent was something comparable to "dogshit on a hot day." So all the Axe did for him was make him smell more like "dogshit covered in Axe on a hot day." He was in the spring play--this was 5 years ago now--and at one point applied the Axe in the boy's dressing room. It still smells (thankfully faintly) of Axe in there to this day.

  23. As a teen girl, I love the smell of Axe. It's not so much that as a stand-alone smell I love it; it's more like I have connotations with the smell. The boys that I liked in middle school wore it, so I've always seen it in a "cool", attractive way.

    As for female scents, everyone I know that is my age and in my grade (14 and 15 year olds) is OBSESSED with anything by Bath and Bodyworks. Hand sanitizers, hand creams, sprays etc. You borrow a pen or a pencil from a female friend, and your hand slides up and down it to due it being coated in gooey, sticky, smelly cream.

    I do not understand the appeal.

  24. jdrose: fragrances, used to sell these unneeded products, are often harmful chemicals.

    Check out these segments from Democracy Now:

  25. Non-descriptive naming doesn't appeal just to teens though. Black Pheonix Alchemy Lab markets towards older women and men, and the names invoke mythology, history, literature, and emotions. But that's modern, as well, so the "products used to be named descriptive things" may still apply.

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