The Emotional Engineering Society

–  some further D-list thoughts on brands, bloggers and buyers in the world of social media

Some things I’ll never get used to. Such as…posting what I thought would be a pretty innocuous if slightly polemic blog post only to find some hours later that no less an august personage than Andy Tauer had picked up my topical baton where I dropped it, and in a certain manner of speaking both of our blog posts as well as Undina’s had touched a very live nerve on a very passionate subject.

Therefore, before I incriminate myself any further than I already have, I’d like to state a few things. First of all …there is no controversy, at least as that word is usually understood. My original blog post was prompted by nothing more than my own preoccupations in the world of perfume as well as several informal phone conversations with close friends who share my passion.

Last, but not least …despite my love of the focus of this blog and the people who make those epiphanies possible – fans, friends and perfumers alike – sometimes, I like to think out loud in public and point to what I see as pink elephants in the room. To be honest, the idea of never writing anything BUT perfume reviews (and my profound respect and admiration to those who do!) would bore me to tears and sometimes does. It makes me feel like a broken record, hauling out the same metaphors and the same similes and simply changing the order around, which does me no favors as a writer and is a disservice to the concept I’m trying to grasp with my nose as well as to the mind(s) who conceived it.

Before the perfume blogger, before the social media identity, and sometimes even before the woman lurks an iconoclastic, post-punk catastrophe writer, and if the blogger is to dance on this virtual page, then that writer needs to exercise her train of thought and her vocabulary. I didn’t mean to step on any toes or ruffle any feathers, but karmic law decreed otherwise.

The thing is…there IS a pink elephant in the room. No one wants to know about it, never mind even think about it, other than in hushed sotto voce whispers to very trusted friends. And as Andy Tauer rightly pointed out, no one is talking about it, very few are aware of it, but then, the iconoclastic post punk catastrophe began to think. Caveat lector.

Who is to say that a perfume blogger – even such a grade D entity as yours truly – can’t write about some of the other things happening on Planet Perfume? Well, no one, actually. Except I found two things very telling about this hot-potato topic. One, two people – one a rockstar-level perfumer herself –  commented on Andy’s riposte to my own blog post. Two, quite a few more than two commented back to Undina’s own thoughtful post, many of whom did not comment on my own.

Draw your own conclusions.

So many relevant points were brought up however, that it seems a bit pointless to go comment by comment, when I should have a) been a bit clearer about my intentions and observations and b) been a bit more precise in my argumentation.

Andy wrote that he didn’t consider social media to be relevant to any discussions about perfume because the medium IS…the message, as Marshall McLuhan famously said in that innocent, Pliocene age before Facebook, Twitter and other hazards to our collective sanity.

Andy, you’re absolutely right. It’s not. And it is. And the medium is less a point in itself as it is a platform and a Wild West free-for-all land claim for the message its users are trying to get across. I’ll be getting back to that.

Second, my blatant and purposely provocative use of the term ‘niche’. Yes, there is indeed a vast difference between big, corporate-backed ‘niche’ brands, independent perfumers and artisanal perfumers. There is a difference in the way these businesses are operated and maintained, there is a definite difference in terms of distribution and customer reach, and above all, there is a marked difference in the business philosophies of all three entities. I’m not even mentioning how new launches are conceptualized or executed, since from where I’m standing, that’s one distinction between them.

My point is…whichever category a perfumer/brand might belong to, and I’m so very sorry if I burst any bubbles…it’s still…a business. Money makes the world go round, money makes it possible to keep a company afloat whether they’re a one-man band or a whole olfactory orchestra of magical elves.

Perfume, that most ephemeral art, is costly to produce, at least at the level I’ve become accustomed to. Sourcing a consistent quality and supply of raw materials, manufacturing the juice or outsourcing your production line, bottling it up, finding the appropriate packaging, producing – or outsourcing –  the PR to go with it – all these things take a considerable amount of a brand or a perfumer’s time, and just as in any other business, you’re only as good as the reception on your last product. As an artisanal perfumer, if your juice doesn’t sell, you’re not going to remain a perfumer for too long if you also like to eat.

Now consider this – in 2011, more than 1400 new perfumes were launched. Some of those were struggling, artisanal brands with very limited distribution – if at all – and most of those 1400 launches came out of the great corporate conglomerates. How many of those will survive the end of this year? How many of those will be reviewed or remembered? How many will distinguish themselves to such an extent, they will still be bought and talked about five years from now?

In a market economy, wouldn’t that depend on not just the quality of a given perfume and the concept behind it, but also on things like…exposure, availability, trade-show schmoozing, word-of-mouth, editorial coverage, and the general conversation in the perfume community? In a world of ever-increasing olfactory noise and with the backlash to prove it, how else will any new and curious perfume buyer even know about it?

Enter the beast that is…social media. The casual Facebook user might not think too much about these things, but you do have to wonder…what are we doing there?

Posting cutesie Photoshopped animal pictures, commenting on other pictures and clicking links and sharing – or even oversharing – everything from intimate details of our private selves and offlline lives to inadvertently delivering a marketing executive’s wet dream of a demographic analysis in the process for free. Posting our SotDs and declaring our undying loyalty and love of a given brand – or forty – commenting back on other SotDs in happy-hour cocktail-party fashion… “Oh, I love that one, I have that one, that one didn’t work for me, have you tried X, Y or Z instead?”

If the medium is the message, then the message here is…despite all our high-minded efforts, despite the opportunity and the platform to engage in meaningful discourse in all sorts of Web 6.0 ways with anyone we damn well please, perfumers and/or brands included (I mean, they can’t see you blush as you type your shy ‘hello’ to a rockstar perfumer, or see you bang your head against your keyboard with your likes), we’re still interacting on the same principles that grease the wheels of human concourse anywhere in the world.

“Nice weather we’re having lately!”

Why? Because the point of Facebook, or Twitter, or Pinterest is not…a philosophical discussion about the creative process or the concept behind a concrete idea. In fact, it’s not about discussing much at all. It’s about the daily reinvention of ourselves as individuals in an increasingly crowded world. It’s about staking that claim and drawing those lines of distinction. This is who I am. This is what I like. This is me…today, this week, this moment in time.

No, Andy, it is all too true and you are all too right…there really isn’t, despite all efforts to the contrary, a hell of a lot of ‘meaningful discussion’. Because this really is a brave new world and we’re all taking our baby steps as we walk this brave new media landscape of 24/7 virtual life, being brave or not as we go.

Why not? Ah…

Well, I’ll venture that the vast majority of perfume consumers simply don’t have the vocabulary for it. Francis Kurkdjian landed in hot water when he claimed that bloggers or even layman critics as a rule don’t know what the hell they’re writing about, since they have so little knowledge of the technical skills of perfumery. This is very true. We don’t. And if you ask me at least, I don’t give a flying, since I don’t buy juice to determine the artistic use and technical merits of this or that aromachemical, this olfactory riff on a material. Even if I did, it still wouldn’t sell the juice to me.

That’s not why I love it, that’s not why I buy it, that’s not why I dream about it and that’s certainly not why I write about it. I do all of it…con amore. I’ll wager my D-list status here (about to be demoted, any day now!) and venture that isn’t why any other blogger – or at least the ones who are capable of articulating that passion to any extent – does it, either.

We articulate our inordinate passion for perfume artistry for no other reason than what it does to our selves, to our moods, and to our daily real-life reinventions. We articulate it to inform, to entertain, if only to inform and entertain ourselves, to make our readers agree or not with our assumptions, and all along, we know damn well we’re charting virgin territory in the process, since articulating a wordless, emotionally fraught art is very, very hard. Poets, writers, artists and dreamers have been trying to convey the inarticulate with words for millennia. But in the end, the nose…knows what the word can’t say.

Not everyone has the depth of cultural knowledge, the passion, or the psychological insight to participate in any meaningful discussions about perfume. And there are no troll-free zones to do it in, either, unless it’s an option to moderate comments on a blog.

Does it take away from the mystique, the whole romantic aura of perfume to know something of the process that goes into its creation? Maybe it does for some, maybe they can’t be bothered to be informed on such a level, maybe they just don’t care to know anything other than what their acute, discerning noses tell them.

What about bloggers? What are they doing, thinking, planning? Is it true that some bloggers have an inside track on certain brands, new launches, new hotly anticipated moments in perfumery?

Yes. And if we didn’t (I’ll freely confess to being one of them, and I’m obliged by US law to state it every time it happens), how would a lay perfume customer even know? They don’t have access to trade magazines, wouldn’t know unless they read perfumer’s blogs or editorial write-ups, and even those do come from other sources than press releases. In the case of indie perfumers and artisanal brands, they don’t have an advertising budget, or much more to go on but determination and dedication. Some of them are internationally renowned, some of them not at all. My point is…a blogger receives a sample because a perfumer would like that spin on their creation, to see what a blogger’s interpretation might be. And any blogger worth his or her weight in bottled bribes knows full well there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Any artist in any medium knows that once a work of art is finished, you have opened up the gates of Hades to pass it on to the world. You want feedback, accolades (it is to be hoped) or alternatively, at least a certain level of creatively stated antagonism.

That doesn’t mean you’ll get it.

Not one blogger that I’m aware of does this for a living. In most cases, we have very full and overflowing lives that entail things like spouses, children, pets, families, day jobs and laundry baskets. There are only so many hours in a day. I’ve been known to knock out big reviews in an hour and thirty-seven minutes, and several others that took me days or weeks. Yet I have very few truly negative reviews. Why?

It’s the conspiracy of silence. Negative reviews – or simply reviews of stuff you loathe – are too much trouble to write. Why be bothered to forgo an evening with friends, an extra bedtime story, a nosedive into a book, a full night’s sleep, if you have to write a review of something you hate? For that matter, why waste time on what doesn’t move you? I don’t bother with people I can’t stand, why should I do it with perfume? Life’s too short. Better to just…pass it on, pay it forward by sending off a sample to a friend who might love it better, write about it better, cherish that idea you were unable to grasp.

Undina said it beautifully in her post – perfume experts don’t buy perfume. Laymen do. They buy with their hearts, their passion, their noses and their burning plastic, People like you, people like me, people like the perfumers who inspire us and the brands we love – or love to argue about, in that fragrant corner of the dog-eat-dog world of social media, we could call – with some justification, to continue the Huxley reference…the Emotional Engineering Society.

With many thanks to …Persolaise for the interview with Francis Kurkdjian, Andy Tauer, Lucy of Indieperfumes, Undina, Bloody Frida, Susan and the two dear friends who burned my ears this week about this very topic.

Original image: An installation by Brooklyn artist Ebon Heath.

13 thoughts on “The Emotional Engineering Society

  1. This is all very interesting, I went back and read your original post, and find that I am always trying to make the connection between individuals (me and the people who wear my perfumes) easier to navigate. It has become such that I spend more time answering email and fielding requests that I am always in a mad dash to the studio to get anything accomplished. Yes setting limits. I get that. But also do not want to disrespect genuine inquiries. The bloggers, I find from my end are all very different: I try to keep things above board. We used to send out samples in bulk mailings, but no longer do this. Some bloggers (even today) buy their own samples. We never do advance mailings of upcoming scents. Everybody gets the news at the same time. I do not expect anything, but am always grateful when we do get a blip here and there. I have never asked for a review or write up and never will. If people want to support me, I hope that it is because I create perfumes that they love, not because I am paying them off in some way. What kind of honesty comes from that anyway. I would rather have a nasty honest review, than one that was all smiles and candy, bought and paid for. When I went from a full time visual artist to perfumer ten years ago, I had no idea that I would be navigating such choppy waters. On any given day I can be embraced as a genius in one breath and thrown under the bus in another. I find that I am best when I just stay to myself, mind my own business and do my work, create for myself and then release it into the world. It is true that art does not belong to the artist. I am happy to let my creations go on their own. It clears my head for the next ones.
    However others do it is their business. I do not care. I think sometimes there is too much reading between the lines in life. Too much assumption. Sometimes the in-between is just empty space.

    1. Thank you for your comment and your thoughts, Liz. I do have to say that I very much believe an honest review is always the best answer, but I will also say I don’t think it’s dishonest of me to give a good review of something that didn’t work for me – even if I can’t wear a given perfume, I can at least appreciate the concept behind it. Which is to say…provided I can locate it to begin with! 😉

  2. I have been prompted to think about all these issues more and do some research.
    I’ve been thinking about the perfume community, the issue of how people don’t like put up negative criticism, etc. and how that relates to credibility, etc. I am thinking now it has to do with personal relationships too (not to mention how the online post lives forever, not like newspapers that came and went. You will always get a Google research result with a negative review once it’s been posted).

    I have decided, going forward, that as part of the disclosure on each post I will disclose whether I consider myself to have a personal relationship with the perfumer.

    I think in other areas of serious writing about books, music, politics, theater, etc., writers routinely do this. I never worried about this before, but things have changed and I know more perfumers now. I have no material relationships with any of them, and my site is not commercial, but this is clearly something that affects what you write about, how much attention you may give it, etc.; it’s simply human nature.

    I just saw Anotherperfumeblog’s page about media/disclosure which I thought was admirably clear on all this. She appears to work in professionally in media/communications and is transferring those ethics to her personal non commercial perfume blog, which I think would be a good idea for other serious perfume writers too.

    One of the reasons perfume bloggers have less standing, even still, is that there is a lot of murk surrounding solicited reviews, relationships, material relationships, etc.

    I reiterate that I consider myself to have been honest all along and never written anything more favorably because I know the perfumer, but this personal knowledge/relationship issue is indeed of interest to the reader and I will make it part of my disclosures going forward.

    That said, as much as I so enjoy my relationships with perfumers and want to keep them, I can see how they would be considered limiting to my ability to be objective to an outside observer, and so the least I can do is disclose. I have no intention of giving up on reviewing the perfumers I have met or talk to on a frequent basis, but, I do understand more now, from a bit of research on this topic, why professional review sites look on this type of thing with a very jaundiced eye and avoid it as much as possible.

    So that’s a positive result to all this fomenting of controversy (kidding) Sheila, at least I think so.

    1. Lucy, I want to disagree with you (a little).

      I’m sure that you and most people whose blogs I read do not lie about liking perfumes just because they are friends with perfumers. Yes, you might be slightly more inclined to like a new perfume created by somebody you like/admire/know but, by the same token, you are more inclined to like (or even give a fair try to) a perfume from the brand that you like/perfumers whose work you favor even without knowing them. So if you were to disclose your relationships with indie perfumers, to be fair, you need to have a disclosure for other things as well – for example, “own 10 bottles from this brand”, “like most perfumes by this nose”, etc.

      So in my opinion it’s enough to disclose how you got a sample/bottle for the review and let your readers to figure out how subjective you are.

      1. I agree with you, Undina. Just disclose if a sample was sent to you and let your readers be the judges. And as I said in my comment below, subjectivity is a bit pointless, since the very same perfume can tell vastly different stories, which only means that ALL reviews are written on the time-honored principle of…Your Mileage May Vary. 😉

  3. I think – as I’ve said before – that when dealing with such a subjective art form as perfume, objectivity isn’t so much the point as perspective is. Would my perspective be distorted in any way if I review the work of someone I know? Well, I’d like to think not – I mean, they’re not in the room with me as I write – but of course, it’s simple human nature that we tend to gravitate in the direction where we’re welcomed or encouraged. I don’t think it’s necessary to divulge information about whether or not you know anyone personally – after all, you’re critiquing the work, not the individual. I don’t read reviews to be ‘objectively’ informed. Perfume is an experiential art, after all. The different blogs I read all provide differing reviews but more than that, they provide perspectives in various styles and voices, with perspectives I might not otherwise have been aware of, and that can only add to my own understanding – of what I’m trying to review and/or a given artist’s work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s