The Art of Perfume Ads: Agent Provocateur L’Agent (2011) (with asides on Calvin Klein and Katy Perry)

agent provocateur agent ad

Agent Provocateur has released a few good fragrances over the past decade or so, although its most recent release (Fatale) was very disappointing. I like the original Agent Provocateur scent, and Maitresse; I know that L’Agent also has some fans. I don’t think the collection is very heavily advertised in the United States, however, because I don’t remember seeing this advertisement when L’Agent was launched in 2011.

It’s a surprisingly stark and gloomy-looking ad for a women’s perfume. There’s a bit of cleavage, but nowhere near as much as we see in other perfume ads from L’Agent Provocateur (it’s a lingerie company, after all!)—and the chess board gives the image a cerebral twist…

Isn’t it hard to see a chessboard shot in black-and-white without thinking of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957)? Especially a chessboard sitting on a rocky shore, with dark waters and a cloudy sky in the distance? (Look back up at the L’Agent ad!)

7th seal death

In the film, a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) plays a game of chess against Death (Bengt Ekerot). If the knight wins the game, he will survive; if he loses, Death will take his life.

Questions remain: is the Agent Provocateur model meant to personify Death? or do we fill Death’s seat? No, most likely, the game is just being used as a metaphor for seduction.

When I see a chessboard in a perfume ad, I can’t help but think of the commercials for Calvin Klein Obsession that started airing in 1985. They were so fantastically arty and pretentious. Josie Borain played the tortured heroine of those print and television ads. (Oh, how I miss models like her.) In one commercial, she swept the pieces off a chessboard, exclaiming, “Save me!” In another, she stared at a man and a young boy playing chess in a black-and-white room.

“Between love and madness lies obsession.” A chess piece—the king—appeared in the final shot with Josie, the perfume, and a single orchid bloom. Life! Love! It’s all a game! (I think that was the message, but who knows.)

These ads were so well-known that they were parodied on “Saturday Night Live” in 1987. The immortal Jan Hooks (someone else I miss!) emoted her way through a pitch-perfect “ad” for “Calvin Kleen’s Compulsion,” again with a chess board and a white king prominently featured.

You can view the full commercial here.

This isn’t a perfume ad, but I’ll free-associate here for a minute. Katy Perry posed for a glamorous black-and-white ad campaign shot by Ellen von Unwerth in 2012 (just one year after the L’Agent Provocateur ad). It’s a promotion for GHD hair-styling products, but the chess pieces look like perfume bottles to me.

I don’t think any existential meaning was intended.

And one more chess tangent: Ms. Perry’s much-discussed halftime “performance” for Superbowl XLIX, which included a segment with dancers dressed as shiny, robotic chess pieces. (The costumes were designed by Marina Toybina.)

Why? I do not know. It’s even harder to comprehend than a Bergman film, but for very different reasons.



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