Commentary

The Second Sound Barrier Breaks New Ground In Selling Smells

What is it that they say about sense of smell? That it’s the most acute and powerful of our five senses? Per that linked video, which employs powerful descriptive phraseology like “crazy interesting,” we smell better than we see or hear, or something. Works for me.

But a more relevant question to my life is this: Which sense is most easily ignored and/or selectively engaged? While long-ago middle ear infections have gift-wrapped for me an excuse to ignore disagreeable utterances ( “hey, those juice boxes are reserved for the Girl Scouts,” “this is a no-solicitation zoo”), I’d give smell the nod there as well. I am the Steph Curry of odor-denial; I have been blessed with the ability to disable my olfactory receptors whenever I am confronted with a post-poop one-year-old or a NYC subway station during the afternoon rush in July. There is only one exception: I am unable to nose-mute men’s cologne.

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This dates back to Parental Date Night circa 1986, which was publicized to my sisters and me via the chemical pong of Dad’s cologne. Upon application, it wafted out of his bathroom and announced its presence with the hushed understatement of a feral mongoose. Even now, that cologne is smell-stamped on my brain; I could identify the faintest trace of it from two zip codes away. In terms of strength and incorruptibility, the bond between scent and memory ranks right up there with “mother and child” and “my college pal Chuck’s shoes and the rubber cement we slathered on the floor of his closet.”

Needless to say, then, fragrance marketing is a mystery to me. I don’t know how one even begins to go about conveying, “If you douse this substance liberally about your torso, hell yeah you’ll smell like Cher.” Indeed, celebrity associations appear to send fragrance sales through the roof, so that’s one approach. But what if you’re just some random chemist with a dream, a dream of helping people smell like sperm whale vomit?

That must’ve been the dilemma faced by Robert Graham, a clothesmaker of fashion-world repute but unknown to those of us who buy socks at Costco. For the brand’s most recent foray into the jasmine-kissed world of fragrances, Robert Graham made the excellent - and thoroughly nonsensical - decision to hand over a big honking chunk of the marketing budget to Wet Hot American Summer/The State heroes David Wain and Michael Showalter.

To sell the brand’s three new fragrances (“Fortitude,” “Valour” and “Courage”), Wain and Showalter have devised The Second Sound Barrier, a gloriously retro trailer to a ‘70s action flick that doesn’t exist. In it, three former friends brought together by cinematic circumstance - Charles Michael Fortitude, Roger Valour and Theolonius Courage - must reunite to save Lady Billionaire, who will perish unless the trio breaks “the second sound barrier.”

As mentioned before, this makes no sense, either within or outside the context of fragrance marketing - indeed, within/outside the context of pretty much anything. But the actors - among them, Vincent Kartheiser, Jeremy Sisto and Juliette Lewis - play it straight, which amplifies the absurdity even higher. There are action-movie nonsequiturs galore (“I’ve only got two speeds: fast and dead,” “well, I guess it really is Howdy Doody time, literally”) and there are, in no particular order, explosions, fights, multiple unmaskings, romance, peyote, a bulldog, a group dance, a robot with a German accent and a training sequence that requires the characters to walk down the stairs while balancing books on their heads. There is a *lot* packed into the video’s four minutes.

The Second Sound Barrier will probably confuse the hell out of half the people who encounter it, plus there’s no connection to the brand or product beyond the names of the protagonists. But who cares? It delivers silliness in a place where we’ve been trained to expect utter self-seriousness. That’s a real achievement. If you’ve got a more attention-grabbing way to introduce a new product in a glutted marketplace, an awful lot of marketers would love to hear it.

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