by Rachel North, MSW
Recently a popular, couture, and high-priced fashion company, Yves Saint Laurent (YSL), offered a product to consumers: a perfume branded ‘Black Opium.’ The newest advertisement, produced in 2014, featured mostly the advertising norm—a young, thin, empirically attractive model turning an inanimate object, (in this case, the perfume), into something sexualized. What stands out in this advertisement as additionally upsetting is the sexualization and glorification of something dangerous and in many cases lethal: opium.
The website advertisement reads:
“Discover Black Opium, the new feminine fragrance by Yves Saint Laurent. With a glam rock aesthetic, this addictive gourmand floral entices with notes of black coffee for a shot of adrenaline, white florals to instantly seduce, and vanilla for sweetness and sensuality.” See more here.
The problems regarding the advertisement run the gamut. The name of the product itself, the highlighting of the words “addictive,” “adrenaline,” and “seduce” in the advertisement, and connecting the product and opiate use to “glam rock,” an industry devastatingly inundated with drug overdoses.
Simply using the name ‘opium’ in the branding of a high fashion product is a gross testament to the ignorance of the YSL advertising campaign managers. We will be generous here, and offer that maybe they just do not know what they are dealing with. YSL ad executives must not be aware that “opiates and opioids top the list of problem drugs that cause the most burden of disease and drug-related deaths worldwide”. So that we don’t have to think of this campaign as barbaric, we have to assume that they also simply do not know that of the 183,000 global drug overdose deaths in 2012, the largest category was opioid overdose. The Center for Disease Control reports that of the 22,767 deaths related to pharmaceutical drugs in the US in 2013, 71% were due to opioid analgesics or opioid painkillers, but this report must not have come across the desks of anyone at YSL. They could not have read that Canada’s rate of opioid overdoses increased by 242% between 1991 and 2010. Or, sadly, that in Yves Saint Laurent’s home community of France, 81% of all drug-related deaths were opiate-induced. We should hope that they are just not informed of these circumstances, because if they were, what would that mean for the advertisers?
It gets worse. The actual website features a video, which you can view by clicking here. The video highlights the same model—young and very thin—wearing all black. She wakes up in the middle of the night and fumbles over the top of her nightstand looking for something. When she can’t find it, she throws on a pair of stilettos, sprints through city streets and underground tunnels, and stops into a building where she finds a man. She grabs the Black Opium perfume from his hand, leans against a wall, sprays herself, and leaves the audience staring at a facial expression of relief and gratification. The video ends with the words: “Need your dose of fragrance?”
There is clearly no hiding the parallel between this product and opiate drug use. There is also no question that the intention is to make this product look sexy and enticing. The problem is that while advertisers make the product sexy, they also make opiate drug use sexy. Evidence abounds that it is anything but.
As it turns out, the entire “Opium” line was introduced in the 1970’s and became subject to much criticism in following years. A group of Chinese Americans lashed back against YSL, describing the labeling of the product as insensitive to the opium epidemic that had enormous negative consequences for China. However, no changes to the product name were made. Later, in the early 2000’s, the product line was criticized for its over-sexualization of the model in the advertisement. Since the backlash from a group of bold Chinese Americans nearly four decades ago, the product and its makers have never been brought to light because of their insensitivity to and minimization of the opioid epidemic occurring on a global scale.
At a time when families and communities around the world continue to face devastating consequences associated with opiate overdose, it is dangerous and irresponsible to popularize a product that encourages and directly relates use of the drug with high fashion and beauty.