Perfume Pranksers: The Story of Black Satin

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I’m publishing this story on April 1st because it’s in the spirit of the silly stunt customary for this time of year. This story, of two fragrance entrepreneurs with a penchant for pranks, was one of my favourites when researching and writing my book. The perfume isn’t original, but my bottle suggests a very credible dirty, mossy jasmine in the style of many perfumes of the 1930s like Crepe de Chine.

I’m publishing the chapter here as an excerpt. Hope you enjoy!

 Black Satin
By Angelique, 1946

THE PUBLICITY-STUNT PERFUME

Angelique. A soft, gentle kind of a brand name. The sort of company we might imagine was cultivated by yet another aged Russian princess in exile who invited well-to-do women to pad around her exclusive salon for fragrant treats while drinking tea from a samovar.

Not a chance. Angelique, whose headquarters resided on Skunk Lane in Wilton, Connecticut, and whose manufacturing facility was nicknamed the ‘Skunkworks’, was the baby of two American execs, Charles N. Granville and N. Lee Swartout. They quit their tiring commuter-belt jobs and, together with their wives, created one of the most notorious consumer brands of the day. Despised and derided by much of the fragrance industry, Granville and Swartout were determined to blow apart the carefully cultivated mystique of the maisons des parfums.

Founded in 1946, Angelique leapt onto the scene like some court jester unleashing a flock of pigeons at a coronation banquet. Granville and Swartout, who had never worked directly in the fragrance industry, essentially thought this was an opportunity to make a quick fortune.

How hard could it be, given the massive margins on each bottle? The duo realised that many American women were still saving perfume for best, and so, with just one scent – Black Satin, for the ‘worldly woman’ – they embarked on a public relations campaign promoting abundant use from morning to night. Unfortunately, Granville and Swartout hit a problem: they hadn’t spotted that another brand had already filed the trademark for Black Satin, and before they’d really got going they had to remortgage their homes (and ask their wives to put up some of their jewellery) to negotiate a $22,500 buyout of the name. Once these teething problems were dealt with, Angelique stormed its way into the marketplace through a brilliant distribution strategy.

Perfume: A Century of Scents by Lizzie Ostrom

This involved selling Black Satin at US Navy shops and posting stations in the Far East, to reach military men engaged in the post-war clear-up who wanted to bring back presents for their wives and girlfriends. The product range was ingenious, including solid perfumes shaped like lipstick bullets and a collaboration with make-up maven Hazel Bishop to design pin brooches concealing a wad of sponge pre-soaked in the fragrance. Demand was stimulated when Angelique scented all its bank cheques with Black Satin to provoke intrigue among female clerks who processed the payments.

These tricks were small fry compared  with Granville and Swartout’s wider publicity plans. America’s towns and cities were about to be subjected to a very particular form of aerial bombardment. As LIFE magazine put it in a lengthy feature on the pair, ‘they have attacked potential customers by spraying perfume wholesale into city streets; they have delivered it in the form of a gigantic Easter egg lowered from a helicopter’.

In ‘Operation Odiferous’, the duo got hold of a load of dry ice and took it up in a plane, claiming it was perfumed with Black Satin. The site of their perfumed assault was the local town of Bridgeport, Connecticut, which was already under a thick blanket of snow. Residents were not impressed. One fellow took his snow shovel and hit his wife on the head when she told him what was about to happen. When he was then held in the town jail and questioned, he ‘refused to explain his act’, just breathed ‘kinda heavy’. He had, the reports noted, been shovelling out his driveway daily for twenty-two days already.

Imagine: thick winter for weeks, and then some bozos want to empty a load of scented ice onto your house. On the day of the stunt the press were out in droves for an event that was all in the anticipation, not the execution. Very few people actually detected the fragrance or noticed the dry ice amid the snow, and proposals to reprise the stunt in other cities were abandoned after asthmatics complained about the possibility of an allergy attack. This didn’t stop the pranks, though.

Next, for the launch of White Satin, Granville and Swartout hired twelve planes and a group of pin-ups christened the Bombadierettes. Each ‘took command’ of an aeroplane, this time dropping a perfumed cloud over Los Angeles, though, alas, the LA smog prevented the vapours from making it through. Undeterred, for the PR exposure was creating a frenzy of demand (sales had reached half a million dollars by 1949), Granville and Swartout moved on to machines that emitted perfumed bubbles, and cars that would make their way around Miami spraying Black Satin through the streets. Arguably, their low point came in the 1950s when they combined gallons of perfume with several tons of red dye (for Red Satin perfume) and poured the mixture into the Atlantic Ocean, supposedly so that the Gulf Stream could transport it to the United Kingdom in time for Christmas. We can only imagine how many fish died as a result of that little exercise.

Through this assortment of Willy Wonka escapades, the founders of Angelique did very nicely and Swartout left for the Virgin Islands on his earnings. But all was perhaps not what it seemed. Reports that the company had made a million in profits were thought to be dubious, and it was investigated for securities fraud. Black Satin was allegedly a beloved fragrance, bought on repeat by loyal customers, but was this really the case, or rather the genius puff of two hype monkeys who were masters of the emperor’s new clothes? What is certain is that the stunts, eventually, ran dry and by 1970 Black Satin was being advertised for a dollar in the classifieds, alongside plastic trashcans.

Granville and Swartout, ‘fragrance entrepreneurs and meteorologists’, were gone: poof, like a cloud burning off in a hot sky.

If you enjoyed this, you can buy Perfume: A Century of Scents now from all the usual stockists.

Copyright Odette Toilette © 2016