It's a sad day in adland with the news that Robert R. Taylor, the man responsible for Calvin Klein's most legendary fragrance campaigns – including Kate Moss's Obsession ads with Mario Sorrenti – has passed away at 77.
When the beauty entrepreneur and relentless marketer bought Calvin Klein Cosmetics in 1980, most perfume campaigns fell neatly in two camps: testosterone-soaked, hyper-masculine adverts to appeal to alpha males and straightforwardly sexy campaigns for working women (e.g. this Enjoli advert soundtracked by the words "I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan").
Taylor, who was no stranger to innovation – among other things, he introduced the first fruit-fragranced shampoo and invented the first liquid hand soap with a pump – decided that Calvin Klein Cosmetics had to do something new, and introduced a new advertising era of ambiguity-soaked sex and glamour. Starting with this 1985 campaign for Obsession:
Unashamedly pretentious, theatrically camp, it played with then-taboo themes of girl-on-girl romance. The ad, along with a few other variations, ran on television and raised eyebrows for its out-there tagline "Between love and madness lies obsession", and was even parodied by Saturday Night Live (a PR-boosting coup that Taylor undoubtedly loved).
It introduced viewers to the object of Calvin Klein's Obsession: an unknowable, capricious woman who was always a few feet out of reach. Under Taylor's reign, a more subdued, but equally emotionally florid and intense campaign debuted in 1992 with the teenaged Kate Moss:
Moss and her then-boyfriend, 21-year-old photographer Mario Sorrenti, were packed off with a film crew to the Virgin Islands to film the commercial. "Obsession... Obsession..." Kate repeats, as the camera veers behind her in terrifyingly intimate close-up. In another, we hear Sorrenti himself confessing, "I love her".
It was a natural evolution of Taylor's strategy: from the archness of the 80s original to the lo-fi approach of its 90s counterpart, the Obsession campaign turned advertising on its head. Competitors promised to make buyers more attractive to the object of their desire. For Robert R. Taylor and Calvin Klein, fragrance was about the unattainable, the untouchable – and it was an approach that created some of the industry's most legendary images.
Rest in peace, Robert.
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