Coming to terms with Tom Ford (maybe).

I’m partway through writing a Tom Ford Black Orchid review, and I wanted to take a moment (okay, a whole bunch of moments) to talk about the brand, first — and why I’m okay with writing about it, even though Tom Ford ads still totally give me bad-touch vibes.

(As a warning: this isn’t going to go any more in depth than your typical ninth-grade gender studies class, I’m afraid. You can’t cover much more than that in a sourceless 700 words.)

Despite the rave reviews that Tom Ford now gets from beauty bloggers, both in fragrance and in makeup, I’ve always held myself back from the line. After years of crude advertising to over-sexualized and dehumanize faceless women, we’re just supposed to — what, forget about it? Because they stopped running those ads so that they could appeal to a female consumer base, too?

tom ford for men ad 2008

Faceless Mariana Braga for Tom Ford for Men, 2007 – via 1

I’m still torn on this subject, but I do find myself more comfortable with the brand as time passes. I’d still never want to meet Mr. Ford or his marketing department in person, but, well, baby steps.

While Tom Ford’s male models are typically clothed and looking directly into the camera, and their female counterparts are frequently not–a common practice in displaying a strong patriarchal power dynamic, and just one of many issues people have with Tom Ford adverts–the brand is beginning to even out its advertising practices, with less-sexualized female models and more-sexualized male models. 

(Uh, is that even a good thing? That now we’re stripping down our male models and covering them in oil, too? Shouldn’t we maybe be aiming to not do that to anyone, instead?) There are older examples of this as well, as seen below — turns out that while Ford gets flack for sexualizing his female models, and he strips down and lays bare his male models, too.

But, of course, social context is incredibly relevant when it comes to things like the portrayal of the human body, and just because there are naked men and naked women does not mean that both are being represented the same way, nor are they sending the same messages.

Edited to add: To read more on context and male objectification, this post on Jezebel is great. A big thank you to one of our readers to emailing me about it — the viewpoints in the comments are so much more varied than I could have managed to fit in this post, and worth a look if you’d like to read more on the topic.

tom ford Jon Kortajarena 2009

Jon Kortajarena for Tom Ford Eyewear, 2009 – 2, 3

That said, Tom Ford is hardly the only brand that blatantly uses sex to sell its products, or reinforces this power dynamic. Gucci is another repeat offender who comes to mind; D&G, on the other hand, does a good job of using nudity in a sensual–rather than sexual–way, in my eyes.

I really respect that D&G have chosen older, well-established, publicly outspoken models, and photographed them in a way that seems more, “these iconic women and not-so-iconic men are doing a job that they chose to do, and were captured as professionals,” rather than, “cover  your eyes, we’re about to have a non-consensual orgy.”

D&G fragrance anthology

D&G Fragrance Anthology, 2009 – 4

What really made me alright with writing the Black Orchid review, however, was the diversity in Tom Ford fragrance advertising that I found. They’re actually doing better than all other fragrance brands in terms of ethnic diversity, with both Sahara Noir (Lais Ribeiro) and White Patchouli (Erykah Badu) both being represented by non-white models — almost unheard of outside of celebrity fragrances. Choosing Badu as the face of a fragrance really impressed me, in particular: she’s a 42 year old non-model grammy-winning singer and activist with natural hair.

(I’m not saying that all black women with natural hair are making a political statement, but dude. Erykah Badu is one badass woman.)

While doing research for this post, I couldn’t find a single other non-white face of a fragrance available to the North American market (again, save for celebrity fragrances). If you know of any, please let me know in the comments — in a society that likes to see itself as being “progressive,” it’s always incredibly disheartening to find one more area of life that’s still based so strongly on race, on visible genetics.

tom ford white patchouli ad 2008

Erykah Badu for Tom Ford White Patchouli, 2008 – 5

PS: On an entirely different note

Have you ever seen anyone apply skincare with this much INTENSITY before?! Jeez. I came across these images while googling for the photos above, and I couldn’t keep it to myself.

This guy is super hot, but also, like, super hilarious. I can’t even, you guys.

tom ford skincare for men 2013

Tom Ford Skincare and Grooming

Tom Ford FW 2013 2014 ad

Juan Betancourt for Tom Ford for Men Skincare and Grooming, 2013 – via

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  • ''*beastly howl* I'm feral MAN'' – that's what the last pictures *shouts* at me :P didn't know skincare was so serious!

    On a serious note- I'm glad you addressed this- it's exactly what I felt but since Tom Ford is so hyped in the blogosphere I simply avoid his products.

    My recent post Mundane Little Things That Amuse Me

  • Oh Rae! What an amazing post, and the end photos are totally hilarious. Can we just all imagine the first photo of Betancourt is how our significant others splash their faces in the bathroom? :D
    My recent post Winter Skin Saviours

    • You mean with water EVERYWHERE? :P Face-washing ads are always hilarious (but this one especially). Mmmm

  • Thanks for this thought-provoking post. I've honestly never thought too hard about the Tom Ford ads – he's always drawn on the 1970s-style hypersexualized look for inspiration. In keeping with the brand, the ads always have a slightly retro look and feel, reminiscent of old Playboy and Penthouse magazines from that era. I don't know whether it's right or wrong but that's his brand. But yes, those men's skincare ads are pretty funny!!

    • Posts like these always make me feel like I need to take an art history class (or three) — I'm not surprised that his aesthetic is a throwback, but I'd never have been able to give you the era or reference examples on my own! >.<

      You make a great point about how that's his brand, though — it really is. He wanted that shock factor, and whether or not it's socially constructive, he hit the nail dead-on.

  • I've always been a little weirded out by ads that chop people up into parts to fetishize (like legs, boobs, whatever). Or those that are borderline orgiastic. So I can understand why Tom Ford as a brand would leave a bad taste in your mouth. However, those last three photos made me laugh SO HARD. Mud masks are FIERCE, yo.
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    • Yeaaaah! "Now look like you're scolding the camera with your eyes, Juan. Scold it for not adhering to its skincare regimen."

  • Thanks for this post, Rae. I think it's an important topic that we don't often address. I would have more to say on the topic, but I'm supposed to be putting references in my paper and if I don't write an obnoxiously long comment, it's almost like I'm still doing actual work.

    Those last photos also completely made my day.
    My recent post 'Tis the Season: Red Lips

  • SdV

    D&G has one of the most sexualised adverts of their fashion line, we actually studied them in gender and politics where the female model is often surrounded by men, she is wearing high heels and tight clothing and pinned down ala group rape scenario. to be fair as a photographer I can accept that it makes for great imagery ala helmut newton but we sometimes have to think about what we're portraying and how we're doing it. btw that ad of badu is sublime.
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    • Dolce & Gabbana is pretty horrendous for the portrayal of women, but D&G does very well! (The lines are separate, for some reason.)

  • My bf sitting next to me says you can't go wrong with an ad for men that just puts the product for sale between boobs :) Love your insight and thanks for the laugh at the absurdity of some of these. They are so passionate about their manly skincare!
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  • abeautifulzen

    i really enjoyed reading this post. and in general enjoy when a bit more thought and analysis is put into the general swatch/review type posts. it's an interesting topic…the sexualization of women and men to sell products….i'm not too sure how i feel about it all too..

    man…that male model at the end…i feel like he comes with his own background music…
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  • anon

    you make excellent points! thank you!

    tom for is still a no-no in my book. although i like some of his products, his attitude and the way he "frames" women is just too much. you'd think he'd show more respect to his primary clientele.

    • Are we, though? The women's TF fragrance range is relatively new, I believe — I had always assumed that most of their profits were from their menswear line (until recently).

    • Lindsey

      You'd think that he'd show more respect period. People shouldn't have to be part of your bottom line in order to not be treated like objects.

  • …"typical ninth-grade gender studies class…"

    But Rae, no such thing exists! It probably should, though.

    • :o

      That's a pretty good point. I got one in English class, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't curriculum — I just happened to get lucky enough to land an awesome feminist for a teacher.

  • I'm glad you wrote this. As a perfumista I love many of Tom Ford's Private Blends, and Black Orchid, and so far I've just mostly dismissed his advertising with eyerolling, but it is something that is terribly irritating. I think, as Louise pointed out, since the style of all of his ads is ridiculous over-the-top larger-than-life, I've just chalked it up to a caricature of machismo. (Also, whether validly or invalidly, since he is gay I take the heterosexual testosterone driven ads much less seriously even though I realize that their impact in the world doesn't change with that fact.) I really love his fragrances though, and how his more overt feminines aren't the thin girly dreck that's out there and I think they really challenge what is meant for men and what is meant for women. I guess in my mind, based on the fragrances, the Tom Ford woman is a sexy, powerful intellectual, not the body parts that are in the men's ads. If Sahara Noir had been marketed as a masculine I wouldn't have blinked (and I am all cross the aisle wear what you like) but I love that it is marketed for women. I hope that as he expands his women's line we get over-the-top "woman-on-top" ads too because honestly that would be both awesome and hilarious. Also thought the Neroli Portofino ads were super cute but also eyeroll-worthy.

    • Thank you so much for the in-depth comment, Catherine! It's so nice to see you in the blogosphere (I miss your posts) :)

      I really agree with your interpretation of the fragrances: the women that they seem to be made for aren't anything like the women in his mens' ads. I think the over-the-top "woman-on-top" ads you mentioned could be great, if done right — just enough sexualization and hopefully it'll open up a discussion about the reverse (turning women into body parts), too. Could be a bad thing; could be a (sneakily) good thing, just depends on who you ask and how it goes!

  • Very well written post – plus the last pictures are hillarious lol!! x
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  • Some of the pictures make me feel kind of uncomfortable, lol :-)

    • Thank you for sharing. I think this opens up such a wonderful avenue of discussion: if an ad takes it so far that it makes the consumer uncomfortable, why do we even allow it?

  • Kate & Zena

    And here we go again with the perfume-crammed-between-nipple-erased-big-boobs shots. UUUUUUUUUUUGH. *slams head on desk*

    I love how you are able to balance feminist thoughts while still thinking about your audience. For me, I would have been spewing my feminist touting ways and how demeaning it was to women that we were still hypersexualized. But yes, men are now being hypersexualized, and if you think about it, is that really a good thing? No. Is it "evening the playing field?" I don't think so. Why can't nude photos be artistic nudes (that Tom Ford one on the top? Uh, not an artistic nude. That's pretty much soft core pornography.)

    That D&G photo makes me laugh because it's a sheer Photoshop disaster. I mean, how can the people be standing and that one sitting girl be at the same level as the others? Um, height issue! It cracks me up (especially that dude in the bottom right. He just looks like an after thought!)

    And that guy with the water dripping down his face is sexy. Yummy.

    • Thank you so much for your response, Kate! I'm an ardent feminist, but I always try to view things from a balanced viewpoint all the same — yes, I think these ads can be demeaning for women, and (because of societal context) they're more harmful than nudes of men, but everything with a grain of salt. I'd hate to close off a discussion before it even started, and (while not as immediately harmful imo), objectifying men is still the opposite of socially constructive!

      And the D&G photo — yeah. The heights make sense if you imagine out-of-frame stools, though! If you imagine 'em hard.

  • Sex sells, right?

    … that said, it still appeals to me in a primal sense, even if afterwards I think: Hmm I feel uncomfortable and disgusted.
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  • Lindsey

    Tom Ford icks me out, too. I've never liked his brand or his public persona.

    I'm glad that more and more people are taking time to think about how things are branded and sold. As advertising media becomes more prominent in our lives, we need to start making some conscious choices about what content we find acceptable and not acceptable.

    Businesses are not going to behave ethically. They are going to do whatever they can do to generate attention because it generates money for them. If the Tom Ford brand is treating women better recently, it's not because they've had a change of heart and have decided that women deserve more respect – it's because they want our money. As consumers, we can shrug and say "oh well, sex sells" or we can highlight the negative aspects – like you've done – so that sex will start selling less and less.

    • I think a lot of businesses are actually beginning to behave more ethically, but you're right — that's so far from the overarching theme. I agree that Tom Ford is toning down their racy image to appeal more to their female customers, and shrugging it off just doesn't make sense to me.

      Tom Ford is kind of like Cosmo, in my head: they operate on "sex sells" at full throttle, but at least you know exactly what you're getting yourself into. Cosmo Girl, on the other hand (does that even still exist?) seems almost worse — all of the slightly-hidden messages about sex are still selling products, but the consumer is less aware of it. It just seems so much more insidious, and so much harder to tackle, when the consumer is buying based on "sex appeal" without acknowledging it.

      I'm not excusing blatantly sexual ads by any means, but it's something I've been thinking about recently! Tom Ford is great because it gives us something very apparent to tackle: it gives us the opportunity to create goodness from its negativity.

  • toyarosie

    I actually had a good out loud chuckle at those last men's skincare ads…hahah that masque! Too funny.

    I have to admit that I'm woefully ignorant when it comes to advertising, mostly because I tend to breeze past it in an effort to 'get to the good stuff' so to speak. I'm not terribly swayed nor interested in advertising; having said that, I'm not terribly in love with the idea of sexualizing women (or men) to make a buck. If nothing else, you've given me pause, because while I haven't tried any Tom Ford products (due to inaccessibility), I've always wanted to – but I do tend to lean toward brands with a solid "good* message and shy away from ones that seem to have values that don't align with my own. Consider me informed. Thank you, Rae! :D
    My recent post The Most Expensive and Glorious Body Product I Own: Lina Hanson Global Body Serum (Review)

    • Thank you for your comment, Toya! I don't feel like I'm swayed by advertising either, but it still bugs me sometimes. (Okay, by "sometimes" I mean "I can barely even make it through a magazine anymore because the ads leave me with such a sour taste in my mouth," but, well. Potay-to, po-tah-to.)

      I haven't found a scent as wonderfully brash and sexy as Black Orchid so far, but I plan on continuing to look. Hopefully it'll be by a company with more of a solidly "good" message ;)

  • I really enjoyed reading this post. very interesting one :) glad i have found you <3 following you now :)

  • Rae, this post makes me so very happy. That first image has actually turned me off quite a bit from Tom Ford, despite the recent ethnic diversity in their advertising. ALL the feminist rage! At this point, you'd think I'd be more desensitized to this kind of thing. but the more I look at it, the more unsettled and troubled I feel. In a very icky moment, I realized that the bottle could be (and probably was intended to be presented as) a placeholder for something else and now I hate myself.

    You might be interested in this "sex object test" I reblogged from Tumblr a while ago:

    Re: that Jezebel article, I wonder if you saw this comment and laughed like I did: "Ladies have to put very little work into getting to that media imposed standard of beautiful. "
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    • LOL, yup. I read that to — geez, you'd have to have your head SO far into the sand to believe that.

      I'm not personally a fan of Tom Ford's marketing choices, but they do have a very good track record of using ethnic and male models — if you google TF male nudes, they date back just as far (perhaps even farther) than their female ones, and many are just as sexualized. I see TF as the Cosmo to the rest of the industry's Cosmo Girl: both are hyper-sexualized, but one of them (TF) is blatant, while the rest are more insidious.

      What really gets me, I guess, is that as much as I disagree with their aesthetic, Tom Ford always makes good choices with their models. It's not just race or gender, but everyone is always very clearly of-age, and they never look uncomfortable or pressured. But, well, that's just my two cents. The fact that Tom Ford gets flack while brands like Dior waltz away completely scot-free has always really bugged me — have you seen the new Dior Addict videos? Those ones made me super uncomfortable for SO many reasons, and I haven't heard a single negative thing about them. Underage, underweight, undervalued — they literally hit every single "NO" that they could have, but because they did it in a "fun" way (catchy music, rather than 70's-inspired grease), no one raised a peep about it.

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  • glambunctious

    OMG, I've never seen anyone apply under eye depuffer with more wolverine intensity. That guy should definitely get the Blue Steel Medal for 2013.
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