Baby Soft was born in 1974. The company that brought it to market, Menley & James, an imprint of the pharmaceutical bigwig Smith & Kline, had already been marketing beauty products to young women for several years. And yet, with the unveiling of Baby Soft, the company’s concept of “young women” was revealed to be really bloody gross.
The perfume’s slogan was “because innocence is sexier than you think,” and its most beguiling, bewildering magazine ad pictured a very young girl made up in creepy-sexy adult face: a proto JonBenet. In a corresponding early TV spot, a young woman timidly fellated a lollypop as a creepy male voiceover intoned that the fragrance captures the scent of “a cuddly, clean baby… that grew up very sexy.”
To make things weirder, in the same way that Seventeen is actually aspirational reading for pre-teens, Baby Soft wasn’t so much aimed at “young women” as it was at girls who were looking forward to being women in the future. A 1974 Gimbels department store ad in The New York Times declared Baby Soft “the new way for big girls to baby their bodies” and assured that it was “created with Gimbels young customer in mind.” Somebody, somewhere, seemed confused about the difference between babies, and girls, and women. That didn’t matter: If Baby Soft was not the very first perfume marketed for the coming-of-age set, it was certainly the first smash hit. Eventually, in the 1980s, the marketing angle shifted away from “sexy baby.” Instead, Baby Soft billed itself as a weapon of clandestine feminization. This was the era of shoulder pads — a time when being a strong woman was sometimes confused with being masculine. An ad from this era pictures a cool tomboy, hanging with her dude friends, and the line, “underneath it all, she’s baby soft.” Women were trying to figure out how to have it both ways; Love’s was selling girls a secret method. At the same time, the fragrance pulled out all the stops when it came to cornering the pre-teen market. In 1987, around Christmas time, it unveiled a “Baby Soft Cuddly Animal Prepack” containing no fewer than 12 stuffed animals, a move that, as a dry publication called Marketing Notes put it (drily), “capitalizes on pre-adolescent and adolescent girls’ lack of resistance to cute products.”