The Sweet Smell of Sales

sweet smell of sales billboard

A billboard that emits the smell of black pepper and charcoal

AP Images / Jeff Willhelm

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Having mastered sight and sound, marketers are now manipulating our least-understood sense—smell. A form of sensory branding called “ambient scenting” is popping up in every corner of industry, reports BusinessWeek (June 21, 2010). The idea is to elicit an unconscious behavior or emotion, like splurging on lingerie at Victoria’s Secret or feeling extra cozy at a Marriott Hotel, by pumping a carefully chosen smell into a space.

The applications are decidedly diverse. In cooperation with green consultant and Utne Reader visionary Majora Carter, for example, two elite perfumers recently developed L’Eau Verte du Bronx du Sud—a scent meant to trigger happiness and optimism and destined for the common areas of a low-income housing development. Then there’s the billboard, described on industry blog Neuromarketing (June 7, 2010), equipped with fans that waft a savory, grilled-steak, heck-why-not-stop-at-the-supermarket aroma during rush hour.  

Good’s Siobahn O’Connor is both intrigued and concerned. “The fragrance industry is secretive and trades largely in toxic chemicals that are known allergens and likely hormone disruptors,” she writes on the magazine’s blog (June 21, 2010). And “subjecting people (often without their knowledge) to fragrances that affect their emotions and behaviors strikes me as a slippery slope.”