The Sweet Smell of Sales

| September-October 2010

  • sweet smell of sales billboard
    A billboard that emits the smell of black pepper and charcoal
    AP Images / Jeff Willhelm

  • sweet smell of sales billboard

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.”
10/15/2010 1:44:27 PM

I wonder if those ad execs would like to have the smell of my most recent bowel movement in their offices?

Ann Frye
10/15/2010 11:50:41 AM

Some scents give me a headache, some others a drippy nose, still others are just annoying. Chemotherapy and head trauma also can cause drastic changes in odor perception. It is incredibly stupid of a marketer to assume that the particular odor will generate business.

Joel House
10/15/2010 10:10:42 AM

Whether it's the smell or a turkey roasting at Thanksgiving or negative ions at the sea shore, we are all triggered by certain smells. The scent of your mother's hair, or the interior of you favorite old car, can cause an emotional response. At the fair, the hamburger stand may, when not busy, attract a horde of customers by tossing onions on the grill and turning on the fans. It's marketing. Nobody orders a plate of fried onions. But they do respond with hunger. This article is a wake up call for all of us. Sensory manipulation isn't new, Musak has been used to confuse and lull customers into impulse shopping for several decades. But injecting the air with unnatural chemicals for any purpose is frightening. To create complacency in a low income tenement is the ultimate in mind control. I'm pleased to see this article but saddened that it had to be written. My only hope is some of these "scents" will cause allergic reactions in a few Senator's kids and be banned forever.

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