Now smell this

Savvy consumer marketers are proving that the way to your pocketbook is through your nose.

Topics: Environment, Advertising, Science

In a German movie theater last month, audience members waiting for the feature wondered why they were seeing people lounging on a beach. After 60 seconds of waves and seagulls, a tag line for Nivea sunscreen appeared, and the scent of Nivea wafted into the theater through the air-conditioning vents.

Later, a survey showed that audience recall of the smelly ad was 500 percent higher than for the scent-free version. Whether moviegoers enjoyed the scent of sunscreen with their popcorn was not recorded. But that’s a number that advertisers certainly recall — and one that proponents of scent marketing love to broadcast.

“Scent will soon be a normal part of advertising and entertainment,” says Carmine Santandrea, owner of a scent marketing company in Santa Barbara, Calif. After circulating the smell of milk chocolate in the vicinity of a vending machine, he says, he saw a “sales lift of 300 percent for Hershey Kisses. That’s never happened in advertising before. Those results can’t be ignored.”

Neither can an odor. While you can turn a magazine page or change a television channel, you can’t avoid inhaling. “That’s the good and bad thing about scent — you can’t get away from it,” says Harald Vogt, founder of the Scent Marketing Institute. “In our environment, everything already smells. The question is how you manage the smells.”

The idea of scent in advertising is not new. Back in 1965, Santandrea created a scented Coke pavilion at the World’s Fair in New York. But science has now given Madison Avenue powerful new tools to fulfill its odorous promise. Today’s chemists, for instance, can capture the scent of a strawberry in varying stages of ripeness by taking samples of the air around the berry with a gas chromatograph. The bigger development, according to Avery Gilbert, author of “What the Nose Knows,” is that chemists can develop recipes for any smell, down to a single molecule.

“There’s a plant in the Sierra Nevada in the summer that gives off a cooked artichoke smell,” Gilbert says. “The Indians knew about it; John Muir noticed it. It’s called Sierra Mountain Misery. I took a sprig and sent it to a chemist and found that the smell comes from one molecule that makes up less than 1 percent of the entire formula.”

Scent marketing has also become more sophisticated because of what we’ve learned about olfaction. Smell may be the least lauded of the senses, but it’s the one most closely connected to our moods and recollections. (The loss of it, called anosmia, can produce tremendous anxiety and depression.) Memories inspired by fragrance are more emotional than those triggered by sights or sounds. In studies, scent-elicited memories cause subjects to mention more emotions, rate them as more intense, and report more of a feeling of being back in the time and place relevant to a smell. Catching a whiff of the perfume your grandmother wore is likely to bring back stronger memories of her — and the feelings associated with her — than seeing her photo.

That can happen before you are even conscious of the scent. That’s because an incoming odor proceeds directly to your limbic system, which handles memories and emotions; non-olfactory perception must go to the hypothalamus and then on to the cortex for further analysis. “Scent goes right to your emotions,” Santandrea says. “And if I can appeal to your primal senses, I’ve got you. That is what advertisers do. If you find that offensive, you have a problem with all of advertising.”

Scent marketing is not limited to products that have an inherent aroma, like Hershey’s Kisses; items such as clothing or stereos have their own universe of “scent abstractions” to brand themselves. Smell for yourself: Walk into the Samsung store on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and you may notice a melon aroma. Westin Hotels envelop guests with their White Tea fragrance. (Now you can buy Westin-scented candles to enjoy the hotel smell at home!)

Extensive research preceded the introduction of those scents. Companies start with a “fragrance brief,” describing the scent image they want to project. Fragrance vendors then create scents they imagine fulfill the descriptions. Because Samsung and Westin are global brands, and there is no globally agreed upon pleasant smell, they had to be certain that the scents would not be offensive anywhere.

“To use something ‘fruity’ and ‘light’ is the best bet for any scent marketing effort that is not connected to a product,” Vogt says. “A good example for a product-related scent is Thomas Pink’s ‘Line Dried Linen’ that smells, well, just like it. If you don’t have such a product, you look at your target audience, what they prefer and use, and start from there.”

Some people find smell advertising offensive, akin to subliminal advertising. But Gilbert has a quick defense. “If a pizzeria is venting out onto the street, and the smell makes you want pizza, is that somehow mind control?” he asks. “Scent is a weird channel that people don’t think about on regular basis. Once it becomes more standardized, people will get over it.”

Maybe they’ll even like it. Stores like Samsung want to forge a fragrance bond that creates positive feelings, customer loyalty and increased spending. Research gives them hope.

One study put a floral scent in an area of a casino over a weekend; gamblers there spent 45 percent more money than on other weekends, while the results for unscented areas of the casino remained unchanged. An Iowa State University study showed that introducing a pleasant scent caused shoppers to have more positive attitudes about a selection of sleepwear, as well as a willingness to pay more. But the scent needs to be congruent with the merchandise; a Lily of the Valley fragrance created the positive reaction, but the smell of Sea Mist, though judged to be enjoyable, didn’t have the same results with sleepwear sales.

That incongruity probably led to the 2006 backlash against scented ads in San Francisco. As part of a “Got Milk?” campaign, ads in San Francisco bus shelters were imbued with a chocolate-chip-cookie aroma. The idea was to make people crave milk. They didn’t. Complaints poured in, and the aromatic milk ads came down after just one day.

Commuters just didn’t understand why they would smell baked goods out there, says Rachel Herz, a visiting professor at Brown University and author of “The Scent of Desire.” “They’re in a bleak bus stop and they’re smelling something that doesn’t fit,” she says. She warns that people tend to judge unexpected and unfamiliar smells as unpleasant. “Our interpretation typically jumps to the negative,” she says, and that’s especially true post-9/11, as people are still sensitive to an unusual stimulus of any kind.

Even with all the ongoing olfactory research, much about odor remains mysterious. Chemicals with different structures may smell similar, while those with nearly identical structures can smell completely different. That’s a particular challenge to scent manufacturers trying to design the perfect scent. “If you take a novel assortment of odorous molecules, we cannot predict what that will smell like,” says Northwestern University neurology professor Jay Gottfried. “If we mix amyl acetate — a banana smell — with eugenol — a clove smell — there are no rules to say how the mixture will be perceived.”

Gender and experience, context and memory determine how an odor molecule is interpreted. When Herz had subjects sniff something identified as Parmesan cheese, they liked the smell. A week later she presented the same odor, telling subjects it was vomit. They found it revolting.

With so much ambiguity and sensitivity surrounding our olfactory systems, scent marketers have considerable responsibilities, Vogt says. They should not put their products in public spaces like bus shelters or spritz consumers without their invitation. And even though reputable scent marketing companies in the U.S. use approved fragrances, Vogt acknowledges safety concerns with foreign products; the Scent Marketing Institute is now establishing industry standards.

Even so, companies know there will be complaints — Vogt recently received an e-mail with a subject line that read, “You are making us sick.” A vocal population considers itself chemically sensitive, and scent marketers have already become a target elsewhere. Halifax, Nova Scotia, has declared itself a completely fragrance-free city. “In some Scandinavian countries, they’re legislating against letting vaporous scents into the air,” Santandrea says. “We’re going to have legislation against us. But if the scent doesn’t cling to you, we have a right to do it.”

Santandrea insists that scent marketing helps consumers by giving them information. “We’re democratizing scent,” he says. “Shopping is merely hunting, and in the past when we hunted, we used our noses to inform us of what we were coming to.”

At least for now, practical limitations remain. With many different smells mixing in the mall, the results could quickly become unpleasant. After 15 minutes or so, the nose adjusts to a scent and stops perceiving it. And when you go from one scented store into another, the fragrance of the second store may seem distorted to you, or hardly smell at all.

Still, efforts to introduce scent to everything seem irresistible. A few years ago we almost witnessed the release of iSmell, a “personal scent synthesizer” that would have released odors from scented Web sites and e-mails out of your computer. Although the company involved fell victim to the dot-com bust, the technology is available.

Motorola has a “smell-o-phone” in the works (so you can look forward not only to hearing the conversation of the person next to you but to smelling it too. Scent-a-Vision should be available in the next two or three years, according to Santandrea, who has invented an appliance that synchronizes scent tracks with movies. Some techno clubs have hired ODO7, an “aroma jockey,” who mixes smells onstage to add a “third dimension of entertainment.”

Those kinds of applications, Gilbert says, likely hold the key to scent’s future. “There will be a breakthrough in a popular culture application — clubs, concerts, maybe scented artwork,” he says. “Maybe then there will be a quiet revolution and scented ads will be no more ominous than billboards in Times Square.”

Suzanne Bopp is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Utne Reader and Self.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>