culture scentography

Smell is so emotionally potent that marketers are learning to manipulate aromas to craft “memory making experiences.” I’ve been following a trend in America where course-correcting consumers (and marketers) are in hot pursuit of “memoir-worthy moments” leading to new kinds of trade-offs (e.g., “should I go bungee jumping or buy a new dress? Which will be a more memorable experience?”).

extreme nation

Americans today seek intensity in virtually everything; from grocery shopping to shampooing, Americans expect moving, orgasmic experiences that titillate the senses and make us feel ALIVE. Extreme make-overs. Extreme sports. Extreme lashes. To make our lives more fulfilling and memorable, we’ve upped the ante on sensory experiences. We’ve become a culture of thrill-seeking synesthetes (mixing and compounding our senses). We live in hi-def: bigger, faster, crisper, sharper.  New science caters to this pumping-up-the-volume on sound, feel, sight, taste… and now smell.

I became interested in the cultural aspects of smell after reading that 43% of college students say that “book smell” is the thing they love most about books, not the content. I have a pleasant visceral response to “book smell,” “newspaper smell” and “magazine smell” that’s kept me from buying a Kindle.  However, with the avalanche of e-books on the market, and Google computer searches replacing library visits, I wondered how “book smell” will figure into or out of our culture in the future?  Then I learned that CafeScribe digital textbooks offers scratch and sniff stickers for e-books to emit nostalgic “musty old book smell” to appeal to students. This is an excellent example of using scent to manipulate behavior.

proust, memory and the smell of teen spirit

The story of Proust’s eureka moment – an “olfactory flashback” to his childhood  – triggered by the scent of a madeleine cookie illustrates that aromas and flavors from our past can reconnect us with the present world; our sense of smell is the sense that is most closely connected to our brain’s memory bank.  Fragrance both imprints memories and taps recollections (think: your teenage boyfriend/girlfriend’s deliciously smelly slept-in t-shirt). A smell that retrieves good memories and triggers positive emotional responses can make a huge impact on our mood (see story below).

Demeter's "dirt" scented spray. Combine with Mrs. Meyer's "geranium" scented household cleaners?

That’s why many retailers and museums are employing “mood designers” to shape nose-journeys where consumers are literally lead by the nose with fragrant “bread crumbs.” Check out Haque design’s Scents of Space project. For example, a Las Vegas casino found that slot machine gambling increased 45% when the floor was pumped with a pleasant aroma. About 8 years ago I launched a jewelry collection called SAISON fashion gold with custom packaging that was scented to smell like “crocodile leather” produced by Demeter. Demeter is a pioneer of aroma engineering with body/room sprays that smell like: laundry, snow, gin and tonic… and even dirt!

Aromatherapy, once niche but now mainstream, is rooted in the fact that familiar, comforting aromas sooth while less familiar and tangy aromas revitalize (think: energizing pine, ammonia smelling salts). I found numerous real estate blogs advising home stagers to, “have something baking in the oven – preferably pumpkin pie or cinnamon cake – during the open house to subconsciously signal ‘home’ to prospective buyers.”   I think our fear of the future is fuelling our desire to seek solace in our subconscious, hence our current cultural obsession with traditional, comfort foods and comfort fragrances.

vanilla nation

Hasbro's produced a limited-edition 1 oz. fragrance, eau de PLAY DOH. The scent of Play Doh fresh out of the can is reminiscent of childhood.

I learned that vanilla was only introduced to fragrances in the 1990s, and yet today it’s a dominant ingredient in many perfumes, environmental sprays and candles.  Interestingly, vanilla fragrance has been found to reduce stress and anxiety by 63% in cancer patients.  A vanilla smell has a naturally calming effect that reduces the startle-reflex in both humans and animals. The latter fact – that animals are also calmed by vanilla – is curious because fragrance experts attribute the popularity of vanilla to its comforting, creamy warm childhood associations with ice cream, Nilla Wafers, sweet treats and rewards. (Animals wouldn’t have the same vanilla triggers, hmmmm or could they?)

Vanilla is also basic, pure and simple, thus the expressions “plain vanilla” and “vanilla box.” Self-rewarding and pampering, as well as a craving for innocent pleasures and simpler, purer times are right on the 2010 zeitgeist, so no wonder vanilla dominates household and beauty products these days.

Personally, I don’t care to bathe in products that smell like food – pumpkin, vanilla, cinnamon, chocolate, strawberry, coconut – because it doesn’t convey “clean” to me, but rather dirty from cooking (think: 9 ½ Weeks). In fact, I can feel ill from sweet smells, which I’ve learned is now a bona fide pathology (we Americans love to name illnesses) called “cacosmia.”  (By the way, last summer while in France I noticed that the fragrances au current were grapefruit, watermelon and aloe. French baby products are not powdery, but citrus based.)  It’s too bad for me that I don’t like to wear food-based fragrances because studies report that the smell of “cinnamon buns and pumpkin pie” significantly boost male erections! Forget perfume, maybe I’ll just take up baking?!

silver seniors with shifting schnozzolas

Recently, a Boomer friend in her 60s, confided to me that she hasn’t been feeling sexy lately; her first strategy to get her “sexy back” was to change-up her perfume. This intrigued me because I know that as people age they lose their olfactory receptors, which affects both smell and taste. In fact, America’s culinary trend towards flaming flavors with sinus-clearing zing (think: wasabi peas, Spicy Guacamole Pringles) is attributed to the ageing Boomer palate.  Similarly, the explosion of hi-def environmental fragrance sprays (think: Febreze, Glade) and scented household products (think: Tide Pure Essentials, Ajax Ruby grapefruit dish soap) are also playing into dulled Boomer senses. It’s interesting how the demographics of a population, such as age, can shift culture and behavior so dramatically.

my 2-week experiment with age-defying perfume

AGELESS perfume with notes of pink grapefruit to trick the nose.

For the past 2 weeks I’ve been experimentally wearing a perfume called Ageless Fantasy: anti age perfume, which claims to trick the nose, giving off a scent that is roughly 6-8 years younger than the wearer’s actual age. The skin care category has long tackled anti-aging  catering to our obsession with youth, but the marketing proposition of an anti-aging perfume was new twist. So, I ordered a bottle online.

Each morning I’ve been dousing myself in anti-aging perfume that’s a bit honeysuckley and grapefruity, reminding me of something I wore when I was a teenager… which made me self-conscious that I might be coming off as “mutton in lamb’s clothing” (as they say in South Africa). On the subway to work I’ve been standing closer than usual to men and women of all ages, but mostly young ones, to see if they’re tantalized by my fresh fragrance. Or, perhaps intrigued by my youthful aroma that’s incongruous with my appearance?

I’ve also been taking dramatic strolls around the office in hopes of leaving a scented trail that might turn heads. In my mind I was hoping to experience a reenactment of a circa 1970s “Charlie” TV ad… Kind of young, kind of NOW: Charlie!  Kind of free, kind of WOW: Sarah!

Anyway, the result: nothing.  Which lead me to conclude:

•    New Yorkers have a very high weirdness threshold (my odd behavior and smell did not even raise an eyebrow)?
•    The fragrance isn’t appealing or I’m over-doing it, so it’s a turn-off, not a turn on?
•    The fragrance is innocuous: I’m not putting on enough or it doesn’t last?
•    I actually LOOK 6-8 years younger than my real age, so my new more youthful smell isn’t surprising (this is my preferred conclusion)?
•    My audience is “olfactory challenged” (which is entirely possible in stink-overloaded NYC)?
•    My audience is somehow immune to the fragrance?

scent-science: innovative smell manipulation technologies

I read about a company that patented a fragrance that smells like male sweat made from male pheromones. When a collection agency sprays its bills with this male B.O. scent, it sends a subconscious “threatening” breaking-kneecaps-type signal, which increases bill payments by 17%!  (My shocking Amex bill should have been sprayed with a “vanilla” fragrance to reduce its startle-effect!)   This illustrates the subliminal messages we can create with both perceptible and imperceptible scents that are delivered via: scented plastic, scented paint and ink, and even scented fabrics.

smell-o-vision is here

Portuguese designer Nuno Teixeira has designed the SMELLIT device for our TVs. Smell information is embedded in a DVD triggers the release of smells about 10-20 seconds before the scene. The SMELLIT works somewhat like a printer, with refillable aromatic cartridges (118 of them) that custom mix per the programmed smell information.

smell-phones are also here

Sony Ericsson has launched the DoCOMo SO703i scented cell phone. Fragrance is released from a replaceable strip near the hinge, activated with the phone is flipped open. The fragrance strips last about 3 months and come in variety of scents.

The study of “olfaction” is gaining momentum amongst the scientific community, as well as interest from laymen who cotton onto conspiracy theories rooted in behavior control through subconscious smell signals. (American culture loves conspiracy theories that suggest master plans and greater powers at work designing and controlling the world; an ironic comfort in a world seemingly out of control.)  Fueling this line of thinking is the US military which is exploring technology to use smell to silently signal orders: if you smell this, then do that.

scratch, sniff, diagnose

“Electronic noses,” as they’re called, are machines that read smells. While they’re used by perfumers, they’re starting to be used to “smell breath.”  Apparently, breath and body odor are unique forms of identification, and could be used for personal identification in the future.  In addition, disease and hormonal changes to the body (e.g., pregnancy, lung cancer) can be detected in one’s breath, so breath-readers may be a part of medical diagnostics in the future – beyond breathalyzer tests.  There’s research underway into installing breath-readers in phone receivers, which could be used for Internet medical diagnoses in the future…I can imagine “Skype Scope” and online dating sites that include pheromone matching?  It won’t be long until we have aroma-enhanced movie theaters to go with our 3-D vision.

actually, culture stinks

“Old people smell” is actually a fact; the body’s chemistry changes with age, and different chemicals and gasses are emitted from the skin (the body’s largest organ).  What we drink and eat is also emitted from our skin. As different cultures ingest different foods, spices and beverages, they also emit different smells. Some cultures put a greater value on the smell sense than others. Here in the West, the sense of smell is rather low on the sensory hierarchy – seeing, hearing, tasting and touching tend to dominate; smell is often ignored, and yet it’s such a powerful behavioral lever. In fact, western culture’s disrespect for the sense is evident in the negativity in “you smell” and “that stinks.”

Similarly, different cultures deal with smell and smelling differently.  Americans mask their natural body odors, whereas Arabs and Indians “read” people by their smells, which I experienced in those regions with invaded personal body space to enable “odor exchange.”  Some cultures believe that our souls and essences reside in our body odors, much like spirits coming alive thru incense. With the uber-competitiveness in America today, especially in the job market, I can imagine personal “scent stylists” designing subliminal “alpha” fragrances for ambitious clients.

Hmmm, I smell opportunity.


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