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David Zax

A View from David Zax

To Catch the Eye, Attack the Nose

Will so-called “smell-vertising” become commonplace?

  • July 26, 2012

Our ears and eyes are accustomed to advertising; on TV, on the radio, on the web, we’re constantly assaulted by commerce’s pitch. How long, though, until Madison Avenue (and its global counterparts) goes after your nose?

Maybe not that long at all. A paper to be presented at a forthcoming conference shows that so-called “smell-vertising,” for better or worse, really works. Researchers affiliated with Tokai University have demonstrated that when a sign emits a scent, consumers are more likely to take a look at the advertisement. Not only that, but they’re going to look at it for twice as long as when they’re not blasted with a whiff of, say, strawberry.

The idea of using smell for advertising is an old one; you smell its fruits, so to speak, every time you open Vanity Fair to a cologne ad. But advertisers have taken it to new levels this year. In England, for instance, a company pitching its microwaveable baked potatoes decided to experiment with scented billboards at bus stops. Pressing a button prompted the release of a spray of potato-scented mist.

Way back in ’06, even, the California Milk Processor Board dabbled in this sort of thing, by wafting the scent of chocolate chip cookies at bus stops. They shouldn’t have tried it in hyper-sensitive San Francisco: anti-obesity organizations and advocates for the homeless quashed the stunt within 36 hours. (No worries, the campaign only cost $300,000.)

Others have dabbled in similar ideas of late: a Brooklyn grocery store that thought “the fastest way to its customers’ pockets is through their noses,” for instance. Smelling food, after all, makes you hungry–and any consumer knows that shopping hungry is a game in which the house always wins. Entire companies have sprung up around the idea of including smells in unlikely places: the Brooklyn supermarket’s smell was powered by one called ScentAir, for instance. There’s even something called the Scent Marketing Institute. A company called ScentAndrea is dabbling in something it calls “Scent-A-Vision,” which can pair a smell of your choosing “with any movie or DVD.”

The main problem with scented advertising? In many cases, it’s just too expensive. AdWeek snarkily summed up and dismissed the idea back in January (“Still a Tough Smell”). Until the return-on-investment is definitely shown to be beneficial here, it’s unlikely that brands will adopt smell-vertising broadly. 

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