You may think you make your own buying decisions. But not for long.
Soon, your nose will tell you how to spend your money.
According to an article in today’s NY Times, more and more companies are scenting their products. And our noses are hyp-mo-tized! The article talked about a scientific study that proves this technique works:
In one experiment, the researchers, posing as marketers, asked 151 college students to examine a brand-name pencil, along with a 10-point list of its selling points. Some of the pencils were unscented, and some had been dosed with pine or tea tree oil. Two weeks later, the average student could not remember a single attribute of the scentless pencil, but remembered more than three attributes of the scented pencils. Students were not provided with the scent, which could jog their memory.
Now, an unscented pencil is actually pencil-scented. That’s its own smell. But other than that, this experiment makes sense, right? Smell memory is so strong. I wish people’s names could be scented. That would save a lot of embarrassment.
Then again, what if someone’s name had a scent I hated? I’d probably hate that person.
Be it names or pencils, you never know what effect a smell is going to have on different people. Picking a scent for your product is a big crapshoot. I can see why pine might seem like a safe bet – because it’s naturally fresh and smells like Christmas. But I probably wouldn’t buy something that smelled like pine, because I associate it with:
- Taxi cab air fresheners, which try hard but always fail to mask BO or stale cigarette smoke or the driver’s bologna sandwich.
- A Glade Plug-in, usually found in the same kind of bathrooms that have shag-rug toilet covers.
- Pre-Christmas. When I smell real, fresh pine I get the “haven’t bought anyone’s present yet” feeling. And the feeling that goes with it, a humbug anxiety I call “where did all these people come from and why did I choose to walk on 5th Avenue?”
Another big mistake, if you want me to buy your pencil or develop brand loyalty, would be to to use peach scent. Whenever I smell something peach-scented, I don’t think of peach. I think of peach soap. I hate peach soap. Another thing that makes me think of plush toilet covers. This aversion has been handy, actually: I used to be severely addicted to Tasti-D-Lite, until that stinky soap store Sabon started popping up next to every Tasti-D-Lite location. You can’t buy Tasti-D-Lite in my neighborhood without smelling some really shitty soap.
Now that I’m thinking about it, Mr. Vice President in Charge of Product Scent: If you’re going to use a turn-off smell like pine or peach to sell me something, you may as well go the distance and use one of these other evocative aromas:
- Talcum powder. My parent’s bathroom closet always did, and still does, smell like Johnson and Johnson baby powder. As a kid, when I looked in that closet, I’d get a whiff of powder and an eye full of tampons, Tucks medicated wipes, and other grownup things I didn’t want to see.
- Old lettuce. This makes me think of slugs, which I used to capture and then keep for several days in a jar with a leaf of iceburg or romaine. One time, a slug escaped and I couldn’t find him anywhere. Then, later, when I was eating Rice Krispies, I tasted something awful that made me gag. Looking back, I think it was just a burnt Krispy, but when my mother said, “maybe you ate the slug,” I believed her.
- Inside of a plaster cast. You know, when the doctor removes it? (If you’ve never smelled this, it’s just like the inside of a sweaty leather watch band.) When I was 11, I accidentally sat on my sister’s arm and broke her wrist. I was a chubby kid. Can you imagine the embarrassment of breaking someone’s bone just by sitting on it? Yet I was compelled to run into my sister’s room and sniff the musky, graffiti’d cast, which she’d kept as a memento of her pain. So to me, that unwashed skin odor is the smell of shame.
- Burnt hair. In first grade, at someone’s class birthday party, Nina Lurie’s* hair caught fire from the candle in her cupcake. Ever since, I’ve been so terrified this would happen to me that I won’t even light matches. On the other hand, I still love the smell of candle wax because it reminds me of cup cake frosting, which you of course lick off the candle. That would be a good pencil scent.
- Outhouse. I know, nobody likes the smell of outhouse. But I’m especially repulsed by it because the hippy camp I went to for 3 summers didn’t have indoor plumbing — just outhouses. Except they weren’t called outhouses, they were called KYBOs. Stood for Keep Your Bowels Open. KYBOs had no doors for privacy – just three walls, and a plank with two holes in it, so you and a buddy could sit and do your business side-by-side. It’s one thing going to the bathroom in a stinky place, but couple that with fear of having someone join you? I dreaded the KYBO.
- Dog urine. Again, no one’s favorite. But here’s why it effects me in a special way: to train our Cairn Terrier puppy, who we got when I was nine, we had this fake dog urine product you were supposed to sprinkle on newspaper. It smelled just like the real deal. The whole bottle fell over one day and spilled inside the broom closet, so our kitchen pantry smelled of dog pee for about 20 years.
- Eternity by Calvin Klein. I wore it in 1990, junior year of college. I also used to run 10 miles a day, so my little room smelled like sweaty lycra gym pants and sickly sweet perfume.
- Temple Rodeph Sholom on the Upper West Side. I know it’s not fair to group my synagogue with dog urine. I had my bat mitzvah there. But the building has a particular scent, and I’ve never walked in there without thinking of Hebrew School, which my parents forced me to attend. The teacher, Rivka Cohen, used to scream “SHEKET!!!” (Hebrew for “shut up”) and throw the blackboard eraser at our heads.
- Spearmint. Sounds like a natural winner, right? But spearmint jelly is what we used to put on our leg of lamb. Bright green, from the jar. I have no problem with this combo, but to me spearmint equals leg of lamb. I don’t want anything to smell like leg of lamb except for leg of lamb.
Now, if you really want my brand loyalty, I recommend one of these scents:
- Bubble gum. More specifically, bubble gum eraser. That’s what my whole collection of Hello Kitty stuff used to smell like. I loved Hello Kitty.
- Basement. I’ve always loved that smell, possibly because the damp basement in our country house was where we kept the pinball machine I got for my birthday. It wasn’t a real pinball machine like they had in arcades – just a toy store version that always went on “TILT.” But still, the basement was the place for fun.
- Sawdust. In grade school, shop class was my favorite. Even though I couldn’t hammer straight. And even though the shop teacher, Ralph, was a big man who sometimes pretended he didn’t hear your question until you’d asked four times. At which point he’d yell, “I HEARD YOU!” This is especially intimidating from a large man holding an electric drill. I guess I really loved making things with wood.
- Shellac. See above. The most exciting part of shop class is when you finish building and get to the shellac phase.
- My husband. I know, that’s so corny. I loathe commercials where a woman is dancing around wearing her husband’s hat and sniffing his manly shirt. But my husband smells really good. He wears Commes Des Garcon “Incense.” I guess it’s trademarked, but I’d definitely buy a pencil that smelled like that.
What smell would make you whip out your credit card? Or not? Share them. I could talk about smells all day.
*Names changed to protect the partially singed.