By Ed Cohen | Fall 2012

Questioning the ethics of 'scent marketing'

Scent sells.

Used-car dealers know it when they spray their vehicle interiors with “new car smell” to make the cars seem newer.

Real estate agents know it when they suggest homeowners bake cookies before a showing to make their house seem more homey.

Now retailers are attempting to use scents in more subtle ways. It’s all in an effort to influence shoppers to make purchases without the consumer being conscious of it.

A member of the Mendoza marketing faculty thinks that stinks.
In the article “The Use of Scents to Influence Consumers: The Sense of Using Scents to Make Cents,” Associate Professional Specialist Kevin D. Bradford argues that such manipulation is unethical because, unlike other forms of advertising that we can tune out, “smell is a sense we cannot suspend.”

As Bradford explains, our sense of smell is primal and deeply rooted. When we smell something, odor receptors in the brain produce an immediate instinctive reaction. We literally act without thinking.

To some this may sound like a retailer’s dream. And, in fact, an entire scent-marketing industry has developed that promises to boost sales. In one scent-industry study referenced in the book Brand Sense: Build Powerful Brands through Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight, and Sound, 84 percent of people were found to be more likely to buy shoes or liked them better when in a pleasantly scented room. In another study, a sweet citrus odor added to the air nearly doubled average total purchases in a retail setting.

Bradford acknowledges that many people would say that there’s nothing wrong with such atmospheric engineering. No law prohibits scent marketing, defenders point out, and consumers know when they step into a store that management will be doing all it can to get them to buy.

Bradford and co-author Debra M. Desrochers of London’s Middlesex University disagree. In their article published in the November 2009 issue of The Journal of Business Ethics, they compare potential scent manipulation to the purported effect of subliminal advertising. The classic attempt at subliminal advertising involved a movie theater that began splicing a few frames of an image of buttered popcorn into a film. Moviegoers weren’t conscious of seeing the image, but a study reported that it prompted some to head to the snack bar. As the authors note, such advertising has been banned since the 1970s. Also, the reported sales effect of inserting images into movies has since been disproved.The researchers say there’s nothing unethical about people finding themselves craving bread when they visit a bakery and smell the bread baking. That’s an authentic scent resulting from the bakery’s operations. Where manipulation comes in, they say, is when retailers import foreign scents into an environment with the intention of influencing buyers without their knowledge. 

The authors mention a 2005 study published in the Journal of Business Research, in which the air in a store was enhanced with artificial scents known to appeal to one gender or the other (rose maroc for men, vanilla for women). In its scented state, the store was evaluated more favorably by shoppers. They spent about 50 percent more time in the store, bought almost twice as many items, and spent more than twice as much money. 

The authors argue that retailers should not try to influence consumers’ behavior without shoppers having the opportunity to “acknowledge or defend against the persuasion attempt.” They don’t have that opportunity with scents because scents cause us to react without thinking and because relatively few consumers are even aware of scents being used this way, the researchers say. 

Scented air can do more than trigger buying impulses, however. The authors cite studies showing that certain scents seem to aid in memory and can even improve job performance. In one study referenced by The New York Times in 1989, keypunch operators at a Japanese firm were found to make 50 percent fewer errors when exposed to a lemon scent and 80 percent fewer with lavender.

But here again, the marketing researchers raise concern over the possibility that, though the intentions may be good, this is still manipulation of a human being. “In the long run, initiatives that began as efficiency improvements,” they warn, “may evolve into abuse of the employees.”

What follows from your nose

Talcum powder: feel safe, secure and nostalgic
Peppermint, citrus: be more alert
Lavender, vanilla, chamomile: relax 
Barbecue smoke: perceive a room as smaller
Apple, cucumber: perceive a room as bigger 
Leather, cedar: buy expensive furniture 
Fresh baked goods: buy a home 
Tailored floral/citrus scents: browse longer and spend more
Unpleasant smells (rotting rubbish, air pollution): develop road rage

Source: Scent Marketing Institute/SCENTtrends