Scent marketing is as old as a realtor baking cookies in a house up for sale and as new as Oscar Mayer’s “bacon” alarm clock. Harnessing the primal power of smell represents a final frontier of subliminal advertising.
Appealing to our sense of smell excites marketers precisely because smells trigger an immediate emotional response by a consumer—rather than a thoughtful one. “With all other senses, you think before you respond, but with scent, your brain responds before you think,” per Pam Scholder Ellen, a Georgia State University marketing professor.
The phrase scent marketing is defined as using scents “to set a mood, promote products or position a brand.” While scents most often are primary product attributes (e.g., perfumes and deodorizers) or secondary product attributes (e.g., the smell of Ivory soap or Play-Doh), the use of ambient scent marketing is growing fast. Airlines, hotels, retail stores, and casinos are increasingly injecting scents—sensory signatures—into the environment’s atmospherics, believing this will enhance the customers’ mood, translating into more favorable evaluations and higher sales.
Because scents invade our space simply as a function of our breathing, consumers cannot easily escape ambient scent marketing. We can more readily control or avoid looking at or hearing marketing messages. In this regard, scent marketing undercuts a consumer’s “perceptual” defenses. In further contrast to scent marketing, sights and sounds are processed by more analytical parts of our brains; whereas olfaction is “our phylogenetically oldest and most primitive sense.”
A consumer’s inability to avoid or discern ambient scent marketing or process it intellectually raises a novel legal issue: when does foisting ambient scents on consumers become a deceptive trade practice?