Engaging the senses

In our ongoing discussion about interesting advertising and communications, let’s turn our attention to McCain’s bus stop ads for its new baked potato products. In select areas the ad features a giant potato which generates both heat and the smell of baked potato. An intriguing concept, which has generated a lot of buzz around the office, with its advocates and detractors.

One of my colleagues told me that whenever he comes into close proximity with little old ladies, say in a supermarket queue or squished in a bus, he gets the faintest whiff of boiled onions in his nose.  For reasons best known to herself his dear departed granny frequently liked to lunch on a single boiled onion, the aroma of which became all pervasive in her house and became the all-pervading memory of his visits to her.  He fears this repeated experience has resulted in the unfortunate conditioned response he now has to old ladies.  Unless of course it’s just that they do all smell of boiled onions.

Given the power of the sense of smell to create such long lasting memories it’s perhaps surprising that advertisers do not exploit it more.  So bravo to McCain Foods for their innovative campaign in support of their Ready Made Jackets brand.  These 10 bus stops in major cities have been transformed into a multi-sensory experience.  At the touch of a button on the poster the big potato will warm up, emit the smell of baking jackets and dispense a money-off coupon.  According to McCain “These outdoor specials are really going to stand out and drive sales by bringing the tasty oven baked smell to warm the consumer”.

Bus shelters have been the source of much inspiration to restless advertising minds in recent times.  Fitness First installed scales on the seats of bus shelters cowing unwitting travellers to their clubs by displaying their weight on the poster.  IKEA has transformed bus shelters into cosy living rooms fitted out with an Ektorp sofa and Emmie Knop curtains.  ABSOLUT employed a similar re-furb tactic with a makeover of bus-shelters into shocking yellow bars in support of their ‘lemon drop’ brand.  Vitamin Water installed USB phone re-charging into bus-shelters to promote their ‘Alternative Energy Source’ positioning.  Elsewhere bus shelters have been transformed into goalposts, fully heated ovens and aquariums, have used movement sensors, offered video games and dispensed sun cream.  But smell has always been conspicuously absent.

Scientifically McCain is definitely on the right track, at least according to howstuffworks.com:

“The olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it’s sometimes called the “emotional brain,” smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously. The olfactory bulb has intimate access to the amygdala, which processes emotion, and the hippocampus, which is responsible for associative learning. However, smells would not trigger memories if it weren’t for conditioned responses. When you first smell a new scent, you link it to an event, a person, a thing or even a moment, your brain forges a link between the smell and a memory.”

Hence for my colleague old ladies = boiled onions

As much as all this might be true I remain sceptical about the future of smell in advertising.  The trouble being that artificially created smells rarely smell authentic.  Katy Perry’s cotton candy scented ‘Teenage Dreams’ album notwithstanding, the history of scratch n’ sniff technology has enjoyed only patchy success for a reason.  McCain is savvy enough to know that the value of their bus-shelters does not reside in the smell they produce, but more in people like me talking about the smell they produce.  Because in itself the exploitation of the olfactory bulb’s intimacy with the amygdala is pointless when there is a real danger that the response being conditioned is that ‘Ready Made Jackets smell of dog fart!’

Tara is a Research Director at Ipsos ASI. She would like to thank her colleague James Mundell for his illuminating story about old ladies and boiled onions.

  • Flavia Giardino

    Great post Tara. Playing on the five senses can give people great emotional responses. We say that experiential is all about engaging the senses, but as you said smell has an instantaneous effect on our emotional state that can be either good or bad and this ultimately affects how people feel about favourable scents, but disguise other bad odors.

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