Smell marketing could mean good things for scratch and sniff books.

by Hugh Gilmore

Now’s a good time to pull back on the joystick, lower the elevators, and drop down through the August clouds to visit our favorite theme park: Book World. (Where thought-becomes-word-becomes-deed and the planet’s better off for the nickel spent.) Let’s get to it, shall we?

Although the following study was conducted in Belgium, it may have real-world consequences. According to a recent article in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, researchers used dispensers to release the smell of chocolate at intervals in two sections of a bookstore. Persons browsing during these cacao puffs were more likely to engage in “purchase-related behavior” (physically handling books, talking to staff, perhaps even buying a book) than persons not submitted to the mists. These behaviors were twice as likely among women, especially when they wandered through chocolate air while browsing in the romance or cookbook sections.

This Belgian bookstore study was not a breakthrough exactly, since the nefarious subfield of “scent marketing” – also known as “smell-vertising” – (watch, the hyphen in that term will disappear within a year or two) has been around for decades. In 2008, for example, a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research revealed that if you blow the scent of chocolate chip cookies at women shopping in a boutique, they are more likely to make an impulsive clothing purchase. (Which may explain the reemergence of chartreuse and burnt orange as blouse colors lately.)

Further examples include: Nivea Company releasing the smell of sunscreen during a movie via the ventilation system, Abercrombie & Fitch saturating their stores in cologne “fragrance,” Canada-based McCain Foods mounting fiberglass spuds at bus stops that give off the smell of oven-baked potatoes, and Dunkin’ Donuts use of “Flavor Radio” on buses to flush a coffee smell from devices that look like air-fresheners.

I am constantly reminded of the comedian Bill Hicks’ question to the audience during one of his stand-up performances. As part of a rant against the amorality of American commerce, he said: “Anyone here in marketing, or advertising?” A few hands went up. “Oh yeah? I’ll tell you what: Go kill yourself.” He went on to perform a brilliant riff about dishonesty in the service of wallet stealing, about the use of mental and – in this chocolate case – physiological trickery used to separate people from their money.

Oh, well now, Hugh, settle down. It is August and too quiet here on Chestnut Hill Peninsula to be raising your voice like that. Besides, it’s kind of a cute story, blowing the smell of chocolate at people to see what they’ll do.

Okay, I guess so, but geez, what’s the difference between chloroforming someone and rerouting his or her neural circuitry with theobromine (I’ll save you the trouble: Wikipedia says it’s the active alkaloid in chocolate) prior to their making an “informed choice”?

Maybe I should get with it and seek to better my situation in life by using this information to sell something. As a seller of “used” books I am privy to an abundance of musty odors emanating 24/7 from my merchandise. I could perhaps capture these smells in a receptacle and sell them for release into the air-modification systems of … where? That’s the sticking point. I don’t quite know where. I just remember persons frequently entering my bookshop and saying, “Ah! I love that old bookshop smell.”

Though it never seemed to increase their likelihood of acquiring a book or two (not as potently, let’s say, as the FREE sign over the books put out on the sidewalk), they expressed their olfactory joy with such enthusiasm I almost felt proud. Rather like winning “Best of Show” at a flatulence convention one has accidentally wandered into.

If there were a way I could package old books to have visual appeal, they might be salable as bathroom odorizers. People could put a unit inside a knitted cozy and place it atop a toilet tank.

Another use: You’ve heard of automobile dealerships spraying cars with “that new-car smell,” haven’t you? Perhaps people who want a vintage car, but can’t afford one, could be offered “that old-car smell” through an air-deadener, dashboard dangler in the shape and smell of an old book. People could exercise their options by choosing titles such as the “Old Man” part of the Hemingway book, or “Fifty Shades of Mold.”

Or … say, how about this: We’ll put plastic, odorless chocolates in a showcase and blow the smell of books at people who look at them. Perhaps they’ll begin to engage in “purchase-related behavior” of chocolates. Oh, those crazy Belgian researchers!

Last stop: “I love the smell of Kindles in the morning.” Though I don’t suggest you go to the website I went to when I Googled “Kindle smell,” I found a funny parody advertising site (so I took it to be) that claims to be copyrighted by “DuroSport Electronics.” It offers an old-book odor aerosol spray compatible with just about every kind of eBook reader.

Hugh’s book, “Scenes from a Bookshop,” tells stories of old-bookshop life from the days when he ran a Chestnut Hill bookstore. Available through bookstores and from in paperback and Kindle formats.

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