A recent article on the web that purported to explore the ethics of “scent branding” was fascinating for two reasons.
First, “scent branding” is a term I had never encountered before, for a practice that I had not focused on. About five seconds of thought, however, made me realize that indeed I was aware of the phenomenon, and had been for quite a while. “Scent branding”—using fragrances in a commercial environment to create a desired atmosphere and to prompt positive feelings, recollections and emotions from patrons—has been around a long, long time, though not under that label. When funeral parlors made sure that their premises smelled of flowers rather than formaldehyde, that was a form of scent branding. Progress in the science of scent allowed other businesses to get into the act: I was first conscious of the intentional use of smell when I spent a vacation at the Walt Disney World Polynesian Villages Resort. The lobby and the rooms had a powerful “tropical paradise” scent, a mixture of beach smells, torches and exotic fauna. It was obviously fake, like much in Disney World; also like much in Disney World, I found it effective, pleasant, and fun. I certainly didn’t think of it as unethical. I was normal in those days, however.
Well, more normal.
The second aspect of the article, entitled “Is it Ethical to Scent Brand Public Places?”, that caught my attention was that it had an obvious agenda. The piece was opposed to scent branding, and set out to find the practice unethical in order to justify condemning it. I see this a lot, and it is an increasingly popular practice with activists whose definition of “unethical” is “I don’t like it.” Obviously not liking something, legitimately or not, creates a strong bias to find that something is objectively wrong with it. That is good cause to check one’s ethics alarms, because unfairness and dishonesty is lurking. I wrestle with this problem daily on the blog, and undoubtedly without complete success. The article on scent branding, however, made no effort to be fair or to use objective analysis.
At least the author didn’t pretend otherwise. Here is how the essay’s author, Siobhan O’Connor, describes “scent branding”:
“Scent branding, wherein hotel chains, electronics companies, or lingerie lines create a signature smell and then stink-bomb the hell out of their lobbies and shops—is becoming quite the thing.”
Gee…I can’t wait to find out whether she thinks this is a good thing or not.
Here is a more nuanced description of the practice, from a fascinating article in Bloomberg Businessweek last month:
“…Jovanovic and Gaurin, who are responsible for luxury colognes and perfumes such as Tom Ford Black Violet and Giorgio Armani Onde Extase, are leading the latest fragrance business craze, a form of sensory branding known as “ambient scenting.” Jovanovic, 34, helped pioneer the trend by creating the “woody” aroma—a combination of orange, fir resin, and Brazilian rosewood, among others—for Abercrombie & Fitch. Since its roll-out in stores across the country two years ago, Abercrombie’s Fierce, which also pervades sidewalks outside the clothier’s stores, has become an integral part of the shopping experience. Popular demand compelled the company to produce the trademark odeur in bottle form, and, according to Jovanovic, customers have complained when store-bought T-shirts lose the smell after multiple washes.
Scenting an entire building is the latest ambition in a growing business that has, for years, gone unnoticed by most consumers. Roger Bensinger, executive vice-president for scent marketing company Prolitec, estimates there are now 20 companies worldwide specializing in ambient scent-marketing and dispersion technology …research showed that not only did customers under the subtle influence of his creation spend an average of 20 to 30 percent more time mingling among the electronics, but they also identified the scent—and by extension, the brand—with characteristics such as innovation and excellence….”
Hmmmm. Tell me more:
“…Advances in scent harvesting and dispersal technology, or the ability to deconstruct scent compounds and recreate them, means perfumers can now produce virtually any scent. As documented in Martin Lindstrom’s book Brand Sense, a Rolls-Royce investigation into customer complaints that the luxury cars had lost their feeling of excellence fingered scent as the culprit. The automaker responded with “a chemical blueprint” for the smell of the 1965 Silver Cloud. …The smell is now applied beneath the seats of each car as it comes off the line. As of 2003, Cadillac began processing scent into the leather of its seats. They called it Nuance….
“…In April, Parsons New School for Design in New York hosted a conference to honor the launch of an transdisciplinary master’s program that includes olfaction. As part of a “Scent as Design” seminar, organizers enlisted luminaries from various fields to collaborate with fragrance experts. Among the first explorations is furniture: a butcher block that suggests the meaty whiff of being inside a butcher shop. Another is the South Bronx housing project imbued with the scent of happiness.
“While the residents of [the housing project] appear to be guinea pigs for an emerging industry, Carter sees ambient scenting as a “no-brainer,” a practical tool to be used in the national effort to re-green America’s inner cities. Jovanovic may have said it best while spritzing L’Eau Vert du Bronx du Sur in a communal bathroom: “It’s impact on behavior on a social level!”
All right, I’m sold: there are lots of ethical issues here. Analyzing them, however, requires an open mind, at least at the outset.
O’Conner begins with the assumption that “the fragrance industry …trades largely in toxic chemicals that are known allergens and likely hormone disruptors.” Of course, the anti-chemical activists believe that virtually all chemicals are toxic. Almost anything can be an allergen to somebody, too. If one’s position is 1) anything that isn’t in place without mankind’s intervention is inherently suspect and dangerous and 2) chemicals are presumptively bad unless conclusively proven otherwise, then scenting the air is obviously unethical. This presumption of harm would have stopped human progress dead in its tracks in the 19th Century, and I know many of O’Connor’s compatriots would say that would have been better for everyone. A more rational approach is that strangling new ideas and technologies in their cribs is a dead-end strategy for society and civilization, and that innovation ought to be encouraged and given an opportunity to develop. If the chemicals are poison, then yes, spraying them all over the place is unethical. Beginning with the conclusion that chemicals are by definition poison, however, is unfair.
The relevant ethical problem is whether the scents should be used if some people will have serious or unpleasant allergic reactions to them—the peanut problem. Utilitarian ethical analysis of this issue reaches a different conclusion than other approaches. If conduct benefits thousands of people and helps businesses to thrive but will kill an unlucky few, a balancing calculation may still conclude that the conduct is ethical if due care is taken to minimize the harm, and the victims receive fair compensation for the rest of society. If conduct benefits thousands of people and helps businesses to thrive but will irritate an unlucky few, I have no problem concluding that the conduct is ethical, again as long as those who might be irritated are given appropriate consideration. I know this is far from the clear majority view, as society is increasingly seduced by a dictatorship of the aggrieved few.
If Abercrombie and Fitch, however, gives due warning that their stores are scented and people with allergies to perfume should stay away, the store is within ethical boundaries. (I would hold stores with strong natural odors to the same standards, as well as the Greek Orthodox Church. Potpourri and incense both make me want to vomit.) The practice of making perfumes so strong that they waft out into the street, an Abercrombie and Fitch tactic, is ethically troublesome….if the scent can trigger allergies. If not, I don’t see how a rational ethical argument can be constructed that holds an artificially engineered smell emanating from a retail store to be unethical, while the smell of baking bread leaking out of a small town bakery is one of the enduring joys of small town America. I think I know what O’Conner would say (“Natural=ethical; artificial=unethical”), but I think that is based on bias, not reason.
The second ethical objection to scent-branding in her essay is that “the chemicals used in fragrance are anything but environmentally safe.” That’s not an argument; it’s an assertion. What is the definition of “environmentally safe”? How does the scent in the Polynesian Village resort in Disney World do measurable environmental harm? We can’t apply a balancing standard without knowing the weight of what is being balanced.
Only at the very end of the article are the juicy ethical issues addressed, and O’Connor sums these up as “a slippery slope.” Let’s be specific where she wasn’t:
Honesty: Is using perfume to disguise reality unethical? Is it wrong to use odor to make something seem better than it is? I think society made this call in other areas long ago, and there is no justification for treating scent differently. We don’t regard make-up and cosmetics as unethical. We don’t regard the use of visual and aural stimulation to provoke affection and sexual arousal as wrong. We approve of the use of colors, furnishing, art and cultural symbolism to make offices and environments more pleasing and comfortable. Music has at least as powerful psychological effects as smell; nobody has suggested that having a string quartet playing in a restaurant is deceptive because diners will think their food tastes better.
Autonomy: Is it ethical to use odors to trigger sub-conscious emotional and physiological reactions in unsuspecting people? The issue can’t be decided, as O’Connor would have it, by sliding to the bottom of the theoretical slippery slope and making the call there. The terrific, if creepy, novel “Perfume” by Patrick Suskind shows us scent-manipulation Hell, in which a serial killer with a genius for making perfumes devises a scent that makes everyone trust and adore him. Yes, that’s unethical; so was the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Coercion and mind-control is unethical, but making people feel more comfortable in an environment is hardly that…unless, and this is a big unless, strong perfumes can fairly be defined as mind-altering drugs. If they are, then society needs to make some very difficult distinctions. Is a man-made stimulus that causes the body to release strong attitude-altering hormones (which are drugs) ethical, but a chemical that triggers the same response unethical? All right…but why? A woman uses scientific and experience based knowledge of male sexual response to dress and act in a way that maximizes the likelihood that it will stimulate an involuntary hormonal reaction in a targeted make producing lust and desire…that’s all right. If she uses a perfume that duplicates powerful pheromones, however, why is that cheating? We can, as a society, decide that it is; we can decide that gyms have to smell like dirty socks and sweat, and that vintage hotels have to smell like old cigars and decaying leather—call it “truth in stinking”—; we can also decide that sounds, sights, textures and symbols that influence our moods are just dust ducky, but making the local Christmas store smell of hot cocoa, roasting chestnuts, evergreen trees and Christmas morning using chemicals is sinister and manipulative. We can strangle the science of scent in its crib, to make sure it doesn’t grow up to be a monster.
I think scent branding is a complicated issue, and that we need more data, followed by some quality analysis and open-minded debate by people who don’t have an agenda. The concern expressed in the O’Connor article should mark the beginning of the inquiry, not its conclusion.