Ethics Alarms Mail Bag: The Cologne Allergy

Perfume allergyEvery now and then readers think I’m Ann Landers. Today I got a “Dear Ethics Alarms: What’s right?” e-mail from a friend, and I thought I’d answer it on the blog because it raises a classic ethics conundrum.

The inquirer belongs to a social group that meets weekly. It is a weekly joy, I am told; the writer has been attending for years. Everyone convenes, on the given day, right after work. Attendance varies, and membership is informal, though individuals have been told, on rare occasions, to come no more.

Of late an infrequent attendee, but a member of long standing, has begun to attend meetings with some regularity. My friend says this is not the happiest of developments, because the two do not get along. It is a breach of long-standing, I am told and is not going to be healed. “She is an asshole,” is how the letter delicately puts it.

Last week, shortly before the end of the 90 minute gathering, the recent interloper stood up and declared that she had developed a serious allergy to colognes, perfumes, aftershave, and all chemical scents. Looking right at my friend, she declared that this allergy made exposure to any sort of commercial scent unbearable, and she asked that in the future no members should wear perfume of any kind.

“I have worn a favorite brand of cologne every day for over thirty years,” the from my acquaintance letter says. “I always get complimented on it; the scent is subtle and nobody would notice it unless they were right next to me. The asshole and I have been separated by the length of the room since she started coming. Personally, I think she made the demand just to make me miserable. She knows, from our previous relationship [NOTE: I think it was more than just a friendship], that I wear the cologne.”

The question: Is she ethically obligated to stop wearing cologne on the day of the meeting (she goes right from work) to accommodate this member’s special problem?

Add to this the broader ethics question that comes up often: Does a group member with special sensitivity have the ethical upper hand allowing such a member to demand that all other members avoid conduct that only bothers that member? Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “Scent Branding, Mind-Control, and Ethics”

Elizabeth was the first one to dive into this murky, interesting, science fiction/ “Brave New World” issue that I examined in  “Scent Branding, Mind-Control, and Ethics,” on a topic that confused me more the longer I considered it. What resulted was unusually long, perhaps accounting for the lack of comments, and Elizabeth’s reaction is long as well, but worth reading. There is something potentially sinister here, or perhaps around the corner—or just in our imagination and fears. Scent manipulation, and all it implies, is in the wilderness of ethics, where human nature, science and commerce meet.

Here is the “Comment of the Day”:

“I agree this is a complicated issue.  As you said, restaurant smells (natural, I assume) tend to make people hungry (or more hungry than they really are), as do waiters with large platters of beautiful food which often encourage patrons order more, different, and perhaps more expensive food than what they may have had in mind.  The goal of the restaurant is to sell food:  if memory serves, it’s only been in the last 20 years or so that restaurants had at least parts of their kitchens open to the dining area so “good smells” could waft out from them.  My memory from childhood of elegant restaurants were the multiple green baize doors that completely closed the kitchen off from the dining room.  So was this change intentional or simply simpler and cheaper as restaurant designs?  I don’t know, but it’s different. Continue reading

Scent Branding, Mind-Control, and Ethics

Agreed: this is scary. We're not there yet. We don't even know if "there" exists.

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. Continue reading