Imagining Holiday Odors
Our memories and experiences of the holidays are profoundly accented by scent: the fragrance of baking cookies, the pungent scent of pine trees, and the distinctive whiff of our family members’ homes are among many peoples’ strongest sensory memories. Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past described a rush of “involuntary memory” incited by the scent and taste of a madeleine, painting a picture of sensations that provoke emotionally rich recollections. Countless web pages provide directions for simmering water jars, stove top concoctions, and homemade potpourri that will make your home smell like a Yuletide wonderland. For those of us too impatient to boil star anise, orange slices, and cinnamon sticks, an enormous industry caters to consumers’ sensory imagination, selling us smells that fortify our own clouds of pumpkin pie and turkey: numerous marketers hawk familiar scents like evergreen or vanilla, but many like American mall behemoth Yankee Candle sell fantasy scents, with Angel’s Wings, Cozy by the Fire, Winter Glow, and Cat’s Whiskers among its 2015 holiday fragrances.
Christmas is an especially lucrative time of year to sell scents. In 2012 Yankee Candle’s European Managing Director championed holiday scents when he said “imagine Christmas without all the wonderful scents it comes with, and you’ll understand why home fragrance is so important at this time of year.” Perhaps the most distinctive entrant in the holiday consumer scentscape is the Poo-Pourri toilet spray. Poo-Pourri has sold over 10 million bottles of its’ “before you go” toilet spray, which promises that its natural oils will eliminate your foul bathroom cloud before it becomes part of your Yuletide sensory memories. Poo-Pourri concedes that the fragrances of the holidays inevitably include the unavoidable intestinal impact of Grandma’s butter-laden sweet potatoes. The toilet spray’s elevated holiday sales suggest that at least some of us are self-conscious that our young relatives’ memories of Christmas fragrances will involve pine trees, Yankee Candle vanilla, and the unmistakable post-digestive cloud that will forever be associated with you. Rather than have your friends and family remember you as a malodorous Chewbacca, Poo-Pourri promises you’ll instead be associated with the English garden scent you always left in the holiday potty.
On the one hand, Poo-Pourri consumers confirm that undesirable fumes shape our memories and experiences as profoundly as pleasant fragrances: the unique cloud of your family and friends’ body odor, stale cigar stench, or foul onion-laced casseroles may be as intimately embedded in your memories as gingerbread and evergreens. On the other hand, Poo-Pourri joins a phalanx of consumer goods that zealously monitor our bodies. Poo-Pourri extends that age-old body discipline to a scentscape in which we are obliged to manage our excretory vapors just as we are expected to regulate body odors or bad breath. Poo-Pourri exploits our bodily anxieties, but it is distinguished by its brash honesty and clever scatological humor about the potty experience and toilet odors. That separates it from the meaningless euphemisms that have long characterized toilet paper advertising, where happy bears fail to acknowledge the concrete realities that Poo-Pourri ads revel in exposing and giggling about.
Poo-Pourri fabricates a literal fantasy atmosphere that aspires to make our holidays’ bouquet far more idyllic than they really smell, an odd imitation of a scentscape that never existed in reality. In authentic Yuletide contexts, the warm smell of turkey and the fireplace has always existed alongside your cat who urinates on gifts, the morning-after fetor of holiday trash, and that relative who predictably has an unpleasant intestinal response to rich foods.
Poo-Pourri hopes our uneasiness with funky holiday odors will extend to the whole year and we will police our toilet stink at work, in public, and even in our own homes. Yankee Candle has long ago reached beyond candles, and today their “scent systems” technology provides marketers with “fragrance impressions that define your brand” in retail settings, hotels, health care facilities, and real estate sales. Such “scent marketing” has become an increasingly refined science of ambient scents enveloping consumers. Air Aroma, for instance, is the “scent partner” of the International Luxury Hotel Association, and the firm diffused an exclusive “signature scent” through the Mandalay Bay convention center at a July 2015 convention. Sensory Max produced an “Essence of Lincoln” scent for Lincoln Motor Company that washes dealership salesrooms in the smell of “upscale well-being.”
Such scents have long been unobtrusively in the background of nearly every possible consumer space. In 2012, ten UK bus stops were flooded with the scent of baked potatoes to fuel sales of frozen potatoes; in 2012, Korean buses were armed with technology that emitted the smell of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee; and a year later an English Premier League ad campaign showered Australian bus stops with the smell of grass on a football pitch. The aromatic frontier promises to continue expanding: Japanese firm Scentee sells an iPhone accessory that emits scented sprays including roses, strawberries, and coffee to accompany texts, tweets, and other phone notifications.
This all suggests that we live in a malodorous universe of fetid food, wet dogs, and clouds of bathroom vapors that we can now submerge in clouds of pleasant if contrived scents. That new scentscape promises to smell less like Christmas than our imagination of what the holidays should smell like. That fantasy scentscape aspires to comfort us with emotionally rich scents and mask an apparently foul-smelling reality that extends well beyond your unpleasant Yuletide toilet emissions.
Aradhna Krishna (editor)
2009 Sensory Marketing: Psychological Research for Consumers. Routledge, New York.
Kelvin E.Y. Low
2009 Scent and Scent-sibilities: Smell and Everyday Life Experiences. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Cambridge.
Adriana V Madzharov, Lauren G Block, Maureen Morrin
2015 The Cool Scent of Power: Effects of Ambient Scent on Consumer Preferences and Choice Behavior. Journal of Marketing 79(1):83-96. (subscription access)
2009 Scent Marketing: An Overview. In Sensory Marketing: Psychological Research for Consumers, edited by Aradhna Krishna, pp. 75-86.
2014 Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell. University of Illinois Press, Carbondale.
Poo-Pourri Glitzy Spritz sprayer from Poo-Pourri’s facebook page.