Since the beginning of human history, sense of smell has been key to our survival as human beings—we have the ability to sniff out potentially dangerous scents like spoiled food, smoke or gas. Sense of smell is incredibly important, yet it rarely gets the attention that it deserves.
Smells have the ability to conjure up both positive and negative reactions in our minds.
Smells have the ability to conjure up both positive and negative reactions in our minds. This is because the ‘smell cells’ in our nose are linked to the limbic system in our brain, which govern emotions, behavior and long-term memory.
But if our sense of smell is ‘set’ to make us aware of what’s dangerous and what’s not, why is it that some people may like a certain scent, and others may hate it?
The Proustian Memory Effect
The reason for this has everything to do with childhood memories. Similar to our current understanding of the ‘nature vs nurture’ debate, it is understood that some reactions to fragrance are instilled in us from birth, while others are learned. Childhood memories linked to scent stay with people throughout their lives—researchers and academics call this the “Proustian memory effect” due to its relation to elements in the writings of French author Marcel Proust.
Childhood memories linked to scent stay with people throughout their lives—researchers and academics call this the “Proustian memory effect” due to its relation to elements in the writings of French author Marcel Proust.
In order for a fragrance or scent to have any sort of effect on a person, either positive or negative, it has to have been subconsciously associated with some sort of previous event or experience. If a person has unknowingly connected a fragrance to a negative episode, they won’t like it when they come to smell it again. For instance, many people don’t like the sterile smell of hospitals because it conjures up bad memories—for others, the smell of hospitals conjures a positive memory, like giving birth to their son or daughter.
For my son, he has a particular dislike for the smell of the sea. When he was a young boy, he was hit by a big wave while swimming off the coast of Ireland. Smells of the sea today still conjure this unpleasant memory for him, making it a smell he tries to avoid in his life.
The Wintergreen Example
A study was conducted in the UK in the 1960s and the United States in the late 1970s in which adults were asked to rate a range of common fragrances. Included in the study was the smell of wintergreen, which was given one of the lowest pleasantness ratings in the British study. However, in the US study, it received the highest pleasantness rating.
But why? In the UK, the smell of wintergreen is associated with medicine, and, importantly, with analgesics that were popular during WWII. On the other hand, in the US the smell of wintergreen conjures up memories of mint candy which has positive connotations for Americans.
The key is in how fragrances are marketed.
So, with this in mind, how can we appeal to everyone’s positive memories and not the negative ones? The key is in how fragrances are marketed. For example, studies have shown that lavender can increase drowsiness. In certain contexts, this would be a negative thing, such as in an office where management has the goal of increasing productivity of employees. For this reason, lavender should not be marketed as a scent to use in work environments. However, if marketed as a night-time fragrance which helps someone drift happily off to sleep, lavender can be associated with positive outcomes.
With this in mind, knowing what smells conjure what memories in a particular society can help to market the appropriate smell for the appropriate purpose. Using the wrong smell for marketing purposes can have highly destructive effects for a marketing campaign, while the right smell can induce overwhelmingly positive associations with a particular product or service.
By Paul Wonnacott, President, Vectair Systems, Inc.