One of the first purchases I ever made on eBay was a scratch ‘n’ sniff card. It was an old promo thing for John Waters‘s 1981 film Polyester –they were given out to cinema audiences, who were advised to smell each of the circles when the corresponding number appeared on screen, like a low-res version of 1960s Smell-O-Vision.

Mine still smells, and not just of the embedded scents – glue, pizza, dog shit – but of age, too. Of old cardboard and air, and having been scratched with a stranger’s varnished nail. I unearthed this again last month, when Crimestoppers announced the launch of marijuana-scented cards, distributed to help vigilante citizens find their neighbours’ cannabis farms. So handy! And multi-use too – smear it on your wrists and smell like Finsbury Park.

I often think about M&M’s World. It’s a sweets mall in Leicester Square that appears to have been built from comedowns, the adopted home of anxiety disorders, where M&Ms stand around, 6ft tall, eyes the size of cats, pretending they’re people. And I think about it often because I read that, having built this candy cathedral, they realised it didn’t quite work – because all M&Ms bags are sealed. The place smelled of nothing. So they commissioned a chocolate scent, which they spray through the vents. There are too many painful metaphors here. To write them down would be to admit defeat.

We’ve always used perfume, “signature scents”, to market ourselves, and now, more and more, smells are being used to market products. Smells make us do things. A study by Nike showed that adding scents in its stores increased “intent to purchase” by 80%, and now the smells are following customers home.

One of Katy Perry‘s albums was infused with the smell of candyfloss, and two PlayStation games were perfumed with the scents of turf and burning rubber. So Google’s April Fool (a search engine for smell called Google Nose) felt eerily real, a hoax from the very, very near future. At the moment, computers can do everything apart from touch and smell. But that’s changing. In the next five years the concept of cognitive computing means they will experience the world as a human does. And not only will they be able to smell, but they will smell. New Scientist reports on a “smelling screen” being developed in Japan that makes smells appear to come from any LCD screen “by continuously feeding odours from vaporising gel pellets into four air streams, one in each corner”. This means an advert for KFC will smell of chicken. An advert for Towie will smell of biscuity tans.

Like living with 1,000 postprandial dads, our front rooms will fill with smells beyond our control as we flick from channel to channel searching for the citrus wash of a Timotei ad or Sky Living’s smell of babies’ heads. In time, perhaps, Twitter will follow. Conversations about class will be scented with coal dust and silk, the acid odour of freshly unwrapped iPhones. Comment pieces about Thatcher will smell of acrid milk.

What are the ethics of smell? There is something sort of beautiful about marketers decorating their shops with aromas, and yet, the idea I can be affected by them in a way that will make me feel even more than I feel already is terrifying.

I care about smell. Partly because of my migraines, partly my elegant sensibility. We think of smells as good or bad, but it’s more complicated than that – it’s to do with emotions, memory; unlike with sight, you feel a smell before you process it. But it’s inevitable. Not just because every clank of technology will create new ways to sell to us, but because, after years of manipulating scents for our own ends – to attract boys or girls, to cover the fact we’ve been smoking, or that there’s  poor water pressure in  our bathroom – smells  are beginning to manipulate us.


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