Despite a recent announcement that the marketing strategy of arming aggressive fragrance sprayers in department stores is being phased out, on a recent walk through the first floor perfume area of a New York department store, I still felt like I was on the episode of the TV show Friends where Joey is Hombre Guy, a perfume spritzer for Bijon, dueling it out with, Mr. "Your territory, huh?" Todd. But here the numbers - an overwhelming onslaught of contenders-magnifies the perfume competition. I found myself having to work hard to avoid heavy exposure to all of the synthetic chemicals being sprayed on cards and people.
After making it through the arena with only a few direct hits due to the excesses, I turned around and watched the theatrical squad working other targets. I was fascinated by what I suspected, and went back into the firing line of serial squirting atomizer spray bottles. I had a few questions for the sprayers about their special vocations, and they were all eager to talk. They said they were free-lancers hired by the individual fragrance vendors. They said they generally liked their work but they really "have to hustle" to outperform the competition. Their mission: mark to generate sales.
As this repeated phenomenon of contact marking is the driving force in fragrance marketing, whereby the industry leaves its mark upon us, is it possible that this devised strategy actually arises from evolutionary foundations? Does this manipulative social tactic reflect an adaptive link to terrestrial mammalian behaviors known as scent over-marking and counter-marking? Although dissimilar in many ways, it is an equally specialized form of olfactory communication.
Dr. Michael Ferkin of the University of Memphis works in the areas of animal behavior and communication, studying endocrinology and ecology, and has made a substantial contribution to the study of over-marking tendencies in mammals. According to a paper co-written with Andrew A. Pierce, Ferkin found that over-marking happens when one individual places its scent directly over the scent of another individual. In a natural context, and not an aisle in a department store, a scent marking response is a ubiquitous behavior among both male and female land-based mammals that primarily tend to over-mark the same-sex smells. In one scenario, recorded in the study by Ferkin and Pierce, animals place their scents in an central area but with enough distance that they remain distinct from each other, comparable to the practice of the more congenially submissive spritzers, who actually ask the passerby where they haven't already been hit with fragrance.
Robert E. Johnston of Cornell University's Psychology department works in the areas of behavioral evolutionary science and perception, cognition and development. His findings constitute another type of scenario, where scent blending is one of the outcomes of persistent over-marking- the scents blend forming a new scent and the new scent loses its individualist information. Scent blending perception is the most common experience of the marked passersby through department store theatres of fragrance, and the one that most likely inspired the trendy marketing ploy of scents "designed to be layered", whereby the consumer has to purchase multiple perfumes.
Again, in nature, over-marking or adjacent marking is a competitive form of olfactory communication. We are all born sniffers and exchange information through smell. Like other animals, humans use their sense of smell to recognize others, evaluate food and distinguish tastes, detect pheromones and attract mates and mark territory.
Can the strategy of perfume companies known to push sex, erotica and gender-stereotyped perfumes with mega-budgeted advertising campaigns, defining their scent attributes for a male and female as a cultural mandate, be considered as an evolved aaptative form of mate guarding- a chemical way to monopolize, dominate and brand a person? What does it mean if a company wants to over-mark or mask, and the natural odor-prints that define individual identity? In another study conducted by Ferkin and Kristen L. Kohli, over-marking has the advantages of transfer of olfactory communication, which can be viewed as blocking the communication between individuals.
It has long been known that odors play a large part in the lives of mammals other than humans, however only recently have scientists learned that olfaction plays a much larger role in human behavior than previously believed. For the most part, researchers agree that human chemical signals exist, however, despite the mounting presentations of scientific facts of how humans also produce and emit pheromones for biological purposes, and to trigger behavior in other individuals, there are still doubters. At the recent World Science Festival June 4th event held in New York- Scents and Sensibilities: The Invisible Language of Scent, Avery Gilbert, scientist and author of What the Nose Knows went on record as a doubter, while neuroscientist Leslie Vosshall, head of the Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior at the Rockefeller University, questioned how he could disregard the plethora of research showing the sophisticated integration of sensory related pheromone behavior in animals with similar systems as humans.
Animals release pheromones in their urine and feces, but also from their breath and skin. Research indicates that humans most certainly release pheromones from their skin, which for the most part, is secreted from the skin's sebaceous glands in forms that can't be consciously detected. In humans, it is thought that the development of these glands and body hair at puberty, along with the olfactory system, suggests the maturation of the phenomenal system. In the mounting evidence that human pheromonal system is in tack is the most well known study by Martha McClintock's study defining menstrual synchrony in humans.
What is the role manufactured perfumes in this form of communication? Is it social dominance? Why do we spend millions to modify and mask our personal smells? What price do people pay in letting the top scent mark be that of a synthetic branded perfume, one common to any other who forks over the money to wear the identical scent?
Did some ancestral behavior give rise to the contemporary perfume marketing strategies of the big fragrance houses or is it just the incentive of the 95% profit margin? Perfume sprayer marketing and scent marking could be evolutionarily related... or not. Either way it is important to know that last year, Robert Johnston's group at Cornell found that when it comes to scent marks, it is the top or most recent scent that is remembered.
The odor print of a person signals their genetic individuality, yet body smell and its attractiveness is also influenced by the quality of ones diet and health. Perception of body odor influences both our social and reproductive behavior. How we select genetically compatible mates, and know and bond with our children, are odortype preferences linked to the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). A person's smell is an important way that we distinguish one person from another. Coco Chanel said perfume "heralds your arrival and prolongs your departure." The question is: how do we as individuals want to be remembered?