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Smell Manipulation

The subliminal power of scent

A subliminal scent (an odor at a concentration below the level of conscious detection) won't make you do something that you don't want to do, but if you can smell an odor, it can influence you.

Scents used in the appropriate settings can sway your purchasing interest and your perception of the quality of a product. For example, an odor that is perceived as consistent with the a product concept, like a floral scent with women's sleepwear, will increase the perceived value of the sleepwear and the price that consumers are willing to pay for it. Theme-based ambient aromas in resort environments can also augment positive connotations of the resort experience and subsequently act as reminders for guests to return to the specific resort and increase their destination-brand loyalty.

It may not seem surprising that thematic aromas can enhance generally perceived worth and ambience appreciation, but odors can also be used to influence your generosity, trustworthiness and political leanings.

The aroma of citrus-scented Windex was recently shown to induce people to be more generous of their time and money towards noble causes like Habitat for Humanity. Cleaning aromas also encourage people to be more honest and fair in their dealings with others. For example, people who are in a "clean" scented room will share more winnings with an anonymous collaborator than people who are in an unscented room.

On a Machiavellian level, if you're a politician with conservative ideologies you can use a filthy odor to manipulate your voters. In October 2010, when New York state Tea Party activist Carl Paladino was a gubernatorial hopeful he mailed campaign flyers to 200,000 registered Republicans in New York state that were impregnated with the aroma of rotting garbage. In the malodorous flyer Paladino riled against Democrats who "betray the public trust" and pledged to "end the stink of corruption in Albany." The result-Paladino trounced his conservative rival Rick Lazio by a whopping 24 percent in the primaries. The smelly flyer alone can't account for his whopping win, but the putrid mailer would have primed the recipients with thoughts of political filth and make them more eager to endorse someone who would "ferret out corruption" and "get rid of the stink." Notably, Paladino didn't beat his Democratic opponent, the now-governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, in November 2010. Perhaps voter booths had been aromatically disinfected and the "clean" feeling voters were inclined to be more generous towards social causes.

The next time you're shopping or considering social-cause or political options, sniff the air. Is the aroma affecting your inclinations?

Fiore, AM., Yah, X. & Yoh, E. (2000). Effects of product display and environmental fragrancing on approach responses and pleasurable experiences. Psychology & Marketing, 17, 27-54.
Lieberman, P. & Pizarro, D. (October, 23, 2010). All Politics is Olfactory. The New York Times.
Liljenquist, K. Zhong, C-B. Galinsky, A.D. (2010). The smell of virtue: clean scents promote reciprocity and charity. Psychological Science, 21, 381-383.
Spangenberg, E.R., Sprott, D.E., Grohmann, B. & Tracy, D.L. (2006). Gender-congruent ambient scent influences on approach and avoidance behaviors in a retail store. Journal of Business Research, 59, 1281-1287.

Rachel Herz is the author of The Scent of Desire and on the faculty at Brown University.
For more information, click: Rachel Herz

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