Scentvertising, Bubbles, and the Battle for Mindshare

colonel.jpgI serendipitously encountered two bellwethers of commercial culture today. The WaPo looks at retailers’ increasing use of fragrances to enhance consumers’ moods. Is this effort to get people in a buying mood a bit like subliminal advertising? Some unexpected nuisance issues arise:

The American Lung Association has received several complaints about scented stores, spokeswoman Janice Nolen said. The fragrances have triggered flare-ups for asthma sufferers and those sensitive to certain chemicals. “I don’t want to sound like the Grinch,” Nolen said, but “sometimes these fragrances can be a barrier to people.” Evelyn Idelson . . . is one of them. She first noticed that her laundry detergent was scented. Then her dishwashing liquid. Now, she said, everything smells. “I can’t stand it,” she said. “I think it’s an invasion of personal space.”

The California Milk Processor Board has responded to such complaints, removing ads that smelled like cookies. “Taunting [the obese] with the smell of off-limits cookies was just cruel, they said.” Given the parlous state of many Americans’ finances, perhaps Debtors’ Anonymous should launch a similar campaign for all luxury goods.

But then again, we’d never say the same thing about images of products, would we? Perhaps it turns out that scent is more visceral than sight:

“You smell a rose, and your brain doesn’t go, R-O-S-E,” said Charles S. Zuker, a researcher with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “Your brain recalls what a rose is like.” Daniel Lieberman, an associate professor of psychiatry at George Washington University, called smell the most “primitive” of the senses. Odor receptors in the nose are actually brain cells, he said.

So I suppose scent is in a category of its own.

But for those frustrated with all-pervasive commercial culture, there is another alternative: self help. Harvard’s Berkman center recently had a panel on “culture jamming,” including many leaders in cyberactivism. I was intrigued by Ji Lee’s bubble project, which encourages renegade “taggers” to scrawl commentary, in bubbles, on ads:

Our communal spaces are being overrun with ads. . . . Once considered “public,” these spaces are increasingly being seized by corporations. . . . Armed with heavy budgets, their marketing tactics are becoming more and more aggressive and manipulative. The Bubble Project is the counterattack. . . . Once placed on ads, these stickers transfom the corporate monologue into an open dialogue.

I suppose many will deem the Bubble Project illegal art, or mere graffiti, and may even think Ji guilty of inducing copyright infringement. But I think it’s worthwhile hearing his side of the story, and thinking about the ways in which ordinary citizens can try to avoid (or undermine) a barrage of commercial messages. As Hannibal Travis notes, there is a “battle for mindshare,” whether we like it or not.

PS: This is a very interesting disclaimer from the FAQs of the Bubble Project:

Q: Is it legal to place bubbles on top of ads?

A: No, it’s illegal. It’s consider[ed] vandalism to deface any public or private message. If you are caught, you may be subject for fines and even get arrested. You figure it out on your own. I’m not responsible for your actions.

Art Credit: Aric Obrosey, The Symbolic Lotus of a Thousand Colonels [Sanders]

You may also like...