How Corporate America Is Selling to Your Senses

One expert explains how companies want you to see, smell, touch, and buy.

david howes
Agata Marszalek for Reader’s Digest

TO DAVID HOWES, the crunch of a potato chip is so much more than a sound. It represents years of research and millions of dollars spent by companies to create the most irresistible sonic experience. That, says Howes, a professor of sensory anthropology at Montreal’s Concordia University and coauthor of the book Way of Sensing, is one example of how our five senses are being courted by corporations. “Sense appeal,” he says, “is now used even more extensively than sex appeal to sell products.”

What do you do exactly?

I study how the senses are employed in different cultures. Let me give you an example: In mainstream Western medicine, hospital food is bland, and anesthesia is important. The senses of taste, smell, and touch are downplayed, and medication is emphasized. The idea is that patients shouldn’t feel anything. In Argentina, on the other hand, the senses are engaged, not sidelined, so you’ll find sensory therapy and healing: massage (touch), herbs (smell), and special teas (taste).

In your book, you talk about how companies are using multisensory marketing to sell products.

A company wants to have not only the right look for its product but also the right sounds, smell, taste, and touch. Take Starbucks. It has a particular soundtrack that plays in its stores. The music is also available on a CD so you can take it home. Many venues, like casinos and sports arenas, have their own signature scents. The Westin Hotel uses a white tea scent. It’s infused in all its toiletries and towels and diffused in the lobby. The idea is that whenever you smell it, you’ll be reminded of the hours you spent in a Westin bed.

Are scents really that indelible?

Marketers think that using scents gives them a direct link to our brain because smell is such an ancient part of the sensorium. But in fact, by all their appeals to smell, they’re conditioning our [reactions to] smells. For example, we associate lemon scent with cleaning power. But what do lemons have to do with cleanliness? The connection began only in 1966 when Joy put a lemon scent into its detergent. Now it has become universal. I even found lemon-scented products in Papua New Guinea!

You write that the crunch of potato chips and the slam of car doors are often manufactured so that now they are satisfying to us.

It’s extraordinary the kind of energy that’s devoted to the crunch of snacks because crispness is understood to be a sign of freshness.

So we’re being swayed all the time without knowing it.

In terms of quality, many products are similar. Aesthetics tip the scale. Fast-food restaurants use a lot of orange and yellow, which are stimulating colors. The hope is that you’ll be on edge the whole time you’re there, resulting in your eating quickly and then leaving so someone else can have that table. Some companies are even trademarking certain colors to set themselves off from competitors.

How widespread is this?

You’ll find that the most effective and stimulating colors are being withdrawn from common use. Cadbury was involved in a lawsuit with other candy manufacturers over having exclusive use of the color purple to advertise its chocolate. But by trademarking, companies are reducing the full range of sensations out there, limiting creativity as well as our own experiences.

Is there any way for us to guard against being exploited?

If we schooled our senses more, we wouldn’t be so manipulated by advertisers. We’d also enjoy our senses more fully. Colleges offer many courses that involve seeing and listening, like classes in music or art history or appreciation. But there are no classes on taste, touch, or smell, so those senses are underdeveloped.

Can we talk about how marketers are using touch?

Once you’ve handled something, you’re more likely to get attached to it, to want to possess it. An example is children’s toys. Plastic packaging prevents us from using touch, so manufacturers cut holes in the packaging to let us feel the device. Dove soap was made with a curve that fit easily in the hand as opposed to the old square bars. The first contoured glass Coca-Cola bottle was a wonderful design—it snuggled in the palm. The shape made a huge difference to sales because customers could feel the brand and not just see the logo or taste the drink. The big area now is cell phones and how they feel in your hand. I don’t think companies have found the best, most comfortable design yet.

But why bother with multisensory marketing? Isn’t it enough for companies to tout a product’s features, like “Kleenex feels soft on your nose,” and have people decide on the basis of that message?

Not anymore. Initially, everything was directed toward the visual—billboards, magazines, newspapers, etc.—and our ads suffered from an overload of the visual. Then the auditory came along, in the form of radio, jingles, and Muzak—and that became overloaded as well. The question became, How do you catch the consumer’s attention? You appeal to another of the senses—say, with smell or a distinctive feel—until you outdo your rivals. So what is the sixth sense? Nobody knows. But if you can figure it out, patent it, because that will be the next thing.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Andy Simmons
Andy Simmons is a features editor at Reader's Digest.