There's nothing like smell of a pan of sizzling bacon to make you hungry…or hamburgers on the grill, fresh baked bread, or …movie theatre popcorn. Mmmm. Smells good! Even when it's fake. That's right…the smells of food we encounter today may actually be artificial scents that marketers use to entice us to eat …even when we don't really need to. Health reporter Gretchen Cuda has the latest installment in our series, "Fighting Fat," a collaboration with the Plain Dealer and WKYC-channel 3.
CUDA: On any given morning, the scent of fresh-roasted peanuts wafting through downtown Akron will make your mouth water. For Marge Klein, owner of the Peanut Shoppe, the smell is better than any advertising she could buy.
KLEIN: Sometimes people can't see our sign, but they smell us, and they'll say 'Oh, that's the peanut shop!
CUDA: As it turns out, that's no accident - the fumes from the stores nut roasting machines are deliberately piped onto the roof, where they can drift into the air and tantalize prospective patrons below-sometimes several blocks away. But Klein doesn't take any credit for what may have been one of the country's earliest scent marketing campaigns. The store has been deliberately funneling the aroma of its wares since it opened in the 1930's.
KLEIN: They would pipe the smell right out front - right there, underneath the window. The pipe would take the scent of the cashews we were cooking in the peanut oil, and then there was another pipe that brought out the smell of the peanuts in the shell that were roasting in the old peanut roasters. The idea was that when people were walking by they would smell that and they would go 'oh, let's go to the peanut shop and get some peanuts!' When the wind was blowing right you could smell it a block down, north or south in either direction.
CUDA: The Peanut Shoppe's 'smellvertising' has one serious limitation: it only works while they are roasting the actual peanuts. But modern-day scent marketers have a solution: substitute artificial aromas and release them on demand. Chemists have managed to duplicate the smells of popcorn, cinnamon buns, waffle cones, sugar cookies, coffee, chocolate, and even grilled hamburgers - and sell them to companies who pass them off as the real thing. North Carolina based ScentAir claims over 20 thousand clients ranging from retail to health care to grocery stores. Hard Rock Hotels, Hershey's Chocolate, Disney, Giant Eagle, and Cinnabon have all used or tested the company's scents.
Bill Barum has worked in food services and product development for several decades with companies including Kraft foods, Harrah's Casinos, and Walt Disney. At Disney he helped come up with a way to make pre-cooked hamburger patties and french fries taste and smell like they were fresh.
BARUM: The food scientists put together a topically applied grilled scent that would melt at 110 degrees and would impart the smell of fresh grilled hamburger and the smell of fresh cooked french fries. Then we took it further and we implanted scent machines, in shrubbery… that had infrared triggers, so when you walked by it dispersed the fragrance which immediately sent your taste buds crazy and you started looking for that cotton candy, for that popcorn, or for that caramel apple or whatever it was.
CUDA: Barum, now oversees food services at the Cleveland Clinic. But when he worked at Harrah's Hotels and Casinos, he recalls artificial scents were used there too.
BARUM: In the elevator shafts, in the morning there would be the smell of fresh bacon and pastries, at noon it would be switched to turkey, and at dinner it would be something else.
CUDA: It should come as no surprise that advertisers are constantly looking for new ways to surreptitiously influence our choices - but as a nation battling an epidemic of obesity, some wonder if, in addition to all the traditional advertising, using fake smells to awaken hunger pangs…especially when its to high sugar, high fat delights is an unfair assault on our senses.
MELNICK: Food manufacturers and people that market food are very smart. They know exactly what is going to trigger people to buy food, even when they're not hungry.
CUDA: Lauren Melnick, a dietician with the Ohio State Extension School explains that many overweight and obese people are resistant to a hormone called Leptin that creates a sense of fullness, making sugary, salty and high-fat foods difficult to say no to.
MELNICK: Coupled with some of the other sensory cues, it can be really hard to resist those foods
CUDA: Scent Marketing companies bristle at the idea their tactics are deceptive or designed to manipulate and unwitting public. Murry Dameron is a spokesperson for ScentAir. He compares the use of fragrance to any other form of advertising, the use of music, setting or ambient lighting.
DAMERON: I don't think it's any more deceptive than having a poster of a hot baked cinnamon bun in the lobby. It just makes you aware that those products are available and that they offer that service.
CUDA: Not all companies using artificial aromas want the public to be aware that what you're smelling is advertising. Dameron says many of their clients prefer to remain anonymous, so they can keep scents in their "marketing bag of tricks." Fewer than a hundred of their twenty thousand plus clients are listed on ScentAir's website, the company declined to provide contact sources for any of them. Of those that we reached ourselves, they either did not return calls, declined to talk on tape or flat out denied they ever used artificial scents. Giant Eagle says they tested the systems in certain store, but refused give any further details. Cinnabon claims their signature cinnamon aroma is a secret formula- but that it is and has always been "all natural" and does not come from ScentAir or any other artificial scent. Both Disney and Harrah's did not return calls for comment.
It seems plausible that part of the power of scent marketing is that most consumers are unaware of the advertising being waved, literally, right under their noses. Again, Bill Barum.
BARUM: We think we have a choice --but our choices are being guided by the way modern marketing has analyzed our behaviors and the way they have analyzed our sensory perceptions with sight, sound and smell.
CUDA: Of course, marketers can use scents- like those of fruits and vegetables-to guide consumers toward healthy choices too, but let's be honest, the aroma of broccoli isn't nearly as appealing as baked goods. Health advocates like Lauren Melnick say that just knowing that scent marketing is out there is half the battle.
MELNICK: As consumers we have to be really smart and realize that the food industry and marketing- they're not thinking about our health. They are thinking of how to make the dollars.
And that knowledge she hopes will help consumers cast a more a critical eye - and nose on - on temptation.
Gretchen Cuda, 90.3