These days, if it doesn't smell it doesn't sell. EMMA COOK reports on the latest assault to our senses
Modern life stinks. There's really no escaping it. Urban consumption is an increasingly smelly business and one that leaves dried flowers and Haze air-freshener floundering in the Dark Ages. Until recently, appealing to our sense of smell was relatively virgin territory for marketeers and manufacturers.

Ironically, the rise of artificial fragrance is part and parcel of a very Nineties New Age craving for "simplicity". So shops like Wax Lyrical (scented candles), Lush (incredibly pongy toiletries favoured by the likes of Madonna) and Body Shop can waft out a raft of overpowering aromas in the name of all-natural merchandising.

Smelly soaps made from bananas and avocado, scented sandalwood candles and joss sticks are no longer sad hippy territory, thanks to some snazzy packaging. Where once strong floral scents were viewed as suburban (think lavender bags, "Feux Orange" which hang off taxi mirrors and those strange things you can plug into a socket), this new generation of stinky products is a natural progression from aromatherapy and Feng Shui; part aspirational lifestyle statement and part quest for inner calm.

Still, this doesn't quite explain an even newer generation of fragrant products that brazenly cross the taste barrier into sordid scratch 'n' sniff territory. Last year Gordon's Gin wafted the aroma of juniper berries around the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, London. A washing powder brand followed suit with "fragrant" posters at bus stops.

Crabtree & Evelyn, meanwhile, is expanding from toiletries into a range of "aroma" cooking sprays including "Summer Salads" and "Patisserie", but not, presumably, "Baked Beans on Toast" or "Fried Egg Sandwich".

A few weeks back, much was made of a new range of scented furniture; upholstery firm Contour-Mobel has created sofas in lavender, vanilla and rose for pounds 2,200 a go. The loose covers are, apparently, made from a fabric that contains millions of scent-filled capsules which release aromas when the cushions are plumped up. The creator of the range, Steve Egan says, "It started off as joke. Then we thought it might just work. It's like having a built- in air freshener." It's hard to work out if this is the guiding principle behind a new range of scented underwear from Paris label Neyret. But then it's even harder to figure why anyone would want their cleavage to smell like a bowl of pot pourri.

Still, though, the marketing men are making great progress in this area, thanks in part to psychologists like Dr Steve van Toller, director of the Olfaction Research Group at Warwick University, who is busily researching the psychological implications. Toller advises Unilever, ICI and many other companies which believe consumers are more likely to buy if they like what they smell.

Toller is also researching links between memory and scent. "Smells plug straight into our emotional centres in the middle part of the brain - the non-verbal part and can have a powerful effect on our feelings," he says. In a recent experiment he asked elderly people to describe a substance - like tomato ketchup - before and after smelling it. He found that, like Proust's famous madeleine moment in Remembrance of Things Past, smell can trigger powerful memories. "We do call it the Proust Effect. Once people smell something it can unleash a whole lot more information."

Information, though, isn't what the people selling products are interested in. It's our instincts that they hope to capture. When we smell, say, bread baking, our general instinct is, if we're hungry, to salivate. Ditto roasting chicken. Which is why supermarkets are so keen to churn those aromas around their store. "They're called pyrazines - those cooking and roasting smells," explains Toller. "It's not economical to produce them but they're very attractive to people and they buy more food." Similarly, Mothercare wafts evocative nursery smells around its stores in the form of baby powder.

Manipulating this relationship between sense and association has been found to be commercially extremely attractive. Non-verbal, seductive and subliminal, smell is the most powerful of our senses. Whereas you can exercise the choice to stop listening or watching, physically you can't help smelling things.

Certain aromas can also tap into something quite primitive. Toller says, "Pyrazines are particularly powerful. You could say it's a hard-wired response in our brains that goes right back to when humans discovered how to cook meat. Suddenly they increased their energy output by 30 per cent and that association is still a strong trigger."

As the commercialisation of smell spirals, though, the backlash has already started. The existence of scented furniture provoked Roy Hattersley to opine at great length about the evils of a "rent-a-smell" culture. The lavender sofa was suddenly a focus for all sorts of social inadequacies. "A deodorised society is one that is uncertain about its values. Whether the furniture company knows it or not, a chair that smells like a rose or field of lavender is a cry for help. Take me out of the rat race of commercial Britain, it pleads, and relocate me..."

Others would argue that the rat race is a much sweeter smelling place than many other areas of the country. And certainly much sweeter than it used to be. Toller says, "Nice odours have always been used in all societies even if it's a wreath of flowers. Now we're making smell egalitarian." Except that we don't seem to have that much choice about what's pushed under our noses and when. In America, pressure groups are trying to reduce the amount of artificial fragrances pumped into public places, partly because some can cause allergic reaction but also as a moral objection. "Some people would just like less clutter in their environment," says Tim Brown, deputy secretary for the National Society For Clean Air. "It would be nice to go shopping and not be blasted with these smells. People want to walk around outside without being bombarded in this way."

Then there are the environmental anxieties that inevitably go with this. Dr Michael Warhurst, toxics campaigner for Friends Of The Earth, is currently lobbying the Government to phase out certain artificial musks that appear in a whole range of product fragrances. "They persist in the environment and can accumulate in the body. Scientists can actually trace them in breast milk and body fat. A particular one is found to cause cancer and it's being phased out."

Most people, though, are less offended by the long-term effects than the sheer nastiness of the smells themselves. Also, advertisers have no idea of context. Who really wants to get a noseful of fabric conditioner exuding from a bus shelter poster? Or a whiff of gin as you flick through your magazine over breakfast?

Being forced to inhale on a regular basis has the curious effect of making you nostalgic for authentic smells. Especially when some of them seem so elusive. Shop-bought roses, for instance, invariably smell of little more than the cellophane they're wrapped in. According to the Royal Horticultural Society, it's do with artificial breeding. A spokesperson says, "Breeding is neglecting scent in favour of bigger blooms and brighter colour. Maybe the genes coded for smell also make the plant smaller."

Yet it's not just the nice smells you miss in our increasingly scented culture. Gone are the days when you could step in a cab and inhale the honest smell of stale fags. Instead you're faced with that stuffy, sickly waft of vanilla essence. Still, that's nothing compared to other olfactory treats in store; Egan, the scented furniture creator, admits it could produce sofas smelling of beer, curry and even pizzas. Now there's a pong that could really get up people's noses.

WHATEVER WILL THEY THINK OF NEXT...?

5 School books that smell of chocolate.

5 The sweet odour of freshly mown grass in car ventilation systems.

5 The soothing scent of lavender in dentists' surgeries.

5 An alarm clock that exudes the aroma of toast and fresh coffee.

5 Travel brochures that smell of suntan lotion.

5 Cigars that smell of herbaceous borders.

5 Calorie-ridden chocolate truffles that reek of boiled cabbage.

5 Aeroplane toilets that automatically spray you with Chanel No 5.

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