Smellvertising on the Bus?

Photo by psd on Flickr

Summer is the smelliest time for cities. When hundreds of thousands of people are walking around on baking asphalt and then crowding into ancient subway cars or buses, aroma is a lowest common denominator: Whoever stinks the most, wins. And the rest of us lose.

Which is why I’m pretty excited for the “smellvertising” campaign that Dunkin’ Donuts recently ran in Seoul, South Korea. Here’s more from Steve Annear at Bostinno:

The spray, known as “Flavor Radio,” was set off by the sound of the company’s advertisement when it played on the buses speakers.

The compartments, which looked similar to conventional in-home sprayers that send a scent into the air, were only triggered by the Dunkin’ Donuts radio jingle.

According to the campaign, when the devices were installed, the aromatizers were spritzing the fumes of coffee into the faces of more than 350,000 commuters while on their daily ride to work.

The campaign was remarkably effective: Sales at Dunkin’ outlets went up 29 percent during the campaign. Of course, some people are worried that we’re exploiting bus riders, who are unable to escape the advertisements and are the ultimate captive audience. As Megan Garber at the Atlantic writes:

Which means that, as an ad tactic, scent is particularly aggressive. It’s the physicality of the thing, sure—the fact that scent makes literal consumers of us—but it’s also the invasiveness. We advertisees have developed fairly sophisticated methods of avoiding ads as sensory intakes: we tune out unpleasant sounds with headphones, we avert our eyes from unpleasant images. Scent, however, is harder to ignore. And—Proustian memory!—it’s also harder to forget. Dunkin’ Donuts wasn’t just advertising to people on those buses in Seoul; it was also imprinting itself into their lungs and onto their memories.

Listen, I understand the concerns—no one wants to be manipulated by advertisers. Advertising can be remarkably invasive and obnoxious. And for now, Dunkin’ and the MBTA have no plans to bring the campaign here. I urge them to reconsider. I would gladly listen to annoying jingles, be blasted in the face by coffee-scented air fresheners, and even—Pavlovian style—find myself drawn to Dunkin’ for coffee. It would be a pleasure.

Why? Because it would make the bus smell 10,000 times better.