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Coercive atmospherics reach the bus shelter

Milk & cookies

Jonathan Zittrain discusses scented advertising in bus shelters: the California Milk Processor Board recently tried a campaign with chocolate-chip cookie-scented “aromatic strips”, intended to provoke a thirst for milk, in San Francisco before having to remove them after allergy/chemical sensitivity concerns.

The use of scent (fresh bread, coffee, ‘new car smell’ etc) as a persuasion method is nothing new in supermarkets and other retail environments – as part of coercive atmospherics, Douglas Rushkoff and Martin Howard both have interesting treatments of various approaches and results – but the balance does begin to shift when the application is so public. I would suspect a lot of the opposition in San Francisco was really more about the inescapable incursion of the commercial message into a public environment than the allergy concerns; as Jonathan puts it:

Unlike the use of even large billboards, there’s no easy way to avert your nose the way you can avert your eyes, making the advertising much more invasive.

Nevertheless, I’m not sure that a less obviously “invasive” olefactory campaign would necessarily meet too much opposition if handled correctly. Imagine an air freshener manufacturer sponsoring a clean-up of a city’s dirtiest/stinkiest bus shelters. Provided it were not overpowering, and not too sickening, would a fragranced bus shelter without a coercive angle be seen as invasive?

Or, to run closer to the milk-and-cookies example, what if, say, Nestlé were to fragrance bus shelters with chocolate milkshake scent in order to promote Nesquik? It doesn’t have the same ‘sneaky’ aspect, though I suspect it would still be pretty irritating.


  1. air ‘fresheners’ do not actually freshen the air, they mask odours that are symptomatic of a problem that should be addressed directly. The odours are critical information and its removal makes the problem they betray less likely to receive the attention it deserves.

    Covering up the smell of gangrene is not a good idea.

    Any artificial odours should ADD valuable information, not remove it.

    For example, adding odour to flammable but odourless gas.

    The best thing advertisers could do for bus shelters would be to CLEAN them up so that people didn’t associate their products with unhygenic public urinals.

    If all shelters that advertised a cleaning product were cleaned, whereas all those that didn’t smelt like cat’s piss, well, that might work – until the advertisers deliberately started encouraging cats to piss at other shelters…

  2. sneezy

    “I would suspect a lot of the opposition in San Francisco was really more about the inescapable incursion of the commercial message into a public environment than the allergy concerns;”

    I’m always amused by the degree to which we humans assume that what has Importance to us personally must carry an equal amount of weight in the general case. 🙂 As someone who is literally prohibited from occupying space infused with the output of mis-named “air fresheners” by my bodies histamine response, I can assure you that not all objections were purely based on cognitive intrusion. There are a lot of asthma sufferers out there! Scenting any public place is a Bad Thing – I personally have trouble with sitting next to someone on a bus who’s clothing reeks of scented dryer sheets, even. Please don’t belittle what is a problematic aspect of shared spaces for many people (more than you would think, since any attempt to explain the situation often prove to be extremely unrewarding, so I, and probably others, no longer bother).

    That said, thanks for a very interesting read!

  3. Pingback: Why does Subway smell the way it does? « Light Up The Rain

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