Follow Your Nose: Food Company Launches ‘Smell-vertising’ for Potato Ads

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McCain Foods

In a cruel taunt to those who haven’t eaten dinner yet, McCain Foods has started using bus-shelter ads that waft the scent of oven-baked potatoes into the air. It’s a new take on scent marketing, a world that capitalizes on the consumer’s tendency to follow his or her nose.

At 10 bus stops around the United Kingdom, from York to London, Canada-based McCain Foods has mounted fiberglass potato sculptures into full-sized posters. Passersby can push a button that activates a heating element inside the potatoes—and voilà: the 3-D spud warms below your very fingers and is all up in your olfactory grill. It’s part of a $2.2 million campaign to hawk their “Ready-Baked Jackets,” frozen potatoes that are meant to provide the full slow-cooked potato experience in about five minutes.

(MORE: The Spanish Scent That’s Good Enough to Eat)

Scent marketing can take many shapes as well as smells. There are, obviously, perfume samples in magazines. And there are the pleasant odors that retailers diffuse throughout their shops—perhaps jasmine in fine shoe store or cookies in a holiday depot. (Anyone who’s stepped foot in an Abercrombie & Fitch should know what it’s like to walk into a brick wall of cologne.) A Brooklyn grocery store made news last year for filling aisles with artificial smells of grapefruit and rosemary focaccia from mounted “scent machines.” All are attempts to reach wallets through nostrils.

There is potential for this angle to backfire in the spud campaign. Take the so-called Proustian effect—named for writer Marcel Proust—which refers to the involuntary link between details like scent and long-term memories. After experiencing the McCain ad, consumers could walk past the potatoes in the freezer aisle and have their minds filled with thoughts of bus stops, from here to evermore.

Unlikely psychological side effects aside, there is much more potential for success. Unique advertising campaigns come with the bonus of free press. And surveys, like one conducted after the smell of Nivea sunscreen was sent into a movie theater through air-conditioning vents, show that recall for such ads can be five times better than boring old eyes-and-ears spots.

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Using smells in advertising has been around for decades, but advances in technology will only make it easier for more companies to integrate more odors through more mediums. Stories broke last year about new smell-o-vision research being done by companies like Samsung to produce a compact add-on that could generate thousands of smells to accompany TV watching. That kind of tool could allow viewers to smell a company’s coffee while watching the tantalizing waterfall of beans.

In short, this potato campaign may be a boon for the food company, but it may also be a harbinger of the brave, new-fangled, smelly world to come.