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Is it Ethical to "Scent Brand" Public Places?


"Scent branding"—wherein hotel chains, electronics companies, or lingerie lines create a signature smell and then stink-bomb the hell out of their lobbies and shops—is becoming quite the thing. It's controversial for lots of reasons, and is bound to get even more heated now that it's rumored to be part of an experiment in a low-income housing development in the Bronx.

In the Bronx, the hope is that by dousing common areas like hallways, lobbies, and shared spaces with perfume, they can make the residents happy—logic being that research shows strong connections between olfactory response and emotion. In shops, that can mean creating a feeling that is conducive to buying lots of stuff. In housing complexes, that can mean creating a feeling of hopefulness in an otherwise unpleasant environment.


While I find it interesting, I also think this is messed up for a few reasons.

For one, the fragrance industry is secretive and trades largely in toxic chemicals that are known allergens and likely hormone disruptors. Check out the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics' recent report on the secret chemicals used in perfume here.

Second, the chemicals used in fragrance are anything but environmentally safe (which is why I'm totally confounded by the fact that Majora Carter, the green queen of the Bronx, seems to be somehow involved).

Third, subjecting people (often without their knowledge) to fragrances that affect their emotions and behaviors strikes me as a slippery slope. I'd love to see someone try to stink-bomb a swishy Upper East Side high-rise, for example, and I'm curious to hear what consumer-rights advocates would have to say about stores using smells that create shopping-friendly feelings in their flagships.

What do you think?

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