The Benefits of Scenting Public Places

We recently asked "Is It Ethical to Scent-Brand Public Places?" and it generated some very lively discussion on our site. Amelia Black, a designer who explores the role scent plays in the design experience, asked if she could respond. Here are her thoughts.

Take a moment to consider the space around you: There is scent everywhere, from the clothing we wear and the beauty products we use to the cleaning products we apply to remove these smells (by adding new ones). Most of these smells are synthetic, because they're cheaper to produce and have a long shelf life. These are chemicals, but so is everything; some are toxic, others aren't; some are used in huge quantities, others are so scarce that they can only be measured in parts per million. They are increasingly controversial, however, and a growing debate among environmental-illness advocates and industry representatives is raising public awareness around the role that synthetic smells play in shaping our day-to-day environment.

Consumer rights and environmental groups point to findings on the health risks associated with many of the chemicals found in everyday products, which suggest that some chemicals are increasing peoples vulnerability to a number of diseases and disorders. And yet, our culture demands a certain aesthetic standard of hygienic cleanliness which requires synthetically fragranced products: We want floors that smell like pine, lip gloss that tastes like bubblegum, and sitting rooms that smell like apple pie—and we have them all thanks to synthetic chemicals.

The emerging field of scent branding has taken this one step further. In seeking to understand the effect that smells have on our society, is it possible that this field can actually help us build a greater appreciation—and understanding—of our relationship with smell?

Scent branding (also known as scent marketing) is an emerging field in the worlds of fragrance and design. Because of the power that smell has to communicate directly with our memories and emotions, scent branding is an effort to add multidimensional meaning to our experience of products and spaces. Smells can change the way we experience things. Consider a Crayola crayon, wherein a traditionally not-nice smell—wax—has become a talisman for fond childhood memories and an extension of the Crayola brand.

Taken one step further, the politics can change, and it's fair to say that current scent-marketing efforts may have gotten a little off track. In 2006, for example, advertisers keen to experiment with the evocative power of scent, applied the scent of cookies to the posters of a Got Milk? campaign that was set to run in bus shelters across San Francisco. Twenty-four hours after they went up, however, they were taken down when there was outcry about the impact the cookie smell may have on the chemically sensitive, as well as the shelter's nighttime inhabitants (that is, the homeless).

But not all efforts are as short-sighted. This spring, the design community took a serious interest in the experience of scent at the first scent as design symposium entitled "Headspace." Presented at the event were a series of six prototypical explorations commissioned for the the Accidental Perfumers project. For each entry, a perfumer and designer set out to explore the role of scent could play in design. For this collaboration, the environmental activist Majora Cater teamed up with Pascal Guarin and Bruno Jovanovic, perfumers from IFF in New York. Carter is the Executive Director of Sustainable South Bronx, a nonprofit that brings green-collar jobs, public awareness, and green spaces to Hunt’s Point, Bronx, where residents are exposed to huge amounts of industrial waste and air pollution. (Rates of death from asthma in the South Bronx are about three times higher than the national average.)

For their project, they focused on the emotional impact the poor air quality had on the residents. They created a scent called L’Eau Verte du Bronx du Sud, which smelled like fresh-cut grass and was meant to evoke positive feelings associated with the natural world. They teamed up with Sal Gigante, a superintendent for a local low-income housing development (Sister Thomas Apartments) who has already experimented with scented cleaning products to keep the building’s public areas smelling pleasant. To beta test their design prototype, they would use the buildings' HVAC system to disperse small puffs of a custom nontoxic fragrance in public spaces with the intent promote well-being amongst the inhabitants.

“The part of your brain that senses scent can allow you to feel really bad about what you see in front of you—or really good—depending on what it is," Majora Carter in an interview with BusinessWeek about the project. "The question is: How do you evoke a certain feeling without imposing on people in any way?"

The “Accidental Perfumers” projects are an example of using the power of smell—done in an ethical and environmentally safe way—to inspire emotional wellbeing. It is an example of the role that the fragrance industry can play in rethinking the impact of smell in the our culture. These collaborative efforts used high-quality scent materials to add a dimension to a physical space instead of using a stronger artificial smell to cover up the existing bad smells.

Consider this a forward-thinking example of how scent can used to enhance—not pollute—our lives, even when that scent is synthetically engineered.