Friday, September 23, 2011

Sex Pheromones by the Numbers: Have They Peaked?

I recently declared that I no longer find the concept of human pheromones to be scientifically useful. I think there is lots of evidence for the effect of scents on human cognition, behavior, and physiology. But if we insist on labeling all these various effects as pheromones, we muddy the intellectual waters and make it harder to understand the biological basis of the effects. Dick Doty, in his book The Great Pheromone Myth, has done an impeccable job of showing how intellectually bankrupt the pheromone concept has become.

Still, there are die-hards out there who believe that with enough gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and with fine-grained enough fractionations, they will isolate the magic molecule that Will Drive Women Wild. Their more restrained colleagues believe that more research may lead to a mixture of a few different molecules that, when applied to a female with a specific mating history, at a specific time of the month, may, under certain specified conditions, alter her perception of men. For them, sex pheromones are a mixture that Will Drive Women to a Statistically Significant Difference in Perception.

Not exactly the stuff of lurid fantasies . . .

My sense is that many scientists in the field privately agree with Doty’s critique; it’s just not politic to trash the concept when you are applying for grant funding to study sex and scent.

It’s also my sense that public enthusiasm for pheromones has cooled. To test my impression, I played with a program from Google Labs:
When you enter phrases into the Google Books Ngram Viewer, it displays a graph showing how those phrases have occurred in a corpus of books (e.g., “British English”, “English Fiction”, “French”) over the selected years.
Neato! So let’s enter “pheromone” and ask for results from the corpus of English books from 1950 to 2008. Here’s what we get:

We find that pheromone enters the charts soon after its coinage in 1959, and climbs steadily to a peak in 2000. After that, it’s all downhill.

Can such a widely credited concept go bust just like that?

In my review of Doty’s book I wrote:
Once upon a time instinct theory was equally in vogue and used to “explain” all sorts of behavior. Today it’s rarely invoked. By specifying the roles of context and learning, behavioral science simply outgrew the need to appeal to instinct.
So let’s put “instinct” in the Google Ngram Viewer, set the time frame for 1800 to 2008, and see what we get.

Interesting! Instinct enjoyed a long climb in usage throughout the 19th Century and into the first two decades of the 20th. (Darwin, Freud, yadda yadda.) But it peaked in 1921 and then sank like a stone.

Which leads one to wonder: was 2000 the high water mark for pheromones? My money says yes.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

ISDP: How low can you go?

There’s a big harvest moon hanging over New Jersey at the moment, throwing just enough light into the belfrey to illuminate the grimy calendar from that Chinese take-out place that gave us the trots a while ago. And whaddya know, it’s the thirteenth of the month. Time for another installment of the FN feature that dares, nay, compels you to peek through your fingers and read every gruesome item. We are talking, of course, about I Smell Dead People, the unaccountable popularity of which drives about 98% of our traffic.

We regularly spotlight nominees for the annual Norman Bates Award, given to the person who manages to live at length in close proximity to the stench of a decomposing corpse. Last week’s story by David Owens and Christine Dempsey in The Hartford Courant opens an entirely new dimension of Batesian misbehavior: people who rob the rotting dead.
While the body of Debra Jurasus moldered in a recliner in her Goodrich Street home, some people from the neighborhood broke in, ransacked the house and stole a jar of coins, credit cards, a laptop computer, a camera and her car keys, police say.

The burglars made several trips to the house, despite the odor, and used her green 1995 Ford Escort to haul away the loot, according to the arrest warrant for two of the suspects.
According to police, the suspects described the body
as sitting in a recliner and being covered with flies and other insects. One said that the odor made him sick and that he went outside to throw up, but then went back in to search for valuables.
Oh, the poor sensitive soul.

Meanwhile, the body of Mrs. Jurasus was described as partially mummified, but with no obvious signs of trauma.
How long Jurasus was dead remains unclear. Neighbors said that they had called police about an acrid stench and an unusual number of flies in May, but that police didn’t go into the house. Neighbors said they hadn’t seen Jurasus since February.
Hartford doesn't sound like the most tightly knit of communities . . .

In Jacksonville, Florida, last month, two bodies were found in a wooded area in the Mixon Town district, near the Prime Osborn Convention Center.
According to officers, neighbors contacted police about a foul odor in the area and they arrived just before 7 p.m. to find the bodies, one male and one female.
According to the story filed by Jessika Lewis, the bodies may have been those of a recently married couple; the sheriff’s office notes the woman had been arrested in April “on multiple charges of possessing and selling cocaine and methamphetamines, and also altering a firearm identification number.”

Around the same time in Huntsville, Alabama, the body of a man who had been missing for about ten days was found through olfactory means:
After smelling a foul odor, a citizen discovered the body in a drainage ditch at the intersection of Bonnie View and Scenic View drives in a neighborhood off Sparkman Drive near the Pulaski Pike intersection.
Finally, we are sorry to conclude that the town of Willoughby Hills, Ohio, does not qualify for a peg on the I Smell Dead People Interactive Map. The headline “Willoughby Hills woman found dead, police look for husband,” is promising enough, but the subhead—“Wellness check by police leads to foul odor”—gives the game away. The foul odor has to lead to the discovery; if the search is set in motion by non-olfactory suspicions, then no peg on the map. Sorry, folks, but the rules are the rules.

The Nosey Book Club

A month or so ago, Harper-Collins sent me a new novel, “The Lantern,” by Deborah Lawrenson, to review. The book is set in Provence, and a minor character becomes a perfumer. Hence sending review copies to perfume bloggers such as myself. I do appreciate the outside-the-box thinking that went into this.
That’s the start of Pat Borow’s olfacto-centric book review at Olfactarama a few weeks ago. While she didn’t care for The Lantern’s Daphne du Maurier-esque Gothic style, she liked its sensory evocation of Provence.
What is heartening about this book is the emphasis on the olfactory sense, usually ignored in fiction, and the writer’s obvious love of classic fragrance.
While it’s not the sort of tome I’d buy unless it came shrink-wrapped with a dose of injectable testosterone, The Lantern is currently doing very well on Amazon. And I’m all for smellier literature.

Which brings me to Millennium People by the late J.G. Ballard. He’s the guy who wrote Crash and the semi-autobiographical Empire of the Sun. Both were made into remarkable movies, the former starring a younger and slimmer James Spader, the latter an adolescent Christian Bale.

Ballard is not everyone’s cup of tea. His novels are studies in modern alienation, written in a style to match. They are not lyrical; their tone is antiseptic. Ballard picks a topic—in Millennium People it is an absurdist, violent, revolt of the English upper-middle classes—and then probes it relentlessly. Despite being drawn in by the weird premise and the plot twists as the hero—a London psychologist—falls deeper into a crazy group of provocateurs and bomb-makers, I often had to put the book down and take a break. Ballard’s technique is to relentlessly probe and re-probe the same situation; the cumulative effect is like having an unpleasant doctor press repeatedly on a newly sutured wound.

Ballard’s characters are sterile and off-putting, and his scene-setting is equally cold and uninvolving:
We set off for Hammersmith, and took the flyover towards the brewery roundabout, passed Hogarth’s house and drove into the west along the M4.
So I was surprised to find numerous smelly passages in Millennium People. A couple are conventional smellscapes:
Somewhere a window had been opened onto the night, and a cooler air moved around me, the street scents of diesel fuel, rain and cooking fat from the all-night cafes near Waterloo Station.
Other—lots of them—have to do with characters sniffing at glasses of whisky or sherry. For the most part, though, Ballard’s literary nose is concerned with the olfactory auras of people, especially women. Here’s the injured narrator being cared for by the violent cultists:
Women moved gently around me, easing off my shoes and loosening my belt. The Chinese girl leaned over the settee and unbuttoned my shirt. A faint but expensive scent floated between us, the tang of an unusual toothpaste, hints of the first-class lavatories on long-haul Cathay Pacific flights, a dream of sable coats and Hong Kong boarding lounges. Then a harsher odour intervened, the coarse petroleum reek of lubricating oil. The biker-clergyman, Stephen Dexter, lifted my head onto a corded cushion handed to him by Kay.
Here he returns to his home after weeks spent at the barricades:
Upstairs in our bedroom a medley of perfumes greeted me when I opened the wardrobe, memories of restaurants and dinner parties. In the bathroom I caught the scent of Sally’s body, the sweet, killing spoor or her scalp and skin on the towels.
These olfactive sketches are more lyrical than anything else in the novel, and yet . . . what’s with the lavatories and spoor? Ballard can’t refrain from the disturbingly off-kilter, even when he’s describing a scent.

For a more conventional, if no less mixed, review of Millennium People, try this one by Sam Sacks in the WSJ.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


I put the flag out today, as always. The Stars and Stripes defiant under a dull, gray sky, even as the light now dims.

The grief doesn’t abate. The anger burns on.

The same evening ten years ago: The squeak of playground swings; my daughters and their friend oblivious to the smoking inferno just beyond the horizon. The sky crystal clear and utterly silent. I watch C. on the swing and know that her life is about to break in two, even as her mother searches the emergency rooms and morgues.

Her mother retrieves her from our place later, and as they walk into the night I hear C. ask, “Is Daddy home?”

I will not forget.

Every time the bus leaves the Lincoln Tunnel and winds up the helix, I look back at the missing towers and think of her father. The grief and the anger flare.

A few months ago I looked back and smiled before I knew what I was thinking. And then I thanked the Navy Seals.

Kenneth Anderson, more composed than I, offers a fine thought at the close of day:
May the victims and their families and loved ones find peace. To those who went to war and continue at war, military and civilian alike, responding to that aggression — thank you for your service. To those who have been lost in that service, again military and civilian alike, ave atque vale.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Artist Formerly Known as a Smellebrity

There was a flurry of media attention around Prince this week, in connection with an ongoing legal dispute regarding his fragrance 3121. The headline at TMZ set the tone: “Prince: Stinky Perfume Deal Could Cost Him Millions.” With the exception of Daniel Wise’s report in the New York Law Journal, most of the coverage offered cheap schadenfreude and little analysis.

Yet a look at the actual legal filing reveals quite a juicy story.

The dispute is between Prince and Revelations Perfume and Cosmetics Inc., the Pennsylvania-based company with the license deal for the fragrance. 3121 was released in 2007 and named after Prince’s 2006 album. The scent had gross sales of only $1.3 million and failed commercially. Revelations claims that was because Prince failed to promote it as he had agreed. So they sued him (and his music publisher) in 2008, claiming “fraudulent inducement and tortious interference with contract.” Revelations is on the hook for $3.9 million in production and marketing costs, which they want Prince to pay in addition to lost profits and punitive damages.

So far it sounds like a standard business dispute. Look a little closer, however, and the weirdness emerges. According to Wise, Prince’s original attorney withdrew late last year
after “complaining that the firm had not been paid “for months” and that Prince had “failed to comply with basic discovery obligations.”
After allegedly stiffing his own lawyer, Prince then failed to appear at a court hearing in New York in December. This resulted in a default judgment in favor of Revelations—with the upshot that all facts alleged by Revelations are deemed admitted. Having handed the company a victory, Manhattan Acting Supreme Court Justice Bernard J. Fried had to rule on the validity of its specific claims, i.e., figure out how much money they were owed. Here he followed standard procedure and appointed a Special Referee to look into the matter and make recommendations. It was the Special Referee’s report, made public last week, that sparked the news stories.

The referee interviewed Revelations founder and President/CEO Larry Couey. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, it should. Many years ago he founded Parfums de Coeur, the outfit that marketed the much derided cheeseball fragrances called “Designer Imposters®.”
If you like Clinique® Happy®, you’ll love our Wanna Play?
After selling Parfums de Cour, Couey went on to work for other companies including Perfumer’s Workshop and Gryphon Development; the latter developed fragrances for Victoria’s Secret and Bath and Body Works. He founded Revelations in 1998. The company’s claim to fame is Stoked, the perfume by Bethany Hamilton. [Who?—Ed.] [The surfer teen whose arm was bitten off by a shark.] [Oh.—Ed.]

As Couey tells it (and we have only his testimony because Prince failed to defend himself) he happened to meet one of Prince’s reps in L.A. and was invited to pitch a fragrance project to the Purple One in Minneapolis. There he proposed a routine licensing deal in which Prince would get 6% of net profits. Prince wanted more than that; he “countered with a proposed joint venture that included a 50/50 percent split of net profits between Revelations and Prince.”
He [Couey] recalled Prince suggested the fragrance could have exposure on the Oprah Winfrey Show or promoting it in upcoming concert tours, press releases, personal appearances and that his intimate involvement would assure success.

Couey testified it was at this first meeting where Prince represented that he would support the product in any way, shape or form. Couey responded that if Prince was willing to do the same, then Revelations was willing to do a 50/50 split of profit.
Imagine Couey’s frustration when, after Prince refused an interview with Women’s Wear Daily and to negotiate a date with the Oprah Winfrey Show, he was told by the performer’s people that “Prince does not do interviews.” Nor, apparently, does he do photos of himself holding his own fragrance, nor allow his name to be used on the bottle or outer packaging.

Unlike the absurd story of Julian “Franck” Rouas and his dealings with Joe Jackson regarding a Michael Jackson scent, Larry Couey’s account of his involvement with Prince sounds more than plausible. On the basis of Prince’s enthusiasm for the project, Couey began development work even before the lawyers had finished the formal business agreement. The timetable was reasonable, fragrance development was handed to a major house (Givaudan), and work was begun on bottle and package design. Yet even as Prince reviewed designs and perfume trials, he began to hedge on the use of his image and name.

The July, 2007, launch at Macy’s in Minneapolis was supposed to include an exclusive performance at the store by Prince. Couey was surprised to find that Prince had scheduled a full concert that day. (At the Target Center in Minneapolis, no less; the Macy’s people almost blew a gasket.) Revelations “repackaged the launch” as a ticket-with-fragrance-purchase, at a cost of $150,000 in tickets. In addition,
Couey also testified that Revelation contributed another $150,000.00, as a direct payment into an account held by Prince’s attorney, one Mr. Cousins, in Florida.
Eeuuuwww. Icky. Very icky.

Couey’s testimony to the Special Referee is the story of a business relationship gone wrong. It has a convincing nightmare quality about it—the zombies are chasing you but you are stuck in the mud. You are trying to promote a Prince perfume but the star won’t lift a finger.

A little Googling suggests a different spin. In a 2007, Philadelphia’s City Paper published an article by Ashlea Halpern called “A Hint of Paisley: How local company Revelations put Prince in a bottle.”
Couey was in California last summer meeting with the agent of one-armed surfer Bethany Hamilton, the spokesteen for Revelations’ Stoked brand, when, as luck would have it, Universal Music Group was convening next door. Couey caught wind that Prince wanted to launch a perfume named after his new album, 3121, but was unhappy with his label’s choice of company. “He didn’t want a huge conglomerate,” explains Couey, who two weeks later flew to Minneapolis to seal the deal with the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known As.

“Even though he has a pretty wild persona onstage, he’s very soft-spoken, sincere and serene when you meet him,” says Couey, adding that he and the Purple One bonded immediately over their Midwestern upbringing.

Couey says it took six weeks to get the top notes right in 3121. “That’s it!” Prince finally cried, snapping his fingers. “Right there, that’s it. Done! Don’t change another thing!”

Unlike other celebrity stinkums, Prince’s name and face are nowhere to be found on the 3121 box. This is deliberate. From the start, Prince said he wanted to build the brand on its own merits, not on his Midas touch.
[Emphasis added.]
Hmmm . . . Is this Couey admitting that Prince’s name and face were, in fact, never part of the deal? Or was this Couey trying to put a happy face on Prince’s refusal to honor the deal?

It also appears this is not the first time that perfume has landed Prince in hot water. In 1995, his self-produced Go Wild came a cropper of Jackie Collins who had released her own scent, Wild, seven months earlier. She sued Prince for copyright infringement, based on similarity of the names and box design.

Prince is something of a diva, having butted heads with record labels and fans alike. But he is unquestionably a talented and creative musician. Meanwhile, the ersatz Justin Bieber has no beef with “huge conglomerates” and when his handlers request a Macy’s appearance to promote his perfume he shows up—at some personal risk!

In the end, Mr. Crespo, the Special Referee, granted Revelations’s claim for $3.9 million in net losses. He denied their claim for potential lost profits on the grounds that they basically pulled the profit projections out of their butt (he used more elegant legal phraseology). He refused punitive damages because Prince’s behavior did not meet the legal standard of morally culpable, willful misconduct, nor was it the result of evil or reprehensible motives.

Exit question: Which does Prince want more—his own fragrance or the chance to jerk other people around?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

One Mighty Drop in the Bucket

Ah, to be alive once again in the heady days of pre-launch publicity, back in December, 2009, when The Fragrance Foundation was ready to unleash its epic new advertising campaign:
A dynamic, key component of the multi-media strategy will be an extremely fun, interactive and innovative microsite “” designed to bring the campaign to life. The site will be the central hub of the campaign, designed to inform, engage and excite the consumer about fragrance. With a few clicks, you will be able to find a fragrance, design your own bottle, read personal perfume stories, get tips and hints from fragrance insiders including how to wear, frequently asked questions and current trends in fragrance. will harness all the power of social networking to spread the word via Facebook, Twitter and featured blogs.

“It’s all about the transformative powers of fragrance and the endless possibilities only limited by your imagination”, comments Stephen Niedzwiecki, owner, founder and creative director of the influential New York based advertising and design company YARD, who created the campaign and developed the microsite together with his business partner and planning director Ruth Bernstein.
Checking the Alexa web traffic rankings this morning, we noticed that had vanished from the radar: “We don’t have enough data to display the traffic metrics for”

Heckuva job, Stevie.

From the get-go, we didn’t hesitate to call this one lame campaign.

One year ago we drew attention to the nosedrive in OMD’s web traffic. Our little snark fest is now the fourth result on a Google search for “one mighty drop.”

Why has traffic now plunged to Alexa extinction? It appears the OMD site has returned to the mother ship: it redirects to The Fragrance Foundation home page, where there is little trace of the former “dynamic,” “extremely fun,” “interactive” microsite. At the time of its humiliating reabsorption, there were only 12 other sites linking to it. As for the rest of the multi-media strategy, the OMD Twitter feed has a grand total of 146 followers, and its Facebook page has 382 likes.

Will the last visitor please turn out the lights?

P.S. Can you spot the missing anatomical feature on the model The Fragrance Foundation is using to promote perfume use? That’s right! She has no nostrils.