Thursday, August 29, 2013

Bond on the Beach


A seaside reminiscence set on the five-mile promenade of Royale-les-Eaux, on “one of those Septembers when it seemed that the summer would never end.”
What a long time ago they were, those spade-and-bucket days! How far he had come since the freckles and the Cadbury milk-chocolate Flakes and the fizzy lemonade! Impatiently, Bond lit a cigarette, pulled his shoulders out of their slouch and slammed the mawkish memories back into their long-closed file. Today he was a grown-up, a man with years of dirty, dangerous memories—a spy. He was not sitting in this concrete hideout to sentimentalize about a pack of scrubby, smelly children on a beach scattered with bottle-tops and lolly sticks and fringed by a sea thick with sun oil and putrid with the main drains of Royale. He was here, he had chosen to be here, to spy. To spy on a woman.
Ian Fleming, Casino Royale (1953)

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How Do I Smell, Kaori-chan?

There’s a lot about Japan that I really like. Among the common elements are a slightly off-kilter (from my perspective) aesthetic and an unbridled enthusiasm for technology and gadgetry.

The former has fascinated me since the badly dubbed sci-fi films I watched on TV on Saturday afternoons. (Who were those tiny women in the rowboat singing to Mothra?) And I fondly remember listening to baseball broadcasts of the San Francisco Giants on my Panasonic transistor radio—my first-ever technology purchase.

Old habits die hard, and since acquiring a Roku box I’ve been catching up on Japanese sci-fi movies. Judging by some of them, the scene has gotten even weirder. Don’t take my word for it, go watch the disturbing imagery in Meatball Machine (2005) and get back to me.

Or check out the claustrophic and bloody Hellevator (2004), written and directed by Hiroki Yamaguchi who after this effort does not appear to have been allowed near a camera for about five years. In fairness, the guy who played the cannibal-rapist convict was awesome. [And the elevator operator chick was hot.—Ed.] [Yes. Yes she was.]

After my late-night sci-fi viewing, this news story seemed almost charmingly droll:
On 24 August, Kanagawa Prefectural Police picked up Joji Kondo for stealing three seats from women’s electric bicycles in a housing complex at around 4:00 in the morning. After searching Kondo’s home they uncovered a further 200 seats.

According to police he admitted to the crimes saying “I wanted to smell the lingering scent of a woman.” MSN News Japan reported the 35-year-old as saying “I like the texture of the leather and the smell it has, I would lick it and sniff it.”
Alright, then.


Meanwhile, the twin Japanese obsessions of olfactory technology and robotics have merged to produce a Sniff-Me Bot:
The female robot, Kaori-chan, has brown hair and blue eyes. When a person breathes in her face, she analyzes and quantifies components in their breath, and evaluates the smell on a scale of one to four.
I think I get it. Sort of.

UPDATE August 28, 2013
“Hey, wait a minute. Did that robot just fart?”

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Giving a New Meaning to Head Space

Every so often a client hires me to work on what I call the “dark side” of olfaction, products like underarm deodorant, kitty litter, feminine hygiene products, and adult incontinence garments. To get anywhere on such projects, the first item of business is to identify the malodors involved, at both the descriptive and chemical level. You need a know what you are dealing with in order to design sensory tests to measure progress, much less assign perfumers and chemists to work on solutions.

This is precisely the tack researchers at Firmenich’s R&D division in Geneva, Switzerland, took when they turned their attention to an important public health issue: designing free-standing toilets (i.e., latrines) that are safe and attractive to use. Flushable toilets require infrastructure—water supply, plumbing, sewerage—that is not always available or affordable. Lacking even field latrines, “more than 2.5 billion people defecate in the open.” So there is a big need for well-designed models that minimize malodor. The Firmenich team tackled the essential first step, a “qualitative and quantitative analysis of volatile constituents from latrines.” They published the results last month.

The group examined traditional models (i.e., a toilet seat over a pit in an outhouse) and “next-generation” designs that separate urine and feces. They did field research in Africa (Kampala, Nairobi, Durban) and India (Pune) in order to capture variation in climate and culture. Deploying the full array of modern analytic chemistry (SPME, GC-MS), they produced a “top 10” list of the key latrine volatiles. It includes sulfur-containing compounds, carboxylic acids, phenol, p-cresol, and those shitty old favorites indole and skatole.

I particularly enjoyed their matter-of-fact field descriptions. Here’s one from Durban, South Africa:
The pit latrines sampled contained various garbage, and the sludge was greenish gray. The odor of the sludge was typical sewage, methyl mercaptan, and rotten egg. In the proximity of the Durban UD [urine diversion] latrines, there was a strong urine smell, slightly ammonia, and animalic, typical of urinals. Inside the UD latrines, the smell was weak, slightly urinal, and farmyard. The collected sample was quite solid and had a weak smell, most likely due to the sandy red soil added to cover newly added feces, and the odor was reminiscent of manure, styrax, and asphalt.
By identifying the malodor volatiles involved and how they vary with physical factors of latrine design and use, Firmenich has made a valuable contribution to improving the well-being of people everywhere. Well done.

The study discussed here is “Qualitative and quantitative analysis of volatile constituents from latrines,” by Jianming Lin, Jackline Aoll, Yvan Niclass, Maria Inés Velazco, Laurent Wünsche, Jana Pika, and Christian Starkenmann, which appeared in Environmental Science & Technology 47:7876-7882, 2013.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

American Smellscapes: Days of Vinyl


Spokane photographer and videographer Young Kwak was on assignment for The Pacific Northwest Inlander when the scent memories caught up with him:
I opened the door, walked in and it hit me, the scent of plastic wrap, laminated cardboard and heavily treaded carpet. I forgot how inviting the smell was, as a place of comfort when I was a teenager and even later in life.

It was while photographing The Long Ear, in Coeur d’Alene, for this week’s
Inlander, when the smell of the record store triggered memories. While most of the store is row after row of CDs, it has retained its record store smell.
Record stores don’t hold much olfactory resonance for me, even though I spent a lot of time as a kid “cruising Tower Records,” namely the original store in Sacramento (picture above, in 1968) and later the one in San Francisco at Bay and Columbus.

Which reminds me, I’ve still got a couple of cartons of LPs up in the attic at FirstNerve Manor. [You no longer own a turntable.—Ed.] [Yeah, but that Steppenwolf album could be worth a lot on eBay.]

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

CSI: Smell Squad

Via Drew Friedman.

Faithful readers of I Smell Dead People (FN’s most wildly popular ongoing feature) know that people unlucky enough to catch the scent of decomposing human remains often remark on how unlike it is to any other smell. At the same time, neighbors sometimes fail to report the telltale odor because they misattribute it to a dead rat or other animal.

So how similar, in fact, are the odors of decomposing human and animal remains? It’s more than an academic question: police “cadaver dogs” in some jurisdictions are trained on decomposing pig carcasses. Well, thanks to researchers in Reno, Nevada, we have an answer.

The research team analyzed volatile organic compounds in the headspace of decomposing cow, pig, chicken, and human remains. They separately analyzed VOCs from bone, fat, muscle and skin tissue samples, both fresh and decomposed, using solid-phase microextraction and GC-MS.

Altogether, they found almost four dozen different volatile molecules. The distribution of VOCs across species and specimens was complex. Here’s a flavor:
Aldehydes were relatively numerous from fresh and decomposed tissues across the species. Nonanal was one of only a few compounds to be found in all decomposed samples, and all bone, fat and muscle, but absent from the fresh skin. Decanal was present only in decomposed samples, and in all of the cow and pig tissues, but only the chicken muscle. Although few in total count, aromatic hydrocarbons were prevalent in the different tissue types, both fresh and decomposed, and were generally prevalent across species. Toluene was the only compound found in every sample, both fresh and decomposed. It is a very chemically stable molecule and likely arises from the decomposition of the aromatic amino acids.
Despite the complexity, the researchers draw a couple of broad conclusions:
Pig VOC signatures were not found to be a subset of human; in addition to sharing only seven of thirty human-specific compounds, an additional nine unique VOCs were recorded from pig samples which were not present in human samples. The VOC signatures from chicken and human samples were most similar sharing the most compounds of the animals studied.
It is worth pointing out that this sort of chemical checklist approach (molecule X present or absent) is not an olfactory evaluation of the samples, which might result in somewhat different conclusions. Still, these results remind us that we must constantly question our assumptions. Pig physiology is sufficiently similar to human that they are useful in pharmacological and other types of research. As cadaver samples, maybe not so much.

A final point for the tech-heads out there: this is typical of the real-world complexity a forensic e-nose will have to sort out.

The study discussed here is “Characterization of the volatile organic compounds present in the headspace of decomposing animal remains, and compared with human remains,” by Mary E. Cablk, Erin E. Szelagowski, & John C. Sagebiel, published in Forensic Science International 220:118-125, 2012.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Nicotine on the Brain

Conventional wisdom holds that tobacco smoking ipso facto leads to a reduced sense of smell. Conventional wisdom is also wrong: the scientific evidence is mixed. Not to mention that some of the revered French perfumers of the past have smoked like chimneys.

A new study by researchers at the University of Dresden Medical School addresses the topic from a different angle. They used MRI scans to measure the size of the olfactory bulbs in smokers and non-smokers. It’s an interesting approach because we know that reducing neuronal input to the bulbs—by blocking a nostril or damaging the sensory epithelium in the nose—results in bulb shrinkage. Conversely, restoration of smell function makes them bigger.

In addition to bulb size estimates based on the brain scans, the researchers measured smell function in two ways: detection threshold for phenylethanol (rose alcohol), and odor identification ability with a 16-item test.

The results? There was no difference between smokers and non-smokers in odor detection or identification. Score another finding of no discernible effect of smoking on the sense of smell.

However, the scans showed that smokers had significantly smaller olfactory bulbs. “Aha!” say the anti-tobacco fascisti. “That proves smoking is harmful to the nose.”

But does it? The explanation for olfactory bulb shrinkage is that it results from peripheral damage to the sensory tissue in the nose. But if the noses of smokers in this study were damaged enough to cause their bulbs to shrink, how come they didn’t show reduced ability on the smell tests?

The authors of the new paper offer an intriguing alternative hypothesis. Their findings “could be a direct effect of nicotine on the neurogenesis/synaptogenesis of the olfactory bulb.” In other words, nicotine might have a damaging effects on these nerve cells quite independent of smoking.

That suggests a new study: compare sense of smell and olfactory bulb size in users and non-users of chewing tobacco. If chewers smell as well but have smaller bulbs, it would mean that nicotine, not smoking, is the chief factor.

Place your bets.

The study discussed here is “Olfactory bulb volume in smokers,” by Valentin A. Schriever, Nicole Reither, Johannes Gerber, Emilia Iannilli, Thomas Hummel, published in Experimental Brain Research 225:153-157, 2013.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Put Your Mouse Nose On

My first experiment on human odor perception asked whether people can smell the difference between strains of inbred laboratory mice. (Bottom line: yes, we can.) In addition to having test subjects sniff live mice from a Tupperware container, we utilized an, umm, alternative odor source of biological relevance.
Dry fecal pellets provided olfactory cues sufficient for subjects to discriminate between the males of two strains of mice differing at many genetic loci (AKR and C57BL/6) as well as between H-2 types (bb and kk) within each strain.
While the resulting article has been cited 53 times (according to Google Scholar), no one since has taken up the scientific banner of mouse turd odor. Until now.

A Japanese research team has sniffed and chemically analyzed the odor of mouse turds. Not just any turds—these were from mice exposed to four different stress conditions: no bedding chips, shaking, fasting, and movement restriction.

The sniff panel data indicate that all stressors except fasting result in stronger smelling feces. The chemical data (gathered by microscale purge and trap gas chromatography-mass spectrometry) revealed 17 odor compounds, including a bunch of aldehydes, two sulfides, and everyone’s favorite fatty acid, isobutyric acid.

Most, but not all, of these volatiles were present at concentrations detectable by the human nose. While the amount of some compounds varied significantly across the stress conditions, on the whole there was a lot of overlap in the chemical profiles. The researchers intend to use quantitative poop profiles to measure, and hopefully reduce, stress in lab mice.

The study discussed here is “Analysis of odor compounds in feces of mice that were exposed to various stresses during breeding,” by Kenji Sakuma, Susumu Hayashi, Yoshiyuki Yasaka, Hiroto Nishijima, Hisakage Funabashi, Masayoshi Hayashi, Hideaki Matsuoka, and Mikako Saito, published in Experimental Animals 62:101, 2013.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

ISDP: Cleveland Calling

It’s a gloomy, rainy morning in our dimly lit garret at FirstNerve Manor and according to the date on the flickering screen of our decrepit laptop it is once again time to release our highly anticipated monthly compendium of macabre olfactory moments known as I Smell Dead People. Over the years this chronicle of the nostril-searing grotesque has been filled with what, in a purely statistical sense, we might call normal cases: the neglected elderly, the invisible homeless, the poor schmo in the tinted-window pickup who had a fatal stroke in the parking lot of the Qwik-E-Mart.

It is not surprising that in such a long-running series of cases we occasionally find a dramatic outlier, such as a serial killer unmasked by the decaying smell of his victims.

What is surprising is to find a second serial killer revealed in the same way in the same city. Follow along as the all-smelling nostril of ISDP returns to Cleveland, Ohio.

It began routinely enough on July 19:
A body was found in a car port in East Cleveland Friday morning.

The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner was called to the area of Hayden and Shaw avenues. East Cleveland police said the body was brought to their attention after residents in the area reported a strong, foul odor.
Police soon had a suspect.
A convicted sex offender has been arrested after officers found a womans decomposing body in his garage, police said.

 Michael Madison, 35, of East Cleveland, was arrested following a standoff Friday afternoon at his mother
s home on East 197th Street and Chickasaw Avenue in Cleveland, police said.

Several people said they called police Friday morning before 11 a.m. complaining about a foul odor coming from a garage on Shaw Avenue just south of Hayden Avenue.

I went to get my tools in the garage and the smell next to mine was so bad. I called police and they went in and found a plastic bag,said a man who did not want to be identified.

I said, thats something; something is dead. I was hoping it was an animal. So, I told him, I’m going to call the police – at least they can come over here and see,Mickey Stovall-Brown said.

Neighbors said they complained about the smell for about a week.
Soon enough, other bodies were found.
The odor led to the discovery Friday of one body in a garage. Two others were found Saturday—one in a backyard and the other in the basement of a vacant house. The bodies of the three women, all wrapped in plastic bags, were found about 100 to 200 yards apart, and authorities believed the victims were killed in the last six to 10 days.
There are about 17,000 residents in East Cleveland, a neighborhood filled with abandoned houses. Neighbors pitched in to help police search about 40 of these after the additional bodies were discovered, but no more were found. Madison has been charged with aggravated murder.
Madison was classified as a sex offender in 2002 when he was sentenced to four years in prison for attempted rape, according to Cuyahoga County court records. He had previous convictions in 2000 and 2001 for drug-related charges.
More olfactory details emerge:
Workers at East Cleveland Cable TV said they knew something was wrong Friday morning. They saw flies and smelled a foul odor coming from a garage in East Cleveland. Its a smell you can't explain, took a while to get out of my nose,Shaeaun Childs said. Childs and his coworker, Mikki Taylor, called police.

They told police the garage was used by a tenant in an apartment above East Cleveland Cable TV. Taylor said police asked her to call the tenant, Michael Madison, and ask him to open the garage.
I called him and said 'Michael, we need to get into the garage.He paused and said 'I'm not there,Taylor said. When police got inside, they found the body of a woman wrapped in plastic.
Then there is this:
I thought it was a dead rat, I never thought they would find a body,Taylor said.
According to some news reports, Madison may have taken Cleveland serial killer Anthony Sowell as a role model.

Meanwhile, over in Shelby, Ohio:
A foul odor led to the discovery of a babys body in the trunk of a car at an auto repair shop Tuesday in Shelby, Ohio, police said.

 Police said a mechanic found the infant
s body about 1:30 p.m. local time, WMFD-TV, Mansfield, reported. Thinking the smell was from a dead animal, the employee opened the trunk and found the babys remains in a box in the trunk, and called authorities, the TV station said. The car had been at the shop for two days, Shelby Police Chief Charlie Roub said.
The stillborn baby was apparently stashed in the trunk by its mother, a 17-year-old girl, who nobody knew was pregnant.

Finally, we head down to Florida, a perennial leader in ISDP events, where Derek Gilliam reports from Jacksonville:
A decomposing body was discovered in a home Wednesday afternoon off North McDuff Avenue after complaints of a foul odor were reported to the Jacksonville Sheriffs Office.
Investigators found that the body was that of a 40-year-old man who they believe had been lured into the house, robbed, and shot in the back of the head. A 27-year-old man has been charged with his murder.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Nasal Invasion: The Ticket to Summer Escapism

There is no better way to beat the oppressive heat and humidity of a New Jersey summer than to head into an air conditioned theater and watch a schlocky horror movie. Three years ago, Piranha in 3D had all the key elements: gratuitous toplessness, gore, and a cast of has-beens (Richard Dreyfuss, Christopher Lloyd) and B-listers (Jerry O’Connell, Elisabeth Shue).

This year World War Z filled the bill with tons of gore, thousands of rampaging zombies, and Brad Pitt atop a cast of nobodies. It was a little short on gratuitous toplessness, but entertaining and thoroughly forgettable.

A key plot point in WWZ (yes, spoiler alert, but honestly, if you haven’t seen it yet what are the odds you ever will?) is that the flesh-eating zombies eat only healthy people—those infected with deadly diseases are functionally invisible to them. That got me thinking: there’s a lot of good horror movie material lurking in the olfactory system.

Consider this: the olfactory nerves, which run from the sensory membrane of the nose to the olfactory bulbs at the base of the brain, are unmyelinated. The absence of a myelin sheath leaves the nerve cells especially vulnerable to infection by viruses (e.g., influenza) and by that creepy quasi-life form know as the prion, which causes brain disease and dementia (e.g., Creutzfeld-Jakob and kuru). In other words—high concept alert for Hollywood screen writers!—the nose is a pathogen’s freeway to the brain. The point was driven home recently by Japanese scientists who squirted radioisotope into the nose of test subjects and watched it get transported up the olfactory nerves and into the brain within 24 hours.

It’s also been pointed out that the vomeronasal system (a.k.a. the accessory olfactory pathway) is a potential route for neuroinvasion by neurotropic microbes. [Neuroinvasion! Great movie title.—Ed.] The vomeronasal system is the neural pathway activated by sex pheromones. Right there you have all the plot elements for a summer blockbuster: zombifying microbes from the deep mud in Crystal Lake hitch a ride up the noses of randy, pheromone-drenched summer camp counselors. [Gratuitous toplessness!—Ed.] Only Brad the nature counselor and Cindy the vain, slutty cheer squad counselor, remain immune. (He has runny-nose ragweed allergy, and her vomeronasal organ was severed during a nose job.) Together, can they save Camp Runamucky from the Zombie Pheromone Massacre?

Okay, I can already hear grumbling from the Universal lot that zombifying microbes are not visually dramatic enough to attract the target demo. To that I say: Ferrets! That’s right—nasty, weasel-like ferrets. An Australian research team has demonstrated that the H5N1 or bird flu virus travels up the ferret olfactory nerve pathway from the nose to brain. The nose is “a major infection route for this virus strain.” Once up the nose, the virus gets into the cerebrospinal fluid. [That’s when you turn zombie.—Ed.]

So here’s the idea (Hollywood High Concept Alert!): A group of animal rights activists acquire a mutant, zombifying strain of H5N1 virus while liberating chickens at a factory farm. Before going zombie, they liberate hundreds of mink from a nearby fur farm. After Brad, the local sheriff, guns down the animal rights zombies, he gets called to the nudist resort at Crystal Lake where vacationers are being attacked by infected minks. Can Brad and his deputies save the world from Rampaging Nudist Zombies?

Every once in a while, the science nerd plays a critical role in a summer monster movie (think Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day). For that to work, you need a plot twist that only a scientist character can provide. Writing in the journal Virulence, German scientists at the Centre for Experimental and Clinical Infection Research note there are biological mechanisms that fight neurotropic viruses coming up the olfactory nerves. For example, there is a Type I interferon-dependent response in the glomerular layer of the olfactory bulb. [Boooooring.—Ed.] The take-away for the aspiring screen writer is that Brad, the brilliant and ridiculously good-looking immunologist at UCLA, can be shown working his Pipetman with furrowed brow as he comes up with an ingenious cure for the zombie virus that began with pole dancers in West Hollywood. [Pole dancers. Yes.—Ed.]

Strip Club Zombie Apocalypse will need some intense Michael Crichton-style visuals to establish Brad’s science cred and that’s where a recent PLoS ONE paper comes in handy. Cue titles:
Division of Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases
Centers for Disease Control
Fort Collins, Colorado
11:45 a.m.
The research team tracked the progress of Western equine encephalitis virus up the nose of lab mice, using in vivo bioluminescence. In other words, they genetically engineered the virus with the firefly luciferase gene; when they applied luciferin to the infected mouse brain tissue, the virus particles would glow. [Neato.—Ed.]

[via PLoS ONE]

Every summer blockbuster needs a sequel or two, and the neuroscience literature on neuroinvasion provides ample material. For example, human herpesvirus-6 is associated with “a wide variety of neurological disorders” [Including zombie-ism?—Ed.] and appears to infect the brain via the olfactory pathway. Even more fiendishly, the virus may replicate within the glial cells that usually protect the olfactory neurons. Then there is the Neisseria meningitidis bacterium, which “is able to pass directly from nasopharynx to meninges through the olfactory nerve system.” It leaves around 50% of survivors with lasting neurological damage. [And a taste for human flesh?—Ed.]

And let’s not forget about Nipah virus: “During the first documented Nipah virus outbreak in Malaysia and Singapore in 1998-1999, 276 cases of Nipah virus encephalitis were observed, with 106 fatalities.” A recent experiment with Syrian hamsters found that the virus gets into the brain via the olfactory epithelium. “Entry of Nipah virus into the CNS occurred rapidly, within 4 days of inoculation.” That’s great thriller material: Brad has 96 hours to save his girlfriend from the zombie virus.

But I think the perfect nasal neuroinvasive sequel is the one that takes us back to Crystal Lake, in whose warm water we are likely to find the thermophilic ameba Naegleria fowleri. This is the pathogen that causes primary amebic meningoencephalitis which, as a recent paper reminds us, “is almost universally fatal.” You can get it by diving into a lake and getting water up your nose. [Ameba! Everyone out of the water!—Ed.] Or, you can get it trying to be healthy and using a Neti pot full of N. fowleri-contaminated water to irrigate your sinuses.

Anyway, it’s been fun spitballing script ideas. Enjoy your stay at Crystal Lake. Keep your nose clean and don’t worry about that guy in the hockey mask.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Can the Aroma of Chocolate Save Bookstores?

There has been a lot of press coverage recently concerning a Belgian study on the effects of chocolate scent on consumer behavior in a bookstore. The stories often imply that chocolate scent sells more books, while the headlines play on the idea that scent marketing might mean salvation for the ever-shrinking fortunes of brick-and-mortar bookstores.

As is standard practice here at FN, I prefer not to comment on such massively hyped stories until I’ve gotten my hands on a copy of the actual scientific study. Well, I have and now I will.

Just for fun, let’s start with an example of the standard press coverage, namely David Winograd’s story in the HuffPo headlined “Smell Of Chocolate In Bookstores Increases Sales, Study Finds.” According to Winograd, the study
suggests that the smell of chocolate in bookstores encourages customers to spend more time browsing for books.
This is misleading. In the study, a female observer recorded behaviors of randomly selected bookstore customers in a yes/no fashion; she did not record how much time a customer spent on any activity, nor was elapsed time a variable in any of the statistical analyses. Winograd’s mischaracterization is important, because in other studies have shown ambient scent to increase the time customers spend in stores, which in turn increases the likelihood of a purchase. This new study cannot be interpreted as supporting those results.

Winograd’s summary is misleading for another reason: While chocolate aroma made browsing of romance novels and cook books more likely, it made browsing of history and crime books significantly less likely. In other words, the effects of chocolate aroma on consumer behavior depend very specifically on book genre, an outcome the study was designed to test. Did Winograd miss that? Did he think it would complicate his story line? Did he think it was above the heads of HuffPo readers? Who knows.

The study itself, a collaboration between marketing and communications professors at Hasselt University and the University of Antwerp, turns out to be quite well-designed. It compared consumer behavior in a bookstore under scented and non-scented conditions. The conditions were counter-balanced across mornings and afternoons to eliminate time-of-day effects. (Nice touch #1.) The scent was released from two locations that reached the entire store; intensity levels were set low enough that visitors didn’t spontaneously notice it, but easily recognized it as chocolate when attention as drawn to it. (Nice touch #2.)

The researchers measured a series of behaviors, some general (browsing multiple books, hanging out, chatting with sales staff, etc.) and some goal-directed (marching up to the counter and asking for a specific book etc.). The observer also noted consumer involvement with specific genres of books, two that were congruent with chocolate (romance novels and cookbooks) and two that were not (history and crime). Congruent and incongruent genres were identified through pilot testing. (Nice touch #3.)

The results, though mixed, make a lot of sense. Chocolate scent increased the likelihood of examining romance and cooking, but decreased the likelihood of browsing history and crime. (Results were adjusted for gender bias in genre. Nice touch #4.) In other words, consumer response to an ambient scent depends on how well it matches particular items on sale.

Overall, sales in scented periods were 5.07% higher than during nonscented periods. Sales of congruent genres jumped 40.07%; those of non-congruent genres 22.19%. So Winograd’s headline is narrowly correct. But it misses the important lessons for scent marketers, namely that a campaign should be designed with specific products, scents, and behaviors in mind.

The study discussed here is “Smelling the books: The effect of chocolate scent on purchase-related behavior in a bookstore,” by Lieve DoucĂ©, Karolien Poels, Wim Janssens, Charlotte De Backer, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology 36:65, 2013.