Thursday, December 23, 2010

Gayil Nalls to Lead an Olfactory Meditation

We’ve interviewed Gayil Nalls and noted the first two installments of her Olfactory Inkblot series. Now there’s a third:
On Saturday, January 8th, 2011 at 4:00 pm an olfactory meditation on the World Olfactory Social Sculpture World Sensorium will be led by artist Gayil Nalls.
Sounds cool. Details here. The venue itself—the Main Hall of Staten Island’s historic Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden—is also a draw. Plus it’s free!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Celebuscents: Is Paris Played Out?

In our look at Parlux Fragrances, Inc., we noted that the majority of its gross sales come from the company’s Paris Hilton brand perfumes. Thus its commercial fortunes are tied to her continued draw as a celebrity. The relevant question for investors becomes: How good are her prospects?

Lacking a crystal ball, we turned to Google Trends, a data source we’ve used before in analyzing public interest in fragrance over time

We entered “Paris Hilton” as our search term and Google produced a Search Volume Index—a weekly data series from January 4, 2004 to the present. The results are scaled by setting the January, 2004 level of search traffic to 1.0. Episodes of heavy search volume appear as peaks on the resulting graph. We collapsed the data to monthly intervals for easier viewing.

The high levels of interest (A) in early 2004 correspond to the launch of her TV series The Simple Life in December, 2003 and the release around that time of her sex video with Rick Salomon. The big spike (B) in February, 2005 matches her hosting of SNL and the hacking of her Sidekick. Her August, 2006 arrest for DUI (C) didn’t have much impact on her Google traffic, but her suspended license bust in January 2007 gave it a kick (D). The last big spike in interest (E) was June, 2007, when Hilton did jail time for violating her parole from the driving charges. The last episode of TSL aired in August, 2007 (F), and Google search interest in Paris Hilton has never been the same—it’s been downhill ever since. Her August, 2010 coke bust in Las Vegas (G) barely moved the needle.

The long term trend is clear: Paris Hilton’s Web celebrity is dwindling.

More alarming are the search volume results for “Paris Hilton + perfume”. We see the expected seasonality with huge peaks preceding each Christmas shopping period. However, Christmas search volume peaked in 2007 and has declined each year since. So Can Can (launched October, 2007) generated a lot of interest but Fairy Dust (October, 2008) didn't rise to that standard. Nor did the mid-year launches of Siren (July, 2009) and Tease (June, 2010) get the same attention during the crucial Christmas sales period.

The Google Trends for Paris Hilton don’t seem to be working in favor of Parlux Fragrances. The company has hitched its wagon to a fading star, and mid-year launches have not helped matters. Perhaps word of mouth and print advertising are keeping sales high, but based on these numbers the Paris Hilton perfume brand is looking played out.

Friday, December 17, 2010

NASA braggarts walk it back

No questions, please, we’re scientists.

Just two weeks after a news conference breathlessly announcing a new, arsenic-based bacterial life form, NASA scientists have begun backing down from their “extravagant, textbook-changing claims.” Color us not too damned surprised.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, perhaps feeling burned by having run with a New York Times hook-line-and-sinker story on NASA’s claim, has staff writer Faye Flam take a suitably squinty-eyed look at government-funded scientists Felisa Wolfe-Simon and Ronald Oremland.

When criticism of their work appeared shortly after their presser, neither author deigned to take questions from the press or public about obvious soft spots in their claim. Yesterday, however, Wolfe-Simon released a statement “making a more modest claim.” And speaking at a panel discussion at the American Geophysical Union, Oremland, doing his best Claude Rains imitation, pronounced himself shocked, shocked at the overheated press accounts of their work:
He [Oremland] was baffled when asked why so many reporters used the word thrived to describe the bacteria’s state in concentrated arsenic. 
However, as Faye Flam points out, 
The word can be traced back to Wolfe-Simon at the news conference. “Not only did these microbes cope, but they grew and thrived,” she said, “and that was amazing.”
Baffling indeed.

Faye Flam also did some, uh, actual reporting and came up with a couple of nuggets.
The fact that the microbes can survive in concentrated arsenic is nothing new. In 1997, scientists published a paper in Nature Biotechnology showing they could grow E. coli in even more concentrated arsenic than Wolfe-Simon used . . .
Uh oh . . .
[Other scientists] balked at NASA’s insinuation that until Wolfe- Simon set them straight, they were stuck on the assumption that life elsewhere must use the exact same biochemistry as life here. Not only do biologists assume different chemistries are possible, they’ve already created some alternative forms of DNA - molecules dubbed PNA and TNA for example - that can also carry a genetic code.
Hmmm . . . so what’s left of all the hoopla? Well, NASA isn’t talking.
Members of the team were not available for additional comment Thursday. A NASA spokesman said it wasn’t part of the agency’s mission to evaluate peer-reviewed findings. “We funded it and by our charter when we have news, we have to release it to the public,” said Dwayne Brown of NASA. “Our role was to tell the public about this finding, and that’s what we did in the news conference.”
Dwayne Brown is a public servant paid with our tax dollars. Feel free to put your questions and comments to him directly.

Finally, more attention should be paid to the quality control at Science magazine which served up this steaming pile of half-baked research. Bloggers (Carl Zimmer) and reporters (Faye Flam) quickly found skeptical researchers willing to critique the paper—how come the editors at Science could not? Or if they did, why didn’t they listen to them?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Celebuscents: A peek behind the press release

We haven’t watched much TV at FirstNerve Manor since that meteorite took out the aerial on the north belfry back in ’02. So excuse us if we are not totally up to the minute on Jordin Sparks’ claim to celebrity status based on a show called American Idol. That’s why we just yawned when she announced the launch of her celebuscent in October.

What did grab our attention was last Thursday’s press release noting that her perfume, Because of You, had snared a 2010 WWD Beauty Biz Award for “Best Executed Launch Strategy.” The award-winning strategy was to go out at a $9.50 retail (2.5 oz.) exclusively at the Dots clothing chain through November, then rise to $14.95 while expanding to a broader distribution.

An award after two months on the market? That makes us want to know who’s behind Because of You. According to the press release it’s an outfit called Apra International LLC.
Apra is a leading fragrance company known for creating high-quality, affordably priced celebrity/designer fragrances. By introducing up and coming celebrity fragrances at affordable prices, Apra plans to carve out a piece of mass market fragrance sales by giving its consumer base something that the other leading market fragrance companies cannot offer due to their competitor’s inefficient cost structure.
A leading fragrance company? Uh . . . just one we’ve never heard of until now. Apra International LLC googles mostly to Jordin Sparks press releases.Then we figured this might be something to go on:
“We are honored to receive this award for the launch of our first celebrity fragrance endeavor and thank Jordin Sparks for making this amazing partnership possible”, says Ezriel Polatsek, CEO of Apra.
Unlike Apra International, Ezriel Polatsek googles quite well. In fact, he’s been in WWD before, on June 18, 2008:
Estée Lauder, Clinique File Suit Against Preferred Fragrance

The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. and Clinique Laboratories Inc. have filed a lawsuit against Preferred Fragrance Inc. alleging trademark infringement in connection with alleged knockoffs of Lauder-branded fragrances.

The lawsuit, filed in Manhattan federal court on June 11, also alleges unfair competition, false advertising and dilution. Other named defendants include Preferred’s owner, Izriel Polatsek, also known as Ezriel Polatsek; CVS Inc.; CVS Pharmacy Inc. and CVS Caremark Corp.; Family Dollar Stores Inc., and John Does 1-10.

The lawsuit said that Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Preferred is a “known infringer that previously has copied — and previously has been sued for its copying of — famous perfume brands.” It said the Brooklyn firm appropriated Lauder’s marks for its own use for its line of knockoff products that it has begun selling or soon will sell for the holiday 2008 season in stores such as CVS and Family Dollar.
Previously sued for copyright infringement? That would seem to refer to Elizabeth Arden Inc v. Preferred Fragrance Inc, filed June 17, 2005 in the Southern District of Ohio.

In fact, suing Preferred Fragrance Inc. seems to be the in thing: Ed Hardy’s people filed a Federal complaint against them last February.

A rare non-press release Google hit for Apra International LLC provides an address in upstate New York. Google-map the address and it turns out to be the same as that of—wait for it—Preferred Fragrance Inc.

So let’s see if we have this straight: as owner of Preferred Fragrance Inc., Ezriel Polatsek has pissed off Estée Lauder, Elizabeth Arden and Ed Hardy; as CEO of Apra International LLC, he is given an award and PR bonanza by fashion industry journal WWD.

If you think this all smells a bit odd, we’re inclined to agree.

ISDP: Minimalist Edition

We’d like to think it has something to do with the spirit of the season, but more likely than not it’s temperature related. Here we are on the thirteenth of December and there’s only a single item to offer the morbid fan-base of ISDP. And even then, it’s really a borderline call—one of those instances where someone takes it upon himself to check on a person he hasn’t heard from in a while, only to discover the inevitable olfactory clue. Still, it’s all we’ve got: a 60-year old man found in his apartment on the 500 block of Royal Street in New Orleans:
a friend of the deceased stated that he had not seen him for several days and decided to go visit him. Upon arriving at his apartment he discovered his door closed, but with a foul smell emanating from the apartment. The police was then notified and Eighth District Officers responded to the scene and found the body of the deceased in a state of decomposition.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

For Sale: Lightly Used BurrOmeter

We spared no expense to quantify the rhetorical stylings of the New York Times Officially Designated Perfume Critic®. Alas, the guy who made Shyamala Maisondieu a household word is now, according to ABC News, “the former fragrance critic of The New York Times,” having just completed his metamorphosis into “the nation’s first curator of olfactory art.”

We hate to say so, but we saw it coming like a neon gourmand in the hands of a promotion lady at Bloomie’s. The reviews became shorter and less frequent, lost their star ratings, and eventually became terse bouillon cubes of condensed inanity, instead of florid frappés of nonsensical adjectives generously garnished with Francophonic name-droppings.

Our ongoing BurrOmeter feature tracked the TNYTODPC’s diminishment. In the comments we chronicled our technical staff’s valiant efforts to tweak the BurrOmeter’s ability to detect the fading signal.

March, 2010
The FirstNerve technical staff were pleased to fire up the BurrOmeter, but with the bite size reviews they couldn’t really redline it. Plus all the French name drops left a sticky coating on the sensor surfaces. It’ll take days to vacuum all the Polge particles out of the francophilia filters and swab the Ropion residue off the transthermal rhetorical coils.
April, 2010
Nothing to it, really. Just had the BurrOmeter technicians boost the gain on the metaphor diodes and use a high-pass filter on the name drop dosimeter.

With state-of-the-art automated rhetorical analytics, we should be able to get readings until the reviews drop below 20 words.
August, 2010
We went to great expense to recalibrate the BurrOmeter to measure the new, abbreviated, star-less reviews. But the sample size is getting tinier and tinier—it’s now down to 40.8 words per review. And since each perfume is now paired with another in the same brand, it’s effectively 20.4 words. Shave off a few more and we’ll have to buy an Ono-Sendai 750-nanometer haiku demodulator for the front end.
The FirstNerve technicians are triste, to say the least. In fact, they’re goddam désolé, having just been shown the door by HR. Well, all except Stan. We’re keeping him on to mothball the BurrOmeter for eventual sale. We’re looking for something just north of thirty large.

We hope to find a new owner who appreciates its historical role. Hey! Maybe the Museum of Arts and Design will buy it. Should look great in their new Center for Olfactory Art.


We’ve got an assload of Jean-Claude Ellena bobbleheads in the storage locker. Ten bucks each if you pay the shipping.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

NASA to Inquiring Minds: Go Fish

I could give a rat’s ass whether some bacterium in Mono Lake incorporates arsenic instead of phosphorus into its DNA. If true, it would be a cool discovery. So I noted the buzz about last week’s hugely hyped Science paper by NASA scientists and went on my merry way.

Then a microbiologist at UBC, writing in her lab blog, called bullshit on the finding and Slate science journalist Carl Zimmer asked the NASA authors to comment. 
I asked two of the authors of the study if they wanted to respond to the criticism of their paper. Both politely declined by email. 

“We cannot indiscriminately wade into a media forum for debate at this time,” declared senior author Ronald Oremland of the U.S. Geological Survey. “If we are wrong, then other scientists should be motivated to reproduce our findings. If we are right (and I am strongly convinced that we are) our competitors will agree and help to advance our understanding of this phenomenon. I am eager for them to do so.”

“Any discourse will have to be peer-reviewed in the same manner as our paper was, and go through a vetting process so that all discussion is properly moderated,” wrote Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. “The items you are presenting do not represent the proper way to engage in a scientific discourse and we will not respond in this manner.”
“The proper way to engage in a scientific discourse”? This had me spluttering mad. If you hype your finding in the media, then have the stones to defend it in the media.

Ronald Oremland’s prim arrogance and the unmitigated gall of Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s stonewalling are the antithesis of the scientific spirit. They should be ashamed of themselves. They have flushed whatever respect NASA’s Astrobiology Institute might once have had.

Another of Zimmer’s sources, Jonathan Eisen of U.C. Davis, nails it:
“If they say they will not address the responses except in journals, that is absurd,” he said. “They carried out science by press release and press conference. Whether they were right or not in their claims, they are now hypocritical if they say that the only response should be in the scientific literature.”
Hypocrites and cowards.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Wall Street Journal’s Take on Celebuscents

OK, so we had the crack FirstNerve forensic auditing team pore over SEC filings to bring you the business deals behind some of the biggest celebuscents on the market. If our staff can tackle SEC 10-Ks and 10-Qs and 13Ds, you’d figure the Wall Street Journal must be really deep into the financial underpinnings of the perfume industry.

You’d figure wrong.

Their latest take is “Scents and Salability: a Celebrity Sniff Test”, in which they have celebrities comment on celebrity fragrances. It’s so . . . comment dit-on en anglais . . . meta-ironical, non?

Priya Rao, the Journal’s “NY Heard & Scene” reporter, asks musician Pete Wentz to sniff and respond to Beyoncé Heat. Come on, Ms. Rao. He’s married to Jessica Simpson’s little sister. We’d love to know what he thinks of his sister-in-law’s perfumes.

Rao then asks Twilight actor Billy Burke to sniff Mary J. Blige My Life; why not have him sample Twilight, the perfume tie-in to his movies?

Lame. Or perhaps not. Pairing the names of semi-celebrities with product glamour shots sends a big wet kiss to potential perfume advertisers. 

Rupert, you sly dog you.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Celebuscents: The business end of the blotter

The torrent of celebrity fragrances spilling into the market shows no signs of slowing. Each season brings new perfumes by A-list divas, rappers and reality show cast members. Some of us question the quality of these offerings. We also wonder whether the sheer number of celebrity perfumes dilutes the market and confuses the consumer. Grousing about celebrity fragrances has become a numbing habit, like complaining about the weather.

Unlike the weather, however, celebrity perfumes are a human phenomenon. They keep coming to market because someone somewhere calculates that the financial rewards are worth the risk. I thought it would be enlightening and perhaps entertaining to shed some light on the business of celebrity scents. Who is giving the green light to all these perfume projects and supplying the risk capital for them? How good a job are they doing financially and creatively?

Our first target of interest is Parlux Fragrances, Inc., based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It’s a publicly held company that trades on the NASDAQ. The company produces high profile celebrity scents, including those by Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson and Queen Latifah. Parlux did Marc Ecko’s Ecko, and Josie Natori’s Natori. They now have the rights to perfumes by Nicole Miller. A scent by shoe designer Vince Camuto is on the way this fall, and next year Parlux will launch a perfume by Rihanna. A Kanye West fragrance is planned for 2011 or early 2012.

Parlux sells about $150 million of perfume annually, mainly to department store retailers such as Bloomingdales, J.C. Penney, Macy’s, Saks, and Sears. It’s biggest customer is Macy’s which accounts for almost a quarter of its annual sales. Macy’s is such a large fraction of its business that Parlux is obliged under financial reporting rules to acknowledge that the loss of Macy’s as a customer would “have a material adverse effect on our total sales.”

An equally significant source of sales is specialty retailer Perfumania, a company with 370 stores located in outlet malls and regional malls in the U.S. Perfumania, like Macy’s, is a customer whose loss would seriously impact Parlux’s financials. There is another twist to this relationship: because the owners of Perfumania’s parent company (Perfumania Holdings, Inc.) also own a significant amount of stock in Parlux, perfume sales to Perfumania are reported as “related party sales,” about which we’ll have more to say.

So who does the actual work of creating the juice and the bottle and the packaging for all the Parlux perfumes? Here’s what the company says in its most recent annual report:
We design and create fragrances using our own staff and independent contractors. We supervise the design of our packaging by independent contractors to create products appealing to the intended customer base. The creation and marketing of each product line is closely linked with the applicable brand name, its positioning and market trends for the prestige fragrance industry. This development process usually takes twelve to eighteen months to complete.
Stars don’t just wander off the street and into the company’s offices. How does Parlux secure the rights to a celebrity’s scent? Their people talk to the celeb’s people, and ultimately a deal is struck between Parlux and the celebrity’s corporate entity. For example, Paris Hilton Entertainment Inc. grants Parlux an exclusive license to develop, manufacture, and distribute prestige fragrances under the Paris Hilton name. The original license deal ran from 2004 to 2009 and spawned Paris Hilton (2005), Paris Hilton for Man (2005), Just Me (2005), Heiress (2006), Heir (2006), Just Me for Man (2006), Can Can (2007), Fairy Dust (2008), and Siren (2009). The deal was renewed for another five years and runs through June 30, 2014.

Parlux also has licensing agreements with VCJS, LLC (Jessica Simpson), Queen Latifah Inc. (Queen Latifah), Ecko Complex LLC (Marc Ecko), J.N. Concepts, Inc. (Josie Natori), and Kobra International, Ltd. (Nicole Miller). A deal signed with tennis star Andy Roddick in 2004 resulted in a single fragrance in 2008; Parlux opted to let the deal expire in March, 2010. Not every celebuscent hits the jackpot.
As if often the case with Parlux, there are unusual twists to the standard business model. Take the Rihanna and Kanye West deals, for example. Both artists licensed their worldwide fragrance rights to a company called Artistic Brands Development, LLC—as did entertainment mogul Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter. Artistic Brands, in turn, sublicensed these fragrance rights to Parlux. Who is behind Artistic Brands? None other than Jay-Z himself. The other principal in the company is a fellow named Rene Garcia. And thereby hangs a tale.

Rene Garcia, owns approximately 9.1% of Perfumania Holdings, Inc., which in turns owns Perfumania, Inc., the chain of retail outlets. Along with various family trusts and investment vehicles identified in S.E.C. documents as The Garcia Group, Rene Garcia’s interests include about 14.7% of the outstanding shares of Parlux. In December, 2009, Parlux issued warrants to Artistic Brands Development for the purchase of up to 8 million Parlux shares at a $5 exercise price, in return for sublicenses to the Rihanna and Kanye West fragrances. (The stock has traded in the $1.50 to $2.50 range for the past year; it will require quite a rise in price for those warrants to be worth anything.) The Artistic Brands deal makes Jay-Z more than a rapper willing to lend his name to a cologne—it makes him a player in the world of fragrance licensing. This is the sharp business acumen that has made him worth an estimated $450 million, according to the Wall Street Journal.

But back to Rene Garcia. He gets some Parlux warrants as Jay-Z’s development partner in exchange for fragrance rights to Rihanna and Kanye. Parlux—in which Garcia is a major shareholder—will produce these perfumes and sell them in large part to Perfumania, a company in which Garcia is also a major shareholder. Mr. Garcia has an uncanny ability to manifest himself simultaneously on several levels of the Astral Plane. He’s involved in the brokerage of celebrity perfume rights, in the manufacture of the actual perfumes, and in the retail sale of same. All that’s missing is a stake in a bottle-making company.

How solid is Parlux’s celebrity fragrance business? We know its business depends heavily on sales to Macy’s and on related party sales to Perfumania. It also gets the majority of its gross sales from the Paris Hilton brand products.
If Paris Hilton’s appeal as a celebrity were to diminish it could result in a material reduction in our sales of licensed Paris Hilton brand products, adversely affecting our results of operations and operating cash flows.
Hmmm. Her summer drug busts in South Africa, France, and Las Vegas, and the resulting headlines (“Scandal-plagued socialite Paris Hilton has been voted the worst celebrity role model in a new online poll”) must be giving the Parlux folks some serious agita.

Celebrity fragrances are only as attractive as the persona they are built around. Kanye West continues to stir the pot following his infamous interruption of Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs, recently by trashing Lindsay Lohan’s fashion line. Is he out of control or cunningly good at keeping himself in the news? Either way, is this a persona that Parlux can build a franchise on?

Speaking of personalities, there’s a highly entertaining book to be written about the characters who hold the financial fortunes of Parlux in their hands. There is the cryptic and awesomely unGoogle-able Rene Garcia Group of south Florida. There is Frederick E. Purches, the founder and once-and-current CEO of Parlux. There is former CEO Ilea Lekach, dubbed “worst CEO of the year” in 2006 by MarketWatch. And best of all, there are brothers Glenn and Stephen Nussdorf who, along with their sister Arlene Nussdorf, control about 74% of Perfumania Holdings, Inc. They wrenched control of Parlux away from Lekach a few years ago in a proxy battle so overwrought it deserves to be told in the form of a graphic novel.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Out of the Shadows: I No Longer Believe in Human Pheromones

From my earliest fascination with animal behavior in college, through my pure sensory research phase at the Monell Center, and into my mercenary research phase in the fragrance industry, the question of human sex pheromones was never far from mind. Having studied sexual behavior and smell, I eagerly read the new studies and attended the promising talks hoping to see a definitive answer emerge. Curiously, as more research was done the case for human pheromones became more tentative. Researchers I knew and respected couldn’t even agree on basic physiological facts: do humans have a vomeronasal organ or not? If it exists is it functional? If it’s functional, does it deliver a behaviorally relevant message?

I grew increasingly impatient with this state of affairs. I wasn’t the only one seeking clarity: an endless parade of associate beauty editors, science reporters, and generally intelligent people asked me whether there was anything to the idea of human sex pheromones. The best I could offer them was the lame proposition that while the molecules and the means to perceive them might still exist, the effects of human sex pheromones were unlikely to be as dramatic as those in insects or rodents. This didn’t satisfy the associate beauty editors nor did it satisfy me. Reserving judgment in the face of conflicting data is a bedrock principle of science but it doesn’t make for good sound bites.

According to the definitions first developed in the early 1960s, a sex pheromone should trigger an invariant, reflex-like behavior in most people who smell it, and it should consist chemically of (ideally) one to (at most) a small handful of specific molecules. In theory, uncorking a sample tube of male pheromone ought to make women go gaga, while a nose full of female pheromone should make men go stiff, something along the lines of the wickedly clever story by Roald Dahl called Bitch.

So, thousands of studies and millions of research dollars later, where are we?

Richard Doty, a smell researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, has now supplied the book-length answer. In The great pheromone myth, Doty provides an exhaustive—and sometimes exhausting—account of the science behind mammalian pheromones. But this is much more than a summary of 50 years worth of research—it is a thorough and relentless examination of the evolving scientific claims made for the pheromone concept itself. And it is here that Doty has provided a major contribution: nothing less than an complete take-down of human pheromones.

The great pheromone myth is an argumentative tour de force. Like a skilled prosecutor cross-examining witnesses, Doty sets the trap by quoting researchers themselves as he reviews the definition of pheromones. From one scientist to the next we find inconsistencies, contradictions, and special pleading. The cumulative effect is devastating: it demonstrates the intellectual incoherence surrounding the term. A pheromone is a simple chemical—except when it’s a blend of chemicals. A pheromone has an innate releaser effect on other animals—except when learning or context is involved. Doty also quotes those who along the way cautioned about extending the pheromone concept from insects to mammals. Like a good courtroom lawyer, he plants seeds of doubt in the minds of jurors.

Doty spells out the technical shortcomings of animal and human experiments, but he always returns to his theme: that the results rarely meet the criteria for a pheromone, even as the criteria become ever more expansive and flexible. 

As Doty dismantles one pheromone claim after another, he also builds a powerful case for the behavioral and physiological effects mediated by body odors. Mothers recognize infants, infants recognize mothers, lover recognize each other—all through natural body scent. Many of these effects involve learning and the evaluation of context, even in rats. For example, “male rats exhibit an increase in testosterone and luteinizing hormone following exposure to the wintergreen-smelling odorant, methyl salicylate, when the odor had been paired with previous copulation.” Mice raised until weaning with artificially perfumed parents later prefer to mate with similarly scented mice; mice raised unscented prefer unscented partners. These results show the importance of smell in sexual behavior and speak to learning and adaptability; but they are hard to square with the idea that mammals respond only to pheromones composed of highly specific natural body scents.

To all of which one might reply, so what? So what if there is no solid evidence in mammals that meets the narrow technical definition of pheromones? What’s wrong with calling all these various effects pheromonal?

The problem is that the pheromone concept does no intellectual work. It provides no leverage for discovering new facts or phenomena. Pheromones are the intellectual version of elastic-waisted fat pants—the concept expands to accommodate each and every claim made for it. 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.

Today we are seeing a new wave of research by scientists such as Denise Chen, Bettina Pause, Johan Lundström, and others showing that body odors can transmit emotional state from one person to another, and can alter brain processing and hormonal levels. It’s clear that we are much more affected by the scent of other people than previously thought. The effects are many and varied; more will doubtless be revealed. But what is gained by shoving them all under the umbrella of “pheromones”? Very little, I believe. Like Doty, I’m pessimistic the public will ever give up its fascination with pheromones, but it’s time for scientists to file them away—right next to phlogiston—in the drawer labeled “formerly useful concepts”.