For the Smell of It All: Functions and Effects of Olfaction in Consumer Behavior

Deborah J. Mitchell, Temple University
[ to cite ]:
Deborah J. Mitchell (1994) ,"For the Smell of It All: Functions and Effects of Olfaction in Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 330.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Page 330


Deborah J. Mitchell, Temple University

Marketers have long used odor in a variety of contexts to influence consumer cognition and behavior. Some of these applications have been based on strong evidence regarding the effects of odor; some continue to be based more on intuitive beliefs and assumptions. Marketing applications have tended to fall into three broad categories. First, marketers have capitalized on consumers' tendencies to use scent as an inference cue in certain contexts. Thus, cleansers may be scented with a pine scent, based on the knowledge that consumers infer extra cleansing power from that odor. Here odor is a physical product attribute, added to increase the likelihood that consumers will infer positive product attributes and thus evaluate the product more highly.

A second marketing application of odor has received widespread media and consumer attention: the use of scent strips or scratch-and-sniff attachments in print advertising. Here again odor is emphasized by the marketer as a physical product attribute; product trial based on that attribute is made possible by the scent strip or scratch-and-sniff technology.

Finally, the third general application of odor is distinct in both its orientation and purpose. In the first two applications, product attribute information is inferred or conveyed through scent. The orientation is internal or product-specific; the goal is related to product attribute information. However, the use of ambient odor is not necessarily to communicate product attribute information but rather to provide an atmospheric, or stimulus in the external environment. Here, odor is loaded into the atmosphere of a consumer setting, such as a retail store or mall, with the general intent to influence shoppers.

The widespread and increasing use of odor by marketers has been exceeded perhaps only by the number of claims made about its efficacy in the media. However, most of these claims are not based on psychological theory, nor have they been examined in an academic setting. Fundamental questions relating to the effects of odor on mood, memory, and purchase behavior remain open. In addition, questions regarding how potential effects of odor might vary with its functional application (e.g., ambient odor vs. odor in print advertising) remain largely unaddressed. However, this is beginning to change.

This session brought together researchers from varied empirical and methodological backgrounds, working on primary, different but related, dimensions of olfaction and consumer behavior. In addition, the studies examined different marketing applications of odor, reflecting the diversity in which odor is used in consumer environments. Theoretical implications for a general understanding of olfaction were addressed in the concluding discussion by Susan Knasko.

The first paper, by Mitchell et al., was concerned with ambient odor and consumer decision-making. Two theoretical approaches, one emphasizing odor as primarily an affect inducer, the other focused primarily on odor and cognitive mediation, were examined in the contexts of both static and dynamic consumer choice. Next the Ellen and Bone study, adopting an Elaboration Likelihood Model approach, used marketing applications of odor in scratch-and-sniff advertisements to investigate the effect of olfaction on attitude toward the ad (Aad) and attitude toward the brand (Ab). Finally, Chakravarti et al investigated how product odors may affect memory for those products, and how odor may facilitate or inhibit visual imagery while encoding product information.