from the world's big
Humans are woefully unaware of their olfactory sense. That's the reality we've been sold.
- Scent provides valuable information about personality traits and attractiveness.
- Since the 1920s, companies have made us anxious about our odor in order to sell us their products.
- Our disdain of personal smell is related to our fear of aging and death.
Dr. Stuart Firestein: The Limits of Our Sense of Smell<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a829e082cab0a6b60ca47868b27cfc84"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/IPflaQgs7bo?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Ashenburg's book begins in the Roman bathhouses. She traces cleanliness rituals throughout time in that context. With the introduction of germ theory, it slowly dawned on Europeans and Americans—while the book is global, she mostly focuses on these geographical regions—that blocked pores were not doing much good in keeping disease away. As the Age of Industry commenced, workers packed into warehouses and on shipping docks began noticing their co-workers' scents. A new industry was born.</p><p>Two, in fact. As Ashenburg writes, "toilet soap and advertising grew up together." Both had long existed, but with the introduction of germ theory into the popular vernacular, these strange bedfellows united. The race to sell began. As everyone now knows, if you can corner a new market, you'll make bank. </p><p>Such was the case when Lambert Pharmaceutical's president, Gerald Lambert, picked out "halitosis" from his chemists' list. He wanted to aggressively market one of his company's oral antiseptics. For the next five years, Listerine's ads were devoted to defining halitosis, telling prospective customers that failed job offers and divorce are due to bad breath. The ploy worked. In 1921, Listerine brought in $115,000 in sales. Seven years later it topped $8 million. </p><p>Around the same time, a copywriter named James Webb pumped out ads for his employer, J. Walter Thompson, claiming that women's armpits stunk. He lost a lot of dates. Yet within a year of that campaign, his client, Odorono—say it aloud—watched their profits increase by 112 percent. As Ashenburg writes, </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The success of the Odorono ad and the deluge of deodorant advertisements that followed say much about the decade's willingness to broach taboo subjects and its growing intolerance of secretions and smells." </p>
Associate Brand Director of P&G's Secret Deodorant Sara Saunders speaks onstage during The 2020 MAKERS Conference on February 11, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for MAKERS<p>By 1932, the American author, Sophia Hadida, made a big splash with her book on manners. She coined a new term, Body Odor, which has been embraced as B.O. ever since. An entire market opened up for deodorants, soaps, perfumes, and men's and women's grooming products, all designed to maximize profit thanks to our growing anxiety. </p><p>Which is why I asked that question on social media. Among animals, humans have a woefully poor sense of smell. As bipeds, we began relying on sight and touch while neglecting our olfactory skills. As such, we've evolved with 20 million smell receptors. Not bad, until you consider that your dog has <a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/science-sushi/the-nose-knows-telling-age-based-on-scent/" target="_blank">11 times that number</a>. Smell still guides our life in many ways, including the lovers we choose and the business partners we trust.</p><p>This is a different sensibility than the marketing blitz that began a century ago. Smell informs. Disguising or erasing your scent does the opposite. Thanks to the anxiety peddled by companies pushing their products, we've decided it's better to remain ignorant. With that, we've lost a lot of data about our world. </p><p>Aging is one particularly problematic smell to some. Researchers <a href="https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1999-jul-14-mn-55812-story.html" target="_blank">have long worked</a> on ridding us of this burden. Yet aging shouldn't be seen as a burden. In fact, the insane idea that <a href="https://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/texas-dan-patrick-many-seniors-willing-sacrifice-economy-n1167521" target="_blank">sacrificing our eldest for the sake of the economy</a> is good stems from a longtime existential distress regarding aging and death. Our smell <a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0038110#abstract0" target="_blank">changes as we age</a>, sure, which is called biology. It's useful information, such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/per.848" target="_blank">assessing personality traits</a> and <a href="https://www.nature.com/news/2001/010308/full/news010308-10.html" target="_blank">detecting immune system capabilities</a>.</p><p>While everyone smells, women have been especially affected by this marketing phenomenon. Women <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00242/full" target="_blank">generally have a better olfactory sense</a> than men, but that comes at a cost. For example, Ashenburg writes that the sexual revolution of the sixties was especially confusing thanks to an advertising rush of feminine hygiene products.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Sex is natural and wonderful, but the 'natural you' needs to be sprayed to be wonderful. Sex is natural and wonderful, but it leaves a woman in urgent need of washing, powdering, spraying, and douching. Sex is natural and wonderful, but it means that you can be rejected on the most intimate level."</p><p>There is no easy response to this dilemma. Sitting next to someone of a particular odor on a plane is not enjoyable. Social mores still matter. But we have to wonder why we cover up or disguise our scent so often. It provides valuable information, but more importantly, it's who we are.</p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a>. His next book is</em> "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</p>