It’s no big surprise that our brains can process odors without the intervention of our conscious minds, but a study published earlier this year showed just how sophisticated that process can be. Specifically, brain scans showed that women responded differently when they smelled the sweat of sexually aroused males, even though almost none of the women were consciously able to identify the smell as sweat.
Rice University researcher Denise Chen recruited female subjects for olfactory testing while their brain activity was monitored using fMRI. Then, she captured sweat by sticking absorbent pads in guys armpits while they watched either an erotic film clip or a neutral one. The subjects then smelled the sweaty pads, along with a couple of control group pads. (I’d love the see the ads used to recruit both the male and female subjects!)
In their verbal responses, all but two [out of 19] subjects denied smelling any sweat, or anything human, and none verbally distinguished the sexual from the neutral sweat. But their brain activity told a different story.
Two regions of the brain, the right orbitofrontal cortex and the right fusiform region, responded significantly more to the sexual sweat of men than to any of the other smells.
Dr. Chen, an assistant professor of psychology at Rice University, said that only one brain area, the hypothalamus, is known to be important in sexual motivation and behavior, and that region did not respond to the odors. But the researchers did find that the brain somehow recognizes social or emotional information contained in sexual sweat, treating it differently from other odors. In this sense, they conclude, humans communicate with smell. [From The New York Times - Varying Sweat Scents Are Noted by Women by Nicholas Bakalar.]
Rice notes that the fact that women’s brains can detect the presence of sweat from an aroused guy doesn’t mean that this is a good thing – the known reward centers of the brain weren’t activated. Despite the periodic hype about fragrances laced with pheromones, it’s not at all clear that Eau de Turned-on Dude would actually make the wearer more appealing to women.
I think the real neuromarketing takeaway here is that the direct link between our sense of smell and our brain is clearly demonstrated by this experiment. Marketers need to be aware of the ability of odors to be processed without conscious awareness. Among other things, this ability means that the reliability of traditional market research tools – questionnaires, focus groups, interviews, etc. – will be particularly unreliable where scents are involved.
In addition, it’s another reminder that if your product, service, or place of business has a smell associated with it (whether it’s an carefully designed olfactory branding scent or the aroma of greasy french fry oil), it will likely be processed subconsciously and linked to your offering.