Olfactory Fertility Cues Boost Men’s Testosterone


In yet another indication that human olfactory responses can completely bypass our conscious thought process, a study at Florida State University has shown that the natural scent of an ovulating woman can boost the testosterone levels of men exposed to that scent. In research published in Psychological Science, FSU scientists Saul L. Miller and Jon K. Maner showed that humans still process olfactory cues:

Men in the current studies smelled T-shirts worn by women near ovulation or far from ovulation (Studies 1 and 2) or control T-shirts not worn by anyone (Study 2). Men exposed to the scent of an ovulating woman subsequently displayed higher levels of testosterone than did men exposed to the scent of a nonovulating woman or a control scent. Hence, olfactory cues signaling women’s levels of reproductive fertility were associated with specific endocrinological responses in men—responses that have been linked to sexual behavior and the initiation of romantic courtship. [From Psychological ScienceScent of a Woman: Men’s Testosterone Responses to Olfactory Ovulation Cues.

There are several Neuromarketing takeaways from this research. First, the findings show that humans aren’t so evolved that we can’t process olfactory cues like other mammals, though we are likely less aware of those cues. While the subjects rated the T-shirts worn by ovulating women as more pleasant smelling than the other groups of shirts, there’s no indication that they consciously recognized the scent as being that of a fertile female.

Second, this is one small study evaluating a single scent category. There can be no doubt that other scents are hardwired into our brains and can evoke specific physiological or psychological changes. Developing a library of such scents could make for some interesting olfactory marketing opportunities.

Finally, one has to presume that perfume makers are working to exploit this finding. The entire industry is based on attraction, and the thought of synthesizing the compounds that caused the male reactions in the FSU study has to be immensely appealing. I suppose the true Holy Grail of the fragrance industry would be a male scent that triggered a physiological response in women. Products claiming to do this have been marketed for decades, but they have been based on animal pheromones and other compounds not directly proven effective. A product based on sound research could be a blockbuster.

Fragrance developers and olfactory marketers, start your engines!

  1. Brendon Clark says

    Olfactory bulbs are just a synaptic handshake away from the amygdala and the hippocampus. Any campaign that activated both emotion and memory through olfaction, and tied it to something as rewarding as sex must be onto a winner. They are three incredibly powerful primal cues. Now if they can just bottle it…

    By the way, for an interesting read, check out out The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr. A good distracting read.

  2. Tracy Pepe says

    Always a fan – especially this type of research.

    To Brendons comment- it is bottled – on a regular basis – the perfumer has the ability to do this – create the aroma that plays with the desire causing an emotional charge that lasts forever in the persons mind. Brands need to use the tool that has been present for years. Chandler Burr’s book is good but Luca Turins book – The Secret of Scent http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/03/books/review/Lanchester.t.html (Chandlers guru) is better!. A pheromone is just an aromatic chemical – many chemical can be used to create that mix in the bottle.

    To Roger – There are many scents that are hardwire to our brains – such as vanilla – comfort that causes the emotion of coo-coning – or peppermint is a blue scent – defining cool and stimulating – association of ice. Fragrance materials are olfactory marketing/branding opportunities.

    The history of fragrance began hundreds even thousands of years ago – using scent to pursued, manipulate and “market” is not new. This is our industry – this is what we do and the entire industry is based on the premiss that scent IS the missing link to a powerful experience. Cleopatra – an iconic force in the fragrance world – would saturate her ships sails with jasmine oil to lure her suitors up the Nile River – she was known for her scent and her seductive ability – it is assumed based on her documented formulas – this was created -not based on pheromones.

    As much as I can appreciate the pheromone research and the facts surrounding sexual attraction and smell – The Holy Grail of the fragrance industry is when a consumer smells a fragrance and their memory is transported to the experience of the brand – baby powder is always Johnson & Johnson, Pine notes – mean clean and PInesol, play-dough is distinct – the aromatic combinations are endless. What is frustrating for perfumers as myself – branders do not normally explore scent as the powerful tool it is.

  3. Brendon Clark says

    Tracy, thanks for the book recommendation.

    I’m interested in your last point about branders. My recollection (albeit a bit dusty!) is that of all the senses, memories based around smell are some of the most easily formed and yet some of the most robust. As you say, fertile ground for branders.


  4. Patrick Wiegering says

    Brendon, I am doing research about Nueromarketing and would like to ask you some questions.

    First of all, it is known that the smells are the only part of the human senses that are allocated in the brain in the correct chamber, either right or left. Could I argue that the smell is the most powerfull of our sense to create emotional relationships because of this? and the other senses are not that powerful as smell, as they have to travel to the opposite hemisphere of the brain?

    Kind regards,


  5. Tracy Pepe says

    Well I can argue – When it comes to marketing, scent may be an effective tool that offers a much deeper and longer lasting impression. Crayola crayons were found by a Yale University study as one of the most recognizable scents for adults in the United States. It is a fact that the average human is 100 times more likely to remember a scent over something seen, heard, or touched. In fact, “memory for odor is markedly resistant to time, easily accessed and tends to be characterized by a degree of emotion, clarity and vividness.” (Laird 1935; Engen & Ross 1973; Hertz and Cupchik 1992).

    I have been scenting spaces for over 17 years – working with brands, architect, designers, retailers, – WHY – study or not – we all know the impact on scent.

  6. Brendon Clark says

    Tracy, I’d be interested if you’ve got any work on the most successful scent-based marketing. Jingles make me think of products, so do some colours, but few scents. At the same time, I remember many scents, it’s just that few of them are linked to any marketing. Aviation fuel for example, is an incredibly powerful, but doesn;t make me want to book a flight, nor do I associate it with a brand. Same with many others. ANy thoughts on how best we go about creating a scent that is memorable, and linking it with a great product, as an integral part of the marketing program?

    Patrick, thanks. I would differ slightly in one area. The eyes are not a straightforward cross over to the opposite hemisphere; it’s slightly more complicated. The right visual field of both eyes is linked to the left hemisphere, and the left visual field of both eyes is linked to the right.

    The optic chiasm, were the optic nerves meet and then separate to different hemispheres, is essentially a four lane intersection, not just one from each eye.


  7. Tracy Pepe says

    There are many – Baby Powder – crayola crayons – play dough – fabreeze – the list goes on & on & on. I suggest you go to the Olfactive Group and read the articles – posts- campaigns on the various global scent marketing campaigns. BMW just launched one on the smell of “Joy” & what the new card smells like. As well, I finished a campaign for Clorox – actually George P Johnson – an outdoor BBQ concert – any guess to what that smelled like and what the brands were?

    Many thoughts on how to create a scent that is memorable – that is my job I am a perfumer that scents spaces specializing in scent branding.

  8. Tracy Pepe says

    The Olfactive Group at Linked in

    Or read my blog at http://www.noseknowsconsulting.com

    Twitter noseknowsnose – I post all kinds of articles

    Facebook – noseknows you can find information

  9. Brendon Clark says

    Thanks. Just spied you on LinkedIn too.

    I’m pretty new to olfactory marketing but, looks too interesting to ignore!

  10. David Brains says

    Funny, I just saw this hair product for men this morning that contained pheromones to ‘attract’ woman and I thought it sounded like a pretty silly marketing tool.
    Seems that olfactory-marketing is quite a big concept though, very interesting!

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