Smelling trouble

By Published on .

Fragrance opponents say they want to breathe free

The genie is out of the bottle.

The world has long been accustomed to aromatic perfumes and redolent household products. Get ready for environmental scenting, as businesses from hotels to the local dentist's office dabble in airborne bouquets.

The hitch: Fragrance is highly personal, with cola the only smell to travel well across all cultures. Further, there's the issue of allergies, a concern heightened by anti-fragrance activists such as Louise Kostra, a member of the Atlanta-based Human Ecology Action League's Public Information Committee.

She deems chemically compounded fragrance superfluous and a pollutant as objectionable as exhaust fumes.

Still in London's Piccadilly, the Daniele Ryman Ltd. aromatherapy shop already has made Ms. Ryman a fragrant air supplier to private homes, retailers and, soon perhaps, airlines. Passengers on many carriers, such as those flying on British Airways' Club Class, already are plied with her aromatherapy skin treatment kits.

In Minneapolis, Aroma-Sys President Mark Peltier has already gone the next step. He sells environmental fragrancing systems that work independently or through ventilation systems to a number of businesses, including Thomasville Furniture Industries stores.

The allure: a growing belief the often-ignored sense of smell holds promise for businesses seeking to enhance air quality and ambience and improve worker productivity. Or induce consumers to relax and spend. Thomas E. Virtue, president of Rye, N.Y.-based fragrance consultancy the Virtue Group, even sees a day when fragrancing systems will be, "much like heating or air conditioning, a standard feature" of homes and businesses.

The concept comes as the fragrance industry faces both declining use of personal fragrances and anti-fragrance zealots, seeking the same restrictions on scenting that there are now on smoking.

So far anti-fragrance crusaders have focused on the $5 billion men's and women's fragrance industry, though they also scorn scented shampoos, soaps, tissues--virtually any artificially scented product.

One high-ranking fragrance executive at a major marketer said a recent proprietary study showed as of 1992, 84% of all women used a fragrance regularly but by 1994 "that number had dropped dramatically to 79%. The dropoff was highest among consumers age 20-44, probably because of the grunge generation and financially strapped young families."

The good news was teen-agers showed no decline, and Calvin Klein Cosmetic Co.'s gender bending CK One attracted a lot of first-time consumers, particularly among twentysomethings.

Sometime between October and December, the Fragrance Foundation will break a print campaign from Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, New York, celebrating the sense of smell and its link to memories. Spending is undisclosed for the effort from the foundation, a non-profit educational organization and booster of the fragrance industry.

In the campaign, a spread ad acts as a snapshot of life, with pictures of commonplace and cherished moments--from giggling girls to a wedding. Copy implores, "Stop and smell the memories . . . If a picture's worth a thousand words, your sense of smell is worth a million."

Fragrance Foundation President Annette Green wanted to do such a campaign 12 years ago, but it never got off the ground. That it's finally happening now, she said, is coincidental to any anti-fragrance sentiment. "What the campaign is meant to do for consumers is to make them more aware of the important role fragrance plays in their lives," Ms. Green said. "Because we feel there are some grave misunderstandings about the role of fragrance--whether it's Generation X or people who want to move through the world without experiencing their senses."

Last spring the Cosmetic, Toiletry & Fragrance Association, Washington, hired the public relations firm of Nichols Dezenhall "basically to help us with research on the fragrance issue and to understand more about what's going on," said VP-Public Affairs Irene Malbin.

Though Ms. Malbin characterizes fragrance protesters as a "fringe phenomenon," she said, "it is an issue you have to be aware of."

Last winter, the University of Minnesota received extensive media coverage for a reported ban on perfume and cologne at the School of Social Work when some staffers and students complained of chemical sensitivities. But in a letter to the association, university General Counsel Mark Rotenberg noted there was no ban, although those using the school were encouraged to be considerate of those with fragance sensitivities.

In California, some public meetings set aside separate seating areas for the fragrance sensitive, and Paul Imperiale, disability coordinator for the San Francisco mayor's office, has predicted, "Ten years from now it will be politically incorrect to wear perfumes in public."

That remains to be seen.

Multiple chemical sensitivity, a syndrome which has been associated with those who suffer reactions to fragrance or other common substances, has been rejected as an established organic disease by the American Academy of Allergy & Immunology and American Medical Association, according to Dr. Ronald E. Gots of the North Bethesda, Md.-based National Medical Advisory Service, a medical/occupational health consultant group.

Dr. Gots, whose group is co-hosting a seminar in Baltimore later this fall on multiple chemical sensitivity, declares the syndrome a "peculiar manifestation of our chemophobic society."

But Ms. Kostra guesstimates at least 10% of the population suffers from it, a number many believe is exaggerated.

One of the fragrance industry's most offensive practices, Ms. Kostra charges, is scented inserts in magazines, a sampling technique she would like to see go the way of uninvited, in-your face department store spritzing.

Random spritzing of shoppers had its heyday in the 1980s but virtually stopped after Bloomingdale's was sued by one customer. Now, before taking aim, department store sales help almost always ask first.

In the aftermath of the Bloomies incident, scented inserts have become increasingly popular with marketers. Though early versions weren't leakproof, the technology has improved to the point where there are few reader complaints.

In a 1994 study by Glamour of 500 readers, more than 95% of respondents had purchased a fragrance over the course of the year, with two-thirds choosing a scent because they had sampled it first. One out of four readers surveyed bought a scent after seeing an ad; more than 66% purchased a fragrance after trying a scent strip.

At Elle, Group Publisher Carlo Portale runs 35-40 scented inserts per year. In his nine months there, he hasn't received any reader complaints though the magazine has compiled a list of 150 readers who prefer magazines without scented samples.

Earlier this summer, there was a mishap at Martha Stewart Living. The magazine received a battery of reader complaints after a Calvin Klein Eternity scent sample ran in the May issue.

"Since then we've changed our policy," said Exec VP David Stewart. "We do accept scent samples, but they have to be encapsulated" so they don't leak. Since May, no scented ads have run, but a DKNY sealed sample was recently cleared.

Environmental scenting, still in its infancy, has not yet been the subject of heavy protests. In the five years it has been environmentally scenting hotels and other businesses, Aroma-Sys has received only one complaint, Mr. Peltier said, "and that from a woman who [only] read about my company in a magazine." He said she accepted environmental scenting after he explained it to her.

Aroma-Sys has scented the lobbies of two Florida hotels. The Miami Marriott Dadeland has used mango aromatherapy in the ventilation system for two years to set a tone of relaxation.

Customer response has been "100% positive," said Director of Marketing Annette Martiz. But the nearby Miami Radisson Mart Plaza had a different experience, eventually jettisoning its system because of cost and, employees say, some complaints from guests who suffered reactions.

Dr. Alan Hirsch, neurological director of the Smell & Taste Treatment & Research Foundation in Chicago, investigates how smell and the lack of it effects behavior. He is now studying eight different drugs to treat smell loss for companies such as Abbott Laboratories and Eli Lilly & Co.

Through testing, he also has established a link between environmental scenting and the inclination to spend money. In one experiment, consumers in a floral scented room were found more likely to buy Nike shoes than those in an unscented room. And in a Las Vegas casino, gamblers poured more money into scented slot machines than scent-free ones.

While dollar signs might be a powerful draw for businesses intrigued by environmental scenting, they might be better off first building proof that fragrances can actually contribute to well being.

That has been the purpose of the Olfactory Research Fund. An offshoot of the Fragrance Foundation, it has publicized and helped underwrite studies on everything from the positive effects of fragrance on the mood of women at midlife to scent as a stress reducer during magnetic resonance imaging diagnostic tests at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

The Olfactory Research Fund even has a name for this study of fragrance as science--Aroma-Chology. Defined as the study of the temporary effects of fragrance on feelings and emotions, its quantitative and statistical approach elevates fragrance from the folk medicine of aromatherapy.

Still, Ms. Kostra remains unconvinced. "If you're buying a vanilla based perfume to a certain extent what you're buying is a lot of sizzle . . . why not just a bottle of plain vanilla extract?"

Keith J. Kelly contributed to this story.

Copyright September 1995 Crain Communications Inc.

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