Led by the nose

Unilever, a well-known multinational company, enthuses in a patent application for a deodorant fragrance composition that

“the fragrance enables the composition to smell attractively and thereby encourage purchasers of the product to use it and indeed to buy the same product again.” (Unilever, 2005).

(They previously used the same statement in patent application no. 20050101501 dated 05/12/05 for a laundry perfume, which was accessible at the same site but no longer.)

The company is using a psychological device known as ‘pairing’: here a smell is ‘paired’ with the act of using a product (e.g. laundering) so that the user feels the urge to experience the same smell when s/he next performs the task.

In a patent application for a liquid detergent, Unilever say that fragrance particles “...cue cleanliness for a longer time because they slowly release perfume after cleaning.” (Unilever, 2008a)

In other words, the smell fools people into thinking that something is clean – when it may not be.

The commercially-created norm of perfumed laundry products is reinforced by advertisements showing obscure actors pretending to be ecstatic about the smells.

Sensing a marketing opportunity, other manufacturers jumped on the perfume bandwagon, with the consequence that it is now difficult to find unperfumed products.

Artificial perfume ingredients can be chemically completely different from the natural substances whose smells they mimic, but can deceive the unsophisticated nose into finding them pleasant, just as the pleasant tastes of junk food trick our tastebuds. They are used because they are generally cheaper than natural ones, and also last longer. Chemists are working on ways of making perfumes remain on fabrics for ever-longer periods. This is not good news for human health.