Smell to sell: Imagining food smells may increase consumption

By Caroline SCOTT-THOMAS contact

- Last updated on GMT

Just imagining the smell of chocolate cake - while looking at a picture - may increase consumption
Just imagining the smell of chocolate cake - while looking at a picture - may increase consumption

Related tags: Olfaction

Imagining the smell of cake may lead people to eat more cake, suggests a study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Turkish and US researchers have dubbed the phenomenon ‘smellizing’, explaining that the impact of visual imagery in food marketing has been thoroughly explored, but little research has examined the impact of olfactory imagery – that is, imagining the smell of a food. It’s not a new idea: Dunkin’ Donuts in South Korea has wafted the smell of coffee into buses, for example, and McCain Foods in the UK has diffused the smell of baked potatoes into bus shelters in an effort to get mouths watering.

But does it work? This latest research suggests that it does.

The researchers showed study participants a picture of a chocolate cake or cookies with the corresponding tagline ‘Feel like a chocolate cake?’ or ‘Fancy a freshly baked cookie?’.

For those looking at the chocolate cake picture, they were then asked either to smell a cake scent or imagine the smell of a chocolate cake, or neither. Those shown an image of cookies were asked to either simply look at the picture, or to look at the picture while imagining the smell of cookies.

“We wondered whether both real and imagined food smells would enhance consumer desire for that product. Does the concept of smelling food make people salivate more and increase their desire to eat more than they normally would?”​ the authors said.

They found participants salivated more after they had smelled the chocolate cake scent – and even after they had imagined the smell of cake or cookies – than when they had only looked at the images. However, in a separate study, they found that salivation did not increase in the absence of an image.

They also found that the amount of food eaten increased from the no scent, to the imagined scent, to the actual scent conditions.

“Our results show that just asking people to imagine the odour of an appetizing food product will not increase salivation unless the consumer also sees a picture of the food product,”​ they said. “For brands asking people to imagine what an object smells like, they might consider appealing to common consumer experiences in visual imagery and use written cues if necessary.”


Source: Journal of Consumer Research

DOI: 10.1086/674664

“Smellizing Cookies and Salivating: A Focus on Olfactory Imagery”

Authors: Aradhna Krishna, Maureen Morrin, and Eda Sayin

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