Management & Operations

Beaten by a nose

Posted on January 11, 2007 by Steve Hirano, Editor/Associate Publisher

Those of you who are offended by perfume strips inserted into magazines will be happy to know that adhesive strips infused with the aroma of chocolate chip cookies have been removed from five bus shelters in San Francisco.

The cookie-scented strips were pasted on the bus shelters as part of the California Milk Processor Board’s “Got Milk?” campaign. The board was trying to break new ground with the nation’s first outdoor scent-based marketing campaign. The goal, of course, was to fill bus riders with a yearning for milk.

The cookie aroma lasted one day, Dec. 4, before the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) pulled the plug. MTA officials informed CBS Outdoor, which coordinates the agency’s bus shelter advertising, that it needed to remove the scent-infused adhesives immediately.

Aroused by the aroma
What happened? As you might have guessed, environmental activists peppered the MTA with complaints about possible illnesses and allergic reactions that could be triggered by the chemicals in the scent-infused adhesive strips.

Concerns were also voiced about the possibility that homeless people without the means to purchase cookies (or milk, I gather) would be unnecessarily tantalized by the aroma. I assume other people complained that they simply didn’t like the smell of chocolate chip cookies, whether they’re sitting in a bus shelter or in their mother’s kitchen.

MTA Executive Director Nathaniel Ford told the San Francisco Chronicle that his agency did not look closely at the proposal before allowing the shelters to be part of the unusual marketing campaign. He said the MTA’s decision to remove the advertising was not prejudiced by the involved foods. “We’re not against chocolate chip cookies, and we’re not against milk,” he told the newspaper.

CBS Outdoor said it would comply with the MTA’s request, but argued that the health concerns were exaggerated. The company would seem to have a point, seeing that the typical urban bus shelter is normally bombarded with exhaust fumes from cars, trucks and, yes, buses. Could the smell of chocolate chip cookies be any worse for your health?

But that’s not the point here. The question is whether or not it’s fair to inject another sensory stimulus into an environment already overloaded with unwanted sights, sounds and smells. (Remember how much nicer public places were when you didn’t have to listen to other people’s phone conversations?)

Take a deep breath
The MTA made the proper decision. It would be different if the advertising campaign was only visually annoying. Bus riders would at least have the option to look in another direction. But you have no choice about the air that you’re forced to breathe. Whether or not you like the smell of chocolate chip cookies, and I do, you should not be forced to inhale its aroma just to satisfy a marketer’s desire to sell more milk.

Before the bus shelter campaign was launched, Steve James, chairman of the California Milk Processor Board, predicted that it would “help us build buzz by creating a sensory trigger for milk in an unusual way and place.” It built buzz, no doubt. Future attempts to use scent marketing in outdoor venues will be hobbled by the buzz that was built in San Francisco, probably not the best place to launch an advertising campaign that could incite health or environmental concerns.

Maybe a better idea would have been to paint a milk mustache on the front of a MUNI bus. OK, maybe not.

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