Is Scent Storytelling Stinky Or Sweet?

At this year’s SXSW, an international group of scent specialists laid out their vision for scent as the next big storytelling tool because it allows the creator to connect with the audience in a more visceral, memorable way.

During the panel, Artist Frederik Duerinck explained his Famous Deaths project, an installation of “smell documentaries” in which  you could experience the scent of the final moments of Princess Diana, Colonel Gadhafi, John F. Kennedy and Whitney Houston while looking at their portraits. The scent of JFK’s final moments are defined by the “smell of an autumn wind, the grass, the leather car seats, Jackie Kennedy’s perfume, exhaust fumes mingled with the somewhat musty scent of that limousine, and then suddenly the penetrating scent of blood, brains and gunpowder.” While morbid and probably disturbing, the project is an imaginative and fascinating way to isolate a moment in time. Scent adds to the intensity and emphasizes the gravity of these situations.

This project got me thinking: storytellers should be thinking beyond sight and sound, exploring our other senses, to create more authentic experiences. Scent in particular grabs us in a way that no other sense can because it’s directly connected to the amygdala and hippocampus, areas of the brain that process emotion and memory. Smell is the only sense that comes fully developed at birth, and it’s the primary way we define the world until age 10, at which point sight becomes the predominant sense, according to Bloomberg. It has such a hold over our memory that after three months, a person can recall a smell with 65 percent accuracy, in contrast to only 50 percent of visuals.

Our attention spans and even our memories are dwindling due to our increasingly digitized lives. We often don’t remember the fleeting content we regularly see on Snapchat, Twitter and other social networks. We need to break away from this ephemerality to create meaningful experiences, and incorporating scent in storytelling creates a long-term association that every artist, creator and storyteller wants and deserves.

Brands have been experimenting with scent for years to convert customers to loyalists. Walt Disney World does it across the resort — it’s become part of the brand’s identity and ingrains a positive memorable association for visitors. Cinnabon’s strategic efforts to lure passersby are equally effective — who can forget that sickenly sweet smell of cinnamon and brown sugar when you walk past one in an airport or food court? Fragrance is unavoidable. You can close your eyes to avoid seeing something, but you can’t escape scent, and you can’t erase it. All the more reason for storytellers to experiment with it.

Today, the technology to disperse fragrance across a movie theater is finally ready, after a few failed attempts years ago. Soon U.S. venues will have them. Moving chairs, smoke and wind will be deployed in conjunction with scent in an attempt to create a full sensory experience and more deeply engage viewers.

Given the popularity of virtual reality, we want more realistic, immersive experiences, and we want to be part of the story rather than a passive bystander. Sensory experiences, especially those that include scent, put the audience in the middle of the action to drive impact. Ultimately, this is what people will want in the future.

So it makes sense that some virtual reality producers are making scent experiences inescapable, with Feelreal masks that cover your entire face and come with an odor generator. The mask can emit seven different scents and produce wind, hot air, water mist and even vibrations. It sounds horribly claustrophobic and looks like something Darth Vader would wear. The Verge aptly called the masks “gas chambers” and “implements of torture,”— I tend to agree, there is such a thing as too immersive.

At the same time, the makers of Feelreal are on to something. Scent is a powerful supplement to a larger story. It’s intensely personal because it can transport you to a different part of your life. And it blows past the logical and analytical parts of your brain, tapping into something much more primal.

For this reason, scent can heighten fear particularly well. A haunted house in downtown Minneapolis called The Haunted Basement owes its reputation for being terrifying in large part due to its range of vivid, disgusting scents that permeate the nostrils of vulnerable audiences navigating an obstacle course where they must climb, crawl, run and get covered in gore. It’s one of the few haunted houses to use scent, and audiences apparently complain if the crew leaves it out because of how it adds to the realism, according to The New Yorker. It’s a level of realism that you’ll never forget, and it’s the escapism that we crave.

Looking forward, there’s plenty of fertile ground for artists, storytellers and designers to use scent to enhance narratives and create a more unified user experience. Storytelling, in its purest form, is inherently a medium that manipulates and stimulates the spectrum of senses. So why not make use of emerging technology to fill this void that arises in our visually dominated culture? Granted, of course, that the scent is actively adding a layer to the story — and not a cloying marketing trick.

Author annotation:

After hearing about the SXSW panel that predicted scent would be the next big thing in storytelling, I felt like I had to write about it. Scent embeds deeply into our memories and has the potential to bring us back to an exact moment in time. It gives us the ability to recall memories with vivid details that might have otherwise been forgotten. Scent has a place in storytelling, and I’m interested to see where it brings us now that the technology is ready. I chose to post this on LinkedIn because of the level of interest in marketing trends, and the number of people in the industry who read the blog daily. 

Alexander Jutkowitz, CEO of Group SJR, Truffle Pig and Colloquial

Top image shot by Chris New, Director of Multimedia, art direction by Joelle McKenna, Visual Designer, animation by Cindy Suen, Animator.

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Is Scent Storytelling Stinky Or Sweet?