Yesterday’s New York Times magazine featured a big article about consumer buying behavior. It seems the hot job right now is data analysis, using neuroscience, to make sense of the mountains of consumer behavior data that have been rolling in for years. You didn’t actually think those discount cards just gave you a discount, right? No — everything you buy and click on and track and follow is being recorded — but I digress.
It seems that one gigantic American company, Proctor and Gamble, wanted to produce a product that would take care of household smells, things like smoking, cats, dogs, feet, etc. So, in the late 90’s, after years of research, they came out with Febreze. This product had minimal perfume, as it was supposed to eliminate, not merely cover, stinks.
It died a slow and horrible death. Each month, fewer people bought it.
The development team ran to marketing in a dead panic. What could be wrong? Enter an odd mixture of cultural anthropology and neuroscience.
It seems that Americans don’t want to admit that their homes, er, smell. Plus, one becomes habituated to one’s household smells and personal odors, and, after awhile, doesn’t smell them. A memorable example given in the article was the woman with nine cats. “Oh, no,” she exclaimed to one nose-holding researcher, “Isn’t it wonderful? They hardly smell at all!”
Eventually, it was revealed, through extrapolation about rat-brain research on habits formed by rewards, that we here in the good ol’ USA enjoy the smell of “clean” as a reward, once we have already done the work of cleaning. These “habit loops” are long-lived. The product team realized that Febreze had been marketed all wrong. In order to maximize its potential as a reward, they needed to add — you guessed it — more perfume, meanwhile downplaying the odor-killing aspect of the product. Febreze is now one of P & G’s top-sellers, worldwide.
In the interest of primary research, I went to the market yesterday and bought a bottle of Febreze. (It took me awhile to figure out which one I wanted, because there is now Febreze laundry detergent, Febreze Pet Odor, Febreze Rug Cleaner, Glade-scented Febreze and so on.) It cost around five bucks. I brought it home, meanwhile wondering where I could possibly use it in my own immaculately clean and odor-free house.
Why…of course! The cat box!
Anybody with more than one indoor cat knows that you have to use a pickup truck to load up all the cat litter you’re going to need. And, even though I scoop the buried treasure throughout the day and change the box every single night, there is a, um, certain miasma associated with it. But first I had to see what the Febreze actually smelled like. I sprayed some on my hand.
It smells like what Americans call “clean.” That is, it smells a lot like Tide laundry detergent. White musk — what is often called “laundry musk.” It smells like a lot of laundry musk. And kind of floral, and kind of baby-powdery. And very strong.
I sprayed it on a couple of problem areas in the bathroom. Did it work?
My husband came home and said, “Are you doing laundry? Wash my jeans, willya?”
Should I tell him to just spray his damned jeans with Febreze? What’s in this stuff anyway?
The label reads: “contains water, alcohol, odor eliminator derived from corn, fragrance.”
Hmmm. It also says you should spray “soft surfaces — sofas, bedding, carpets, pet areas, clothing.” And the air, “all around your home.”
I wonder if the IFRA knows about this? I mean, bedding? Pretty much guarantees you’ve going to get it on your skin….the only caution is that you’re not supposed to use it around birds. Well, o.k.
I guess the IFRA isn’t planning to go up against P&G anytime soon. Interesting. Especially since the article says Febreze is a top-seller worldwide. What does that mean? That everybody wants to smell like CleanAmerica? I always thought that we were the only really wacko country when it came to this, but maybe not.
But did it work?
It did, and it made the bathroom smell pleasant, if you like that perfumey detergent smell. The next day the, er, problem was back. But I think I’ll just clean the damned box out. That should take care of it.
European and other not-in-America readers: Do they sell this stuff where you live? Do people use it?
The article is “How Your Shopping Habits Reveal Even the Most Personal Information” by Charles Duhigg, The New York Times Magazine, February 19, 2012.
Photo of the next-door-neighbor’s cat box by Olfacta.