Monday, February 20, 2012

The Smell of Clean

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.


Anonymous said...

I admire your dedication - and is your hand OK after spraying it??

The advertisers here in the UK used to emphasise Febreze's usefulness in freshening-up hard-to-clean things, like car seats and settees - "Wash them with Febreze!" Now they advertise by spraying smelly-looking things and then getting blindfolded individuals to comment on the lovely fresh scent: cue hilarity for onlookers, epecially when someone figures out that they've been set up and are rapturously sniffing a grimy pair of underpants!

I haven't tried Febreze but I bet it sells pretty well here too.

cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

carmencanada /Grain de Musc said...

Every single product that contains fragrance is IFRA-compliant, including Febreze (P&G is, of course, a member of IFRA). If memory serves, it contains heavy molecules that bind with the lighter, odor-producing ones and keep them from being released in the air. To my nose, the fragrance they add smells predominantly of Calone, which is one of the reasons why L'Eau d'Issey ended up smelling of room freshener for me. And, yes, it does sell in France. There may be different scents for different national markets though.

Olfacta said...

Hi Anna -- UK and European advertising is so much more clever than ours! Although I don't watch much network TV -- too many reality shows -- so don't see many ads. I simply can't imagine one featuring grimy underpants though!

Olfacta said...

Hi Carmencanada -- Good to get such knowledge from an expert. What interests me, though, is why perfumes are required to list their ingredients while this heavily perfumed household product is not, especially when usage suggestions instruct the user to spray it all around the air in the home, thereby guaranteeing that it will be inhaled, and on bedding, therby guaranteeing that it will make prolonged contact with skin. The version I have is quite misty and hangs in the air for awhile. Do you know?

Rappleyea said...

Hi Pat! I didn't realize you were "back", but am happy that you are!

IFRA doesn't care if we all get cancer or auto-immune diseases from these chemicals. They're only persecuting natural essential oils - that have been used in healing for hundreds of years - so that they can be replaced with aroma-chemicals, which are of course patented.

Oh! And I highly recommend the biodegradable corn husk litter. Arm & Hammer and The World's Best Litter are two brands. It's a clumping litter, and works great in my 2 cat house. It also lasts a ridiculously long time!

Olfacta said...

Hi D -- Good to hear from you! And something tells me that there are no natural oils in Febreze. Not at 5 bucks for a liter or so. Just imagine the quantity of whatever-it-is -- Calone, maybe? -- that a best selling product, worldwide, like this one uses. Functional fragrance, it's called.

Thanks for the litter tip. We have 2 indoor cats who love to eat and...well. The clay litter with chunks of carbon in it works pretty well, but I'll look for the cornhusk kind.

Vanessa said...

Adding to Anna's comment that the new Febreze ad campaign over here is quite radical. Personally I don't see the need for products like Febreze except in extreme circumstances unless there has been an actual pet accident (as opposed to pets going about their daily business indoors, which mine only does when she is sick), and then not always. I mop up the offending mess with warm water and washing up liquid as necessary, or sometimes just water, and if the regurgitated furry detritus (as it usually is) has gone and the odour with it, consider it job done!

Perfumeshrine said...


interesting post!

The reason that there is no breakdown of ingredients on Febreze (just fragrance mentioned) is that these larger molecules are as you surmissed musks (just about the largest you can go, this is another reason of their use in detergents and fabric softeners), which as well as Calone, are not restricted by current IFRA regulations.
Another point that is not generally broadcasted is that the product has built-in "allergy reducers" (hence the separate brand) and the side effects are likened to what a simple bar of soap would produce to skin, eyes and respiratory system through continuous exposure to the suds. As the company states "Febreze is practically non toxic" (even if ingested!)
Rather fascinating, isn't it?

The really interesting thing now is that Greece is probably among the few countries in which Febreze doesn't circulate. At all. It was introduced I believe at some time around 2000 if memory serves well, advertised as a means to clean hard-to-wash things like car seats (indeed I well recall a demostrantion outside a supermarket where they insisted they spray all our seats, what a hoot!). It died a very sudden and painful death. It was off the market in a year, never to return in any form!
I suppose that has to do with the implied message that if you're using Febreze you're "covering up" and in our cultural milieu covering up is considered particularly pretentious (like the scented Versailles which didn't have a single indoors toilet facility, even by the standards of those times). Much frowned upon. The local culture focuses on working on getting something clean, when it refers to the home, I suppose the way the US does as well. Fellow countrypeople are not so hysterical about the body however, not in what concerns actual showering, but in what concerns food smells or cigarette smoke or "dirty" perfumes etc. Those they're casual about.

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