chapter  5
27 Pages

Sense appeal: the marketing of sensation

Contemporary advertising whispers, declares and shouts that products of all sorts can bring sensory fulfilment. Wrigley’s 5 chewing gum claims to ‘stimulate your senses’; Friskies cat food will ‘feed the senses’; Salem cigarettes say they can ‘stir the senses’; Yamaha declares that their new motorcycle will ‘ignite your senses’. Products from coffee to fabric conditioner to bathroom fixtures claim to ‘awaken’ the senses. In an attempt to outdo its automotive competitors in ‘sense appeal’, Hyundai announced its 2006 Tucson model would not only ‘excite all the senses’, but also provide ‘a “sixth sense” in the form of electronic stability control’. ‘As senses go,’ the promotional text assured readers, ‘you can never have too many.’ The latest automobile manufacturer to take this approach is Rolls-Royce, which has named one of its models ‘Ghost Six Senses’. The advertising copy informs the reader that: ‘The world of luxury is full of expressions that captivate the senses: a dazzling diamond necklace, a cloud of fragrance … the pure sound of a Stradivarius or the caress of a cool silk on skin.’ These, however, are said to ‘excite one, or sometimes two, of the five senses’, whereas the new Ghost Six Senses car is able to ‘stimulate all your senses at once to awaken the elusive sixth sense’.

Judging by such ads, the primary role of many products on the market today would seem to be to provide consumers with multisensory experiences, rather than to perform any practical functions. Such appeals to the senses do not end with advertising copy, but are carried

over into product design, packaging, and retail environments. Aspects that were once thought of as simple sensory by-products of a commodity’s structure or function – the crunch of a potato chip, the click of a camera lens, the smell of a new car – are increasingly deliberately designed to appeal to consumer sensibilities (see Postrel 2003; Zampini and Spence 2004). Packaging adds another sensory layer, with various companies promising to aid clients in ‘packaging the senses’. And the more immersive the retail or service environment the more effective it is deemed to be. Thus the Rainforest Café themed restaurant chain, with its mist effects, waterfalls, simulated thunder and lightning, tropical plants and mechanical gorillas, is ‘built around the five senses’, according to its founder, Steven Schussler (Machak 1996). Why all these invocations of the senses? Clearly, there is something stirring

in the marketplace. A 1998 Harvard Business Review article entitled ‘Welcome to the experience economy’ theorized the shift, declaring that progressive companies no longer produce goods or supply services, but instead use services as the stage and goods as props for creating emotionally-compelling and memorable ‘experiences’. The article states that: ‘The more senses an experience engages, the more effective and memorable it can be.’ The paragon example is the Disney theme park, and Rainforest Café is another, but Pine and Gilmore also give their theory a common sense (‘under our noses all along’) touch by observing that: ‘Smart shoeshine operators augment the smell of polish with crisp snaps of the cloth, scents and sounds that don’t make the shoes any shinier but do make the experience more engaging’ (Pine and Gilmore 1998: 104). Since the turn of the twenty-first century, this emphasis on providing

engaging ‘experiences’ has led to what advertising guru and CEO Kevin Roberts calls ‘the race to embrace the senses’ in marketing (2005: 106). Three books with the same title, Sensory Marketing, appeared within months of each other in 2009-10. What is it about the senses that so appeals to marketers and advertisers? Why sensory marketing now? Does it have a history? How does cultural difference affect the sense appeal of commodities? These are among the questions we wish to explore in this chapter, which traces trends in sensory marketing and examines the discourse of experts on the subject, situating both within a larger cultural context.