JCDecaux

U.K. bus stops will soon smell like delicious baked potatoes. And this is likely just the beginning.

Bus stops are typically not the place where you want to hoover in a big noseful of air. Car exhaust, stale cigarettes and fresh urine – the noxious bouquet of mass transit is anything but welcoming.

In this hazy stinkscape of forlorn odors, a food company is launching a marketing campaign.

By the end of today, crews in London, Manchester, Glasgow and other U.K. cities will have outfitted 10 bus stops with large advertisements for “McCain Ready Baked Jackets,” a frozen baked-potato product that microwaves to readiness in 5 minutes. Each billboard includes a fiberglass potato sculpture and a mysterious button: Push it, and the tuber discharges the aroma of “slow oven-baked jacket potatoes.”

Does this mean Smell-O-Vision is making a comeback? It seems that way – more on that in a moment.

McCain Foods spent three months working with a scent laboratory to create the baked-potato perfume, then tapped ad agencies PHD and JCDecaux (among others) to perfect the gas-emitting spud. Gushed McCain brand specialist Mark Hodge: “These outdoor specials are really going to stand out and drive sales by bringing the tasty oven-baked smell to warm the consumer. We're adding a whole new meaning to try before you buy."

But will it work?

Not if it plays out like the disastrous smellvertisements of San Francisco bus-stop infamy. In 2006, ad company CBS Outdoor plastered bus shelters around San Francisco with those once-ubiquitous “Got Milk?” promotions. The ads included a scent strip that gave off the essence of fresh-baked cookies, a nice change from the usual reek of the urban environment.

They lasted all of 36 hours before the city forced their removal. Among the groups that raised a stink were people concerned about obesity and diabetes, people who thought they might cause allergic reactions and advocates for the homeless, who worried the imaginary cookies might make the poor feel hungry.

But at least one person sees a bright future for advertising that goes up your nose. Meet Carmine Santandrea, head of the Santa Barbara-based fragrance firm, ScentAndrea. Santandrea has worked with Hershey's and Procter & Gamble on campaigns based around smells; he is now helping a major electronics company add an aromatic component to movie theaters. “People are wondering, 'What's next after 3-D?'” he says. “It is smell.”

I asked Santandrea for his thoughts on the U.K. transit potatoes. Here's what he had to say, slightly edited for clarity:

Will the baked-potato smell be distinguishable in a bus stop, which often wears its own cloak of funk?

One of the reasons [smellvertising] has been a slow process is because the technology has had to be accommodated for all kinds of smelling situations. For example, with the bus stop, if it's a very breezy bus shelter then the scent won't remain there. Or if it's a very cold day, the scent will not deploy. The scent materials are able to freeze and you're not going to get much effect.

Do people even want to smell potatoes?

Have you been to England? Have you ever eaten fish and chips? They love their greasy fish and chips, and the chips can't be greasy enough. I suspect what they're smelling is a little bit of potato, which is a very delicate scent, and a lot of grease. (McCain spokeswoman Jane Baerselman got back to me today about the particular bouquet of the fiberglass tater: "It's got a lovely, warm sort of smell to it, like a potato baking in the oven," she says. "It is amazing how real the smell really is.")

How does one develop a potato smell, anyway?

Well, we (at ScentAndrea) have a potato scent – as a matter of fact we have several potato scents, because we have tested the smell of french fries a lot and we can't successfully [recreate] it. That's because part of what makes fries smell good is the heat: If you let them go cold, you can imagine how bad it smells. But potato scents are purely artificial. For it to use natural components means that it is a flavor, and flavors go rancid like food goes rancid. Chemical agents have no allergens, are not a food component; they're simply chemicals that have been IDed in the actual smell of potato.

There's an instrument that's been developed in the last 25 years, where you can point it at a product and it will tell you exactly what chemicals you need to make that smell. We can duplicate anything. If you can smell it, we can duplicate it. We  have over 10,000 smells (at ScentAndrea) at this point.

How recent an innovation is smell bombing?

Scenting goes back to Victorian times when parties were scented, most of time with floral smells. It was for the most part because of the malodor of people who didn't bathe. Then they used scenting in the theater also back in Victorian times. The concept has been around since then and has been done more or less successfully.

How successfully?

What we did that was extremely successful, is we put the smell of fresh coffee in gas stations at the pumps. And when you drive in in morning and smell it, if you're a coffee addict you can't resist. We tripled the sales of coffee that way. Using scents lifts sales at a minimum of 10 percent and in some cases like the coffee, 300 percent.

So what's the deal with Smell-O-Vision possibly returning: Was John Waters onto something?

We're testing "Scent-a-Vision" in New Zealand in movie theaters. When you buy a DVD or download a movie, we can also send the scent to you with that movie. It's contained in a plastic wafer about the size of a postage stamp. If you have one of our appliances, which you can see on our website – it's a multifan unit that sits under laptop computer and is often used for cooling the computer – we can trigger each fan individually through the USB port to release a different smell.

We have done the Shrek movies and Pirates of the Caribbean. In Shrek, we have the smell of his house (gingerbread), pastures (green, freshly cut grass), and we actually have a fart smell. Shrek farts from time to time.

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