How Capitalism Came to Its Senses – and Yours The Invention of Sensory Marketing

June 29, 2017

David Howes
Centre for Sensory Studies
Concordia University, Montreal



Perhaps the most striking feature of the contemporary marketplace is the growing sense appeal of commodities, and the increasingly vociferous invocation of the senses in advertising. Under the regime of industial capitalism (which flourished in the nineteenth century) the senses were disciplined, and the accent was on moderation, whereas in the consumer capitalist (or “experience”) economy of today, the senses are entreated and the accent is on gratification. This paper examines, first, the role of the department store in precipitating the transformation in values from moderation to gratification, and second, the role of contemporary marketers in promoting a regime of hyperconsumption by harnessing the senses to the movement of merchandise.



Pier 1 Imports is a store that specializes in home decor, including wood and wicker furniture, draperies, and scented candles. On the cover of its Fall 2000 catalogue there is a picture of a tabletop fountain made of slabs of brown and grey speckled marble. Down the right edge of the cover is a series of coloured boxes. Each box is imprinted with the name of a different sense. At the top is feel (golden yellow), then smell (lawn green), hear (purple) taste (lust red), and finally see (burnt orange). The slogan reads: “Get in touch with your senses™”


A full page advertisement for Westin Hotels & Resorts which appeared in 2007 features a bunch of lush green leaves spattered with dewdrops and the line: “White tea. The calming new scent of Westin.” There is a flap which releases the scent of white tea when opened.


The iPod touch, which also first appeared in 2007, features a “haptic interface” which is touted for enabling the user to “Touch your music, movies, and more.”


Why all these invocations of the senses in contemporary advertising? Clearly, there is something stirring in the marketplace. Advertising guru and Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide CEO Kevin Roberts speaks of “the race to embrace the senses” that has come over his profession (Roberts 2005: 106). Three books with the same title, “Sensory Marketing,” appeared within months of each other in 2009-2010. What is it about the senses that so appeals to marketers and advertisers? What is driving all this hype? To answer this question I would like to offer an ethnography of “How Marketers Think.” This title purposely reverses the direction of the gaze that informs the work of Harvard Business School professor emeritus and former director of the Mind of the Market Lab Gerald Zaltman in How Customers Think. In what follows, I hold up a mirror to marketing so as to examine how business professors construct consumers’ brains and senses based on a range of unexamined cultural assumptions. I also highlight the larger historical processes, such as the privatization of sensation, that can be seen as shaping the “mind of the marketer”.



Let us call the advocates of sensory marketing “sense experts.” One point they uniformly insist on is the newness of their approach. Thus, in Sensory Marketing, Swedish business professors Hultén, Brouwes and van Dijk (2009) speak of a “new epoch” dawning in which the senses will be the prime focus of marketing. (Formerly, marketing was all about the product or all about the service a company had to offer.) They go on to advise companies on how to develop strategies for each of the five senses so as to create the “supreme sensory experience” for their customers. The holism of this approach is touted as a way of clarifying a firm’s identity and values and at the same time establishing a more individualized connection with the consumer on account of the subjectivity and emotionality of sense experience.


In the introduction to Sensory Marketing, University of Michigan marketing professor Aradhna Krishna starts by chiding her fellow professionals for having largely “missed the fact” that products are sensual in nature. She then advances the proposition that “the more firms can create, accentuate, or highlight the sensuality of their products, the more appealing these products can be for consumers” (Krishna 2010: 1) Next, Krishna discusses the recent history of product marketing. She distinguishes a series of periods leading up to the current time of the senses. First there was the1940s through‘60s, “post-Depression” or “no-nonsense” era. During this period, she writes, consumers “looked carefully at price and what the product offered”. The sensory aspects of products were hardly mentioned, or “invisible.” People lived frugally, opting for inexpensive items and lower-priced stores.


In the 1970s, Krishna continues, it was discovered that branded goods could command a premium, with Levis jeans being the prime example. The focus accordingly shifted to building brand names and logos. But, according to Krishna, the focus on name and logo distracted attention from the other aspects of products in the same way price did previously. As a result, the potential sense appeal of commodities remained occulted. Only recently, in the new millennium, have firms started “actively looking” at and seeking to emphasize the sensuality of products, while iconic brands like Tiffany (with its famous robin egg blue) or NBC (with its tri-tone chime) stand out precisely because of their “sensory signatures.”


Krishna notes that even the names of brands have become sensory in the new era of sensory marketing. For example, in the domain of food products there is “5 Gum” chewing gum. It purports to elicit all five senses, whence the name and the catchphrase: “5 Gum Food – Stimulate your senses.” In the domain of technical products, there is the iPod touch from Apple. Krishna underscores the way that, in the case of the iTouch:

the product name itself brought attention to a sensory aspect of the product and gave ownership to iTouch of that sense, the sense of ‘touch.’ The product name iTouch has connotations for the way the product feels when we use it and for the way it responds to our fingers. This was yet another prescient move made by Apple to play up the senses when few other competitors were doing so (Krishna 2010: 6)

Let us step back for a moment and consider how well-founded Krishna’s claims are.


The first thing I would note about the iPod with its so-called multi-touch interface is that it is not about touch. It is about accessing sound (in the form of i tunes) and images (in the form of pictures or videos). It belittles touch because its screen, being made of glass, is devoid of texture.


There was a time, not long ago, when touch mattered to the operation of communication technologies. I refer to the days of the rotary dial phone. I happen to still have one such phone in my basement and bring it out every once in a while to practice dialing, even though it is not connected to any network. Dialing a “9” is different from dialing a “1.” It involves exertion. There is resistance. By contrast, the iphone neuters resistance.


I do not own an iTouch or iphone but I do have an iPad. Rather perplexingly, it does not always respond to my touch. I am told that this may be because the interface reacts not to touch but to temperature, and that perhaps the blood in my veins is too cold to activate the sensor. I do not appreciate being painted as a cold-blooded reptile, but this remains the most likely explanation, and I have found that rubbing my hands together vigorously before using my iPad definitely helps.


I suspect that I am not the only one who suffers from this particular “disability.” There could indeed be many people who feel excluded or deeply frustrated by the haptic interface. Hence, it worries me that Apple “owns” touch, as Krishna says, for that means the future is going to be very flat, however “intuitive”, and however “fun.”


Setting my personal reservations aside, I have a number of more serious difficulties with Krishna’s account of the birth of sensory marketing. Capitalism did not just discover the senses yesterday. The date is more like 1852, the year the first department store, Le Bon Marché, opened, in Paris (Miller 1981). That was the date that capitalism began to transform from a mode of production into a mode of presentation (Howes 2005). To elaborate, one of the distinguishing features of the department store was that each of its divisions or “departments” carried a different line of merchandise, from clothing to furniture to toys. This enabled customers to shop for many items under one roof, and at the same time it exposed them to many items they had not intended to buy but might be led to desire.


Second, the department store was a space of visual fascination with its palatial architecture and floor after floor of entrancing merchandise all laid out on tables. This open display of goods contrasted with the way goods had formerly been hidden away behind counters or in boxes, and the shopper had to ask a clerk to retrieve some item in order to inspect and possibly purchase it. In keeping with the new emphasis on ostentation, department stores like Bon Marché came to figure among the prime visual attractions of a city: they were places to go and “see” and, equally “be seen” in, as Rachel Bowlby brings out well in Just Looking (Bowlby 1985: see especially Figure 3)


Third, the department store allowed customers not only to look at but also to touch the merchandise – without the mediation of a salesperson. This increased the risk of theft and damage, to be sure, but that concern was offset by the notion that once a shopper had held an item in their hands, they would be more likely to want permanent possession of it. Thus, department stores were full of both eye-catching and hand-catching displays (Classen 2012: 191-7).


While the department store thus presented two kinds of inducement to buy, visual and tactile, it was the visual register that predominated. This occurred first in the form of the store window display that beckoned passersby to enter, second in the form of the posters and billboards that sought to attract the attention of more distant potential customers, and third in the form of the printed catalogues, some of which, like the Sears-Roebuck catalogue, even brought the store to the consumer.


There was, however, a problem with the hyperemphasis on the visual that distinguished the nascent consumer capitalist regime from its predecessor formation, industrial capitalism. (In industrial capitalism the accent was on disciplining the senses rather than pleasuring them, and production rather than presentation – see Howes 2003a: ch. 8). The problem was that as more and more of the visible surfaces of the city and countryside came to be colonized for advertising purposes, visual fatigue set in. Consumers’ eyes glazed over due to the surfeit of visual stimuli. This raised the question: How do you catch the eye of the consumer when all your competitors are trying to do the same?


Figure 1: Competing for the Consumer’s Gaze. “A Nation of Nations,” 1976 Bicentennial Exhibition. Smithsonian National Museum of American History


The solution lay in multiplying the sensory bases of product differentiation. This principle was hit on accidentally by the Coca-Cola Company in 1916 (if one may believe the display on this topic in the Coca-Cola Museum in Atlanta, which I had the opportunity to visit recently). At the time, Coke came in straight-sided glass bottles much like those of all the other soft drink manufacturers. The only thing that distinguished a Coke bottle from, say, a Pepsi was the paper label. These labels had the annoying tendency of peeling off when the bottle was jammed in amongst other bottles in the dispenser boxes filled with melting ice. Coke therefore held a competition to design a distinctively shaped bottle that would enable customers to identify their product even if they could not see it when they reached into the icebox. Out of this competition came what is known as the “contour bottle,” which is said to have been inspired by the curves and grooves of a cocoa bean. The inspiration may have been off (a cocoa bean rather than a cola bean – what were the designers thinking?) but the design caught on and became one of the most iconic shapes of the twentieth century. The Coca-Cola twin sphere bottle fits so snuggly in the fold of one’s hand that it is hard to resist reaching for one again and again and again. Coke patented the design, of course.


Adding feel was an important breakthrough as a means of product differentiation and persuasion (Howes 2005: 285-7). It was soon supplemented by adding sound. The first jingle was composed in 1926. It advertised the General Mills breakfast cereal known as Wheaties with the tune “Have you tried Wheaties?” Other famous jingles include Brylcreem’s “A little dab’ll do ya” and Coca-Cola’s “I’d like to teach the world to sing” (or “It’s the real thing”). Like the bottle that nestles in your hand these tunes nest in your ear, and have indeed been called “earworms” on account of the way they bore into your consciousness (Sacks 2007). Another 1920s start-up was the Wired Radio company (1922) which in the 1930s was renamed Muzak (a trademarked name, incidentally). It used the electrical grid to pipe program music into everything from malls and elevators to dentists’ offices, and was supposed to be effective at modulating consumers’ moods. “The right beat can turn browsers into buyers,” one ad for the service claimed (Baumgarten 2012)


It took some time for the next sense to be added, smell. The scent strip was not invented till 1981, but then immediately took off. They were used extensively in magazines to advertise perfumes and colognes. As the technology for scent delivery has grown more sophisticated, scent-marketing has mushroomed into a billion dollar industry, with ScentAir leading the pack. Now, just as most commercial environments come with a signature soundtrack, so many commercial environments come fragranced: automobile showrooms, hotel lobbies (like Westin Hotels & Resorts with its signature white tea scent), casinos, and even sports stadiums.


And so was born what could be called the checklist approach to sensory branding, which was already becoming the new normal by the year 2000, as the Pier 1 Imports catalogue illustrates. (This move was first theorized by Pine and Gilmore 1998.) However, the new multisensual marketing strategy proved no less problematic than the hypervisual strategy that preceded it. The main problem is that if every company is pursuing this strategy, it is no longer so different, and thus fails to fulfil the goal of product differentiation. What do you do when you have used up all five senses (i.e. you have selected a signature colour, a signature sound, a signature scent, etc. for your brand) and all your competitors are doing the same (just with a different colour, different sound, different scent, etc.)?


One strategy is to outnumber your competitors by claiming that your product offers a sixth sense. This strategy has been tried by a surprisingly high number of automobile brands. A television commercial for the 2006 Hyundai Tucson sports utility vehicle had the following voiceover:

While the Hyundai Tucson is designed to excite all the senses, it also provides you with a ‘sixth sense’ in the form of electronic stability control: a safety feature that anticipates trouble, then, automatically intervenes, reducing the likelihood of a rollover. And it comes standard on every Tucson. The 2006 Hyundai Tucson: proof that, as senses go, you can never have too many.

A few years earlier, Toyota used the following line to promote the Lexus ES 300: “You Might Expect A Luxury Sedan To Cater to Your Senses. But All Six of Them?” In this case, the sixth sense was defined as “ergonomics: the uncanny ability of our cabin to have everything in exactly the place you would most likely want it” (see Howes 2005: 290). The latest automobile manufacturer to get on this bandwagon is Rolls-Royce, with its “Ghost Six Senses” model (see Howes and Classen 2014: 125).


Another strategy is simply to blitz the senses, to “stir” or “feed” or “amaze” the senses, as discussed previously. Glutting the senses in this way runs the risk of simply overwhelming the consumer’s consciousness, however, as not only visual fatigue but sensory fatigue sets in.


Perhaps the biggest problem with the checklist approach, however, is that all of the most effective stimuli are steadily being privatized through trademark law. Initially it was only the brand name and logo of a company that could be trademarked, the idea being that this would prevent confusion in the marketplace (i.e. one company passing its goods off as those of another). Trademark protection was extended to colour first (it helped that Pantone had devised a universal system for distinguishing and naming colours, making them easier to register), but then in the 1990s more and more sounds and scents and shapes, and even store layouts, came to be trademarked (providing they were sufficiently distinct) or patented. It was this development – the invention of property in sensation – that, more than any other factor, touched off the “race to embrace the senses” of recent years as companies scramble desperately to colonize the most sellable divisions of the sensorium in advance of their competitors. In other words, it is the creeping commodification of sensation, not the “discovery” that products are sensual in nature (as Krishna holds) that is the determining force behind the proliferation of appeals to the senses in the contemporary marketplace (Howes and Classen 2014: 114-8; Jones 2003).


This state of affairs begs the question of whether sensations should be considered property in the first place. I am reminded of a Peruvian folktale called “The Theft of Smell”. It tells of a stingy baker who takes his neighbour to court for “stealing” the smells wafting from his bakery. The judge rules that the neighbour should pay the baker – with the sound of clinking coins. This cautionary tale underscores the ludicrousness of the idea that there can be property in such an ephemeral trait as odour. Of course, it comes from outside the culture of capitalism. It is a peasant fable. It should nevertheless give us pause. Maybe the aggressive expansion of Western intellectual property law in recent decades, which has resulted in the “propertization” of sensation, personas, and even life itself, is not so rational.2 Maybe the culture is possessed, literally. Maybe we need to come to our senses, and fight this latest form of commodification, before we lose them (our senses) forever. Recall the complacent, and even celebratory tone with which Krishna hailed Apple’s recent acquisition of touch (thanks to the iTouch).


If we dig deeper into the ideology behind the current “race to embrace the senses” in marketing, we find that this movement is grounded in the idea that the senses can be used to bypass reason and appeal directly to the emotions (Malefyt and Morais 2012: ch. 5). The roots of this approach actually extend back to the rise of Behaviourism in the early twentieth century. Accounts of behavioural conditioning by psychologists encouraged marketers to think that they might make use of such conditioning for their own purposes (e.g. Sheldon and Arens 1932: 97-100). If dogs could be conditioned to salivate for food at the ringing of a bell, then could not customers be conditioned to “salivate” for a product at the sight of a logo? This approach presented people not as rational beings, but as creatures of habit and impulse who could be conditioned into certain responses. While within psychology the influence of Behaviourism declined in the later twentieth century, the possibilities it opened up of sensory and emotional conditioning continued to hold a huge attraction for marketers.


In recent years, Neuroscience has supplanted Behaviourism as the pet science of the marketing profession. In How Customers Think, for example, Gerald Zaltman writes that “95 percent of the decision-making process takes place below the conscious level” and that marketers must therefore aim their products and pitches at a sensory-emotional, rather than linguistic or logical level (2003: 1). Brain imaging is presented as offering an important new tool, or at least validation, for this approach. It is supposed to reveal the real seat of decision-making. As “brain scans suggest that only a small portion of the brain’s neural activity ultimately surfaces in language” (Zaltman 2003: 2), the conclusion is that an alternative to relying on language (i.e. advertising copy) to persuade customers must be found. The alternative that presents itself is sensory stimuli: sights, sounds, smells, touches, tastes. Whence the recent explosion in sensory marketing, which has been coterminous with the rise of the “experience economy.”


The “experience economy” (a term popularized by Pine and Gilmore 1998) is one in which, as far as marketers are concerned, product information and the making of rational purchase decisions should be the last thing on consumers’ minds – eclipsed (if not obliterated) by the impact of all the highly effective strategies of sensation management with which the “experience designer” structures a given product or environment. The emphasis in Pine and Gilmore’s treatise is on making an “experience” as memorable as possible through “engag[ing] all five senses” and that way dominating a customer’s recall (Pine and Gilmore 1998: 104). They hold up Disney as a prime purveyor of “experiences” as distinct from those companies that remain stuck in the old rut of simply selling products and services. Disney uses products as props and the provision of services as the stage for instilling “memories” that can last a lifetime. People pay for memories.


One finds a similar assault on memory being waged by Martin Lindstrom in Brand Sense: Build Powerful Brands through Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight, and Sound. According to Lindstrom, human beings come equipped with a “five-track sensory recorder”, and by our very nature “we’re at our most effective and receptive when operating on all five tracks.” The challenge facing companies now, if they wish to cut through advertising clutter (Goldman and Papson 1996), is to break out of the “two-track” or “2-D impasse” imposed by the prevailing audiovisual media and move towards “5-D branding”. This is because: “The more sensory touchpoints leveraged when building brands, the higher the number of sensory memories activated. The higher the number of sensory memories activated, the stronger the bonding between brand and consumer” (Lindstrom 2005: 69).


The ultimate goal behind all this sense-mongering, if we follow Lindstrom’s reasoning through to its conclusion, is for brands to inspire the same “irrational” fervour as religions. Religions “touch us at a fundamental emotional level, which precludes any rational discussion” (Lindstrom 2005: 169).{1} Religions are able to do this, Lindstrom holds, because they have mastered the “Ten Rules of Sensory Branding”, which include using sensory stimuli (incense, chants, candles, wine, etc.) and rituals to build a strong sense of community amongst their adherents. Follow the same rules, Lindstrom advises marketers, and your customers can be touched at the same level.


In a similar vein, the “lovemarks” marketing concept publicized by Kevin Roberts (2005) proposes that the future of brands lies in shedding their function as trademarks, which elicit confidence by indicating a trustworthy source, and coming to function as “lovemarks” which, by mobilizing the emotions of the consumer, induce “loyalty beyond reason.” The way to accomplish this is through the senses. “Lead with your senses,” Roberts writes in his list of “Five things to do tomorrow”:

1. Approach everything you do with all five senses on high alert. If it doesn’t cuddle up to at least two or three of your senses, ask why not.
2. Come up with an idea for how each of the five senses connects with your brand. No cheating! Five senses, five ideas.… (Roberts 2005: 126).

In the final analysis, he suggests: “The only breakthroughs will only come with and/and. Taste and texture. Sight and sound. Taste and touch. Smell and taste” (Roberts 2005: 107). Check! Check! Check!


It is no accident that smell, taste and touch are the senses most in vogue in the current sensory marketing literature (as suggested by the order in which the senses are listed in the subtitle of Lindstrom’s book). They are, supposedly, the least rational – and therefore most susceptible to persuasion – of the senses. The fact that smell is described by scientists as conveying sensations directly to the deepest recesses of the brain with next to no intermediate processing makes this sense of particular interest. “Only two synapses separate the olfactory nerve from the amygdla …” we are told by psychologist Rachel Herz (2010: 90). By associating products with distinctive odours, marketers hope to make them intensely and instantly memorable, increasing future sales. Hence the subtitle of the third in the recent spate of sensory marketing books: Sensory Marketing: Smells Like Profits (Solomon 2010).


The whole concept of the senses as “direct links” to the brain, which animates so much of the discourse of sensory marketing is, however, fundamentally flawed. Marketers are certainly correct in their acknowledgement of the impact of sensory messages. However, when they see the senses as “direct, provocative, immediate” (Roberts 2005:105), they fail to realize that they are adding an additional level of construction (and therefore mediation) to the senses with their marketing slogans and imagery. (By way of example, think of the trademarked phrase “Get in touch with your sensesTM” on the cover of the Pier 1 Imports catalogue, which legally prohibits copying.) This is similarly the case when marketers depict the senses as primal: “Our senses being primal,” Krishna (2010: 4) writes, “we react immediately and subconsciously to them, unlike to a brand name or an attribute, both of which are learned.” There is no recognition here of the fact that the senses are made, not given, or, in other words, that the senses have a history (Classen 1993, 2012; Howes and Classen 2014; Classen, Howes and Synnott 1994). Nor do marketers recognize their own wishful thinking – their dream of a “royal road” to consumers’ hearts and wallets – in their constructions of consumers’ senses and desires. Rather, to their way of thinking, it is all a happy matter of biology and evolution. Thus, Roberts writes:

The range of our senses is extraordinary. Thank evolution … The world constantly changes. Who won the evolution game? … Answer: The ones who responded fastest to the widest range of stimulation and information. …
The senses alert us, enflame us, warn us as well as fill our hearts with joy. They have protected and enriched us throughout our evolutionary story
(Roberts 2005: 108)

Similarly ahistorical (putatively “evolutionary”) accounts of how the senses function can be found in such books as The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption (Saad 2007) and The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography and Gift-Giving Reveal About Human Nature (Saad 2011). These books project the sexual and other impulses of the thoroughly modern (Western) male back on the caveman and purport to demonstrate how these “instincts” were “selected” by evolution.


To discover that the senses of consumers are shaped by history and culture — and not just by nature or “evolution” — it is only necessary to look across cultures. When we do this we can find the same product with the same sensory attributes eliciting different responses from consumers with the same sensory faculties but different sensory associations and preferences. Take the example of India, a country with an enormous market for consumer products but with consumer preferences and associations that sometimes differ widely from those of Westerners. Cadbury, for instance, had to withdraw its dark chocolate offerings from the Indian market because their bitterness was unappealing in a country that likes its sweets to be very sweet. In another example of cultural differences in sensory inclinations, whereas in the West televisions are usually marketed on the basis of their picture quality, in India, where having a “big sound” is important, the electronics company Onida successfully promoted its televisions as offering superior audio capabilities (Kumar 2007).


Broader cultural associations also play an important role in marketing. Purity, which traditionally has very strong cultural and religious resonances in India is often emphasized in advertising, as conveyed by such slogans as “Purity in Each Drop”, “for Every Mother Obsessed With Purity”, “Pure Banking, Nothing Else” and “Purity-Sealed” (Cadbury chocolates). Tata brand salt, one of India’s most trusted brands, gained its position through being marketed on the basis of its purity, a particularly apt association as salt has the symbolic significance of integrity in India (Shah and D’Souza 2009:371). It is clear from such examples that even such basic sensations as sweet and salty are mediated by culture and not simply straightforward sensory reactions (Howes 2003: ch. 8).



“Capitalism and the Senses” is Sponsored by the Business History Initiative at Harvard Business School. Some parts of this essay were co-written with Constance Classen, and for the full exposition of our take on the topic of capitalism and the senses, the reader is referred to the “Sense Appeal” chapter of Ways of Sensing: Understanding the Senses in Society (Howes and Classen 2014). This essay reports on some of the research carried out in the context of the “Multi-sensory Marketing” project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.



1. This is a highly revealing construction of the meaning of religions and of marketing, since it presumes that in both cases the attachment is an irrational, sense-based one. Underlying this construction is the longstanding Western opposition between the intellect or mind, on the one hand, and the body and senses on the other. (Although traditionally religion would have been ranged on the side of the mind or spirit rather than the body.) It is ironic (and not a little pathetic) that, while contemporary branding appears to embrace the body and senses, it is actually more concerned with upholding and even strengthening the old mind/body split – that is, with separating the senses from the intellect and using them to tap the subconscious.
2. For a well-grounded, properly historical account of the changing role of the senses in the marketplace see Mack (2010) as well as Classen (2012)



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