No one craves scentlessness

Friday, April 16th, 2021

In The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg tells the story of a chemist at P&G who was working with hydroxypropyl beta cyclodextrin, or HPBCD, at the lab, and when he came home, his wife asked if he’d stopped smoking, because his clothes didn’t smell like smoke at all. The new product they developed was a huge success — but only after they learned how to market it:

They spent millions perfecting the formula, finally producing a colorless, odorless liquid that could wipe out almost any foul odor.


They decided to call it Febreze, and asked Stimson, a thirty-one-year-old wunderkind with a background in math and psychology, to lead the marketing team.


The same pattern played out in dozens of other smelly homes the researchers visited. People couldn’t detect most of the bad smells in their lives. If you live with nine cats, you become desensitized to their scent. If you smoke cigarettes, it damages your olfactory capacities so much that you can’t smell smoke anymore. Scents are strange; even the strongest fade with constant exposure. That’s why no one was using Febreze, Stimson realized.


Television commercials were filmed of women spraying freshly made beds and spritzing just-laundered clothing. The tagline had been “Gets bad smells out of fabrics.” It was rewritten as “Cleans life’s smells.”

Each change was designed to appeal to a specific, daily cue: Cleaning a room. Making a bed. Vacuuming a rug. In each one, Febreze was positioned as the reward: the nice smell that occurs at the end of a cleaning routine. Most important, each ad was calibrated to elicit a craving: that things will smell as nice as they look when the cleaning ritual is done.

The irony is that a product manufactured to destroy odors was transformed into the opposite. Instead of eliminating scents on dirty fabrics, it became an air freshener used as the finishing touch, once things are already clean.

When the researchers went back into consumers’ homes after the new ads aired and the redesigned bottles were given away, they found that some housewives in the test market had started expecting — craving — the Febreze scent.

One woman said that when her bottle ran dry, she squirted diluted perfume on her laundry. “If I don’t smell something nice at the end, it doesn’t really seem clean now,” she told them.

“The park ranger with the skunk problem sent us in the wrong direction,” Stimson told me. “She made us think that Febreze would succeed by providing a solution to a problem. But who wants to admit their house stinks?

“We were looking at it all wrong. No one craves scentlessness. On the other hand, lots of people crave a nice smell after they’ve spent thirty minutes cleaning.”

New habits are created by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.


  1. TRX says:

    “no odor at all”

    Riiiight. Febreeze stinks enough I gag when I get a good whiff of it.

    Next up: perfumes that smell like insecticide, strong enough to ruin a meal from four tables away.

    Special guest star: “nobody can tell” artificial sweeteners in not-diet drinks, that taste like licking a 9-volt battery, because the stuff is cheaper than corn syrup, probably.

  2. Bruce says:

    In Niven and Barnes’ Dream Park, the MacGuffin is “neutral scent,” an aerosoluble (screw, it’s a word now) liquid that can change your subconscious mind. I bet this HBPCD would make a good carrier for any number of chemicals that change your subconscious mind.

  3. Jim says:

    And people think that marketing doesn’t work…

  4. TRX says:

    I think a lot of them are so accomodated to the standard “marketing signals” they’re suckers for almost anything.

    They’re not selling soap and cigarettes now; they’ve moved on to selling politics, ecology, and “diversity.”

  5. Mike in Boston says:

    “Riiiight. Febreeze stinks enough I gag when I get a good whiff of it.”

    Isn’t the logical interpretation that the active ingredient in Febreze, HPBCD, has no odor, but that P&G added the perfumes which you smell?

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