Why Hasbro trademarked Play-Doh’s scent

The smell of childhood.
The smell of childhood.
Image: Hasbro
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Play-Doh’s unmistakable scent now legally belongs to Hasbro.

On May 18, the US Patent and Trademark Office approved Hasbro’s trademark petition for the squishy modeling clay’s “sweet, slightly musky, vanilla fragrance, with slight overtones of cherry, combined with the smell of a salted, wheat-based dough.” It’s a nostalgia-inducing scent familiar to anyone who’s ever sniffed (or eaten) the colorful arts and crafts staple as a child.

Scent of childhood
Scent of childhood
Image: AP/Charles Sykes

The federal trademark bestows Hasbro “tremendous protection and can prevent others from creating confusingly similar products or scents,” explains the intellectual property lawyer Jeffrey E. Jacobson.

It begs the question: Is any off-brand Play-Doh actually trying to copy its scent?

A Hasbro spokesperson suggests to Quartz that the trademark is more to do with branding. “Since 1956, the Play-Doh scent has remained consistent, making it an important brand characteristic—on par with logos, packaging, and texture.” Hasbro even bottled Play-Doh’s “just-out-of-the-can” aroma to mark its 50th anniversary.

Obtaining a “scent mark” isn’t easy. Of the over two million active registered trademarks in the US, there are only 12 that can be detected by a nose. These include the flowery musk odor in Verizon’s “destination stores” and the whiff of piña cola in Eddy Finn ukuleles.

A petitioner has to prove that a product’s scent isn’t essential to its practical function, as the US trademark examining procedure specifies. Perfumes or air fresheners, for instance, cannot be trademarked. Additionally, US patent inspectors aren’t particularly screened for their olfactory prowess. “If an examiner’s nose isn’t working, the attorney would have to find a supervisor to do the sniffing,” explains the Wall Street Journal.

Jacobson says that Hasbro’s bid to trademark Play-Doh’s scent could also be a way to protect its top secret recipe, which many—including Wired and Martha Stewart—have tried to crack over the years. ”This may be an attempt to protect the product’s composition if the scent is linked to this one particular material,” he explains.

“Trademarked scents are very rare,” adds Jacobson. “The cases of [scent] trademark infringement are even rarer, and pretty much non-existent.”