An Indian newspaper just introduced a “smellable” ad with an evocative scent

No, really, do you smell that?
No, really, do you smell that?
Image: Reuters photo
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Baby products maker Johnson & Johnson has taken a leap into the brave new world of “smellables” with a full-page advertisement in the world’s largest-circulation English-language newspaper—on a page that was liberally scented with the company’s famous baby powder.

Judging from the early reaction on Twitter, the ad in the Times of India succeeded, at least when it comes to getting people talking. After all, you can flip past an ad, even when it’s on the front page of the paper (where ads increasingly are in India these days) but it’s hard to ignore a smell, especially one that comes with as many heart string-yanking associations as the scent of a baby:

For Johnson & Johnson, the ad might also be a carefully calculated nostalgia-creator, designed to overcome recent problems in India. The company’s cosmetics manufacturing license at a plant in Southern India was cancelled in 2013, after investigators said talcum powder made there was processed with cancer-causing substances.

Scent is “being mined as a new focal point of interaction for companies looking to break through a cluttered communication environment,” Scott Smith, the founder of a futures research lab, wrote in Quartz earlier this month. Research is focused mainly on smartphones and watches that allow scented texts and daily scent updates and most “smellables” are mostly in the experimental stage.

Newspapers present a much easier medium to scent—after all, perfume companies have been taking out scented magazine ads for years. What could be next? Maybe specific food-scented newspapers, like say, Oreos, or ones that smell of a soap particularly evocative of childhood. Or, as Quartz’s Mitra Kalita suggested, “Indian grandmother—a mix of sandalwood, powder, mustard oil and neem soap.”

Physical newspapers have been written off as anything but the most lackluster advertising medium in the west, but in India and many other developing countries, they still command many millions of readers. Scenting themselves with baby powder is a savvy way to show that in these markets, they reach people in a way that smartphones and tablets can not yet. Let’s just hold off on the diaper ads.