Sensory studies arises at the conjuncture (and within) the fields of anthropology • sociology • history • archeology • geography • communications • religion • philosophy • literature • art history • museology • film • mixed media • performance • phenomenology • disability • aesthetics • architecture • urbanism • design

Sensory Studies can also be divided along sensory lines into, for example, visual culture, auditory culture (or sound studies), smell culture, taste culture and the culture of touch, not to mention the sixth sense (however it might be defined)

Marketing’s Tidemarks, Legacies from Anthropology: Tracing the Future of Sensory Marketing

November 2011 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting
Palais des Congrès, Montreal, Canada

Chair: Timothy de Waal Malefyt, BBDO
Discussants: Paul Stoller, George Marcus


Any discussion on the nature of capitalism, consumption and globalization is a highly topical theme for anthropologists and marketers. Both anthropologists and marketers try to make sense of what others do, and pass on their understandings to others. Both seek to formulate hypotheses about the nature of exchange, values and consumption practices, which they then test in the field by talking to “informants” or “consumers.” Both constantly seek new ways to answer age-old questions, and therefore are open to new descriptive theories about the nature of human behavior. Both seek to understand what makes one group of people distinguish itself from another.

In this quest for understanding others, anthropologists have increasingly turned their attention to the sensorium as a social construction of distinction, which is supported by a growing body of research that shows the senses are lived, experienced and understood differently by different people and in different places. At the same time, products have become more numerous, consumers more selective, and the marketplace more congested, and so marketers increasingly seek ways to make their wares more distinctive. Marketers have discovered the senses as a way to evoke personal sentiments for products, brands and identities. Some techniques used by marketers – such as color or sound association, for example – link to deep emotional responses of people, such as Irish countrymen and national colors, or the distinctive sound a Harley-Davidson motorcycle produces for HOG enthusiasts.

The topic for this year’s AAA meeting is traces, tidemarks and legacies as marks of distinction. Many of our sensory experiences that evoke strong emotions in us are mere “traces” that cannot be distinguished with language, on paper, and so forth. While all they leave are “tidemarks” in our memories, they may, nonetheless, stoke strong, often unexplained feelings in us. This session explores through all five traditional sensory channels, the intersection between sensory experiences as lived and experienced differently, marketing approaches that attempt to create a sense of distinction through consumption, and the ways in which anthropologists who engage consumption, capitalism and/or consumer marketing in its various forms, mediate and reconcile such encounters.


Helena Wulff, (Stockholm University)

With its green landscape, Ireland has long been identified as The Green Isle or The Emerald Isle. Drawing on extensive ethnographic research, this paper explores the politics of the colour green in Ireland in relation to dress and tourist design. The focus on different ways of seeing Ireland´s green reveals the colour as an identity marker, highly charged politically and culturally. The ban on “the wearing of the green” during British colonialism reinforced the significance of green in Irish identity. Green was the colour of the Republican revolutionary organization, and was identified as the national colour long before Ireland became an independent nation in 1922. Now green remains an indicator in outsiders´ construction of Irishness. The extensive wearing of the green on St Patrick´s Day ranging from one garment such as a tie or a skirt to spectacular attire for the parade, is a continued celebration of national independence fuelled by the legacy of the ban, not only in Ireland but among Irish diaspora communities across the globe. Moreover, the colour green is the signature colour in the branding of Ireland as a tourist destination both in travel advertisements with its logos and in material objects primarily souvenirs representing shamrocks, Celtic knotwork and the Leprechaun trickster. Irish tourist design is invariably green as this is a colour which is associated with Ireland, and thus continues to be promoted by the Irish tourist industry.


Lise Skov, (University of Copenhagen)

By the late 1980s, as a result of anti-fur campaigns, the fur industry had lost its credibility to the point that magazines and newspapers refused to place their advertisements. The marketing department of Saga Furs (for Scandinavian produced mink and fox pelts) devised a strategy, which although it was at first a retreat created the path for industry recovery. In 1989, they built a design center to function as an information hub and meeting place on the terms of the fur industry. In the early years, they offered courses for young fashion designers. Since 1996, they have been working strategically with brands (including international top brands) in order to aid their product development.

At the core of this marketing strategy is the sensory encounter between the designer or design team and the material. Since few have the opportunity to learn about fur in design school, and since the product is directly associated with animal death, this can be an ambivalent encounter. Yet fur’s sensory qualities feed curiosity and attraction to the material, which in many cases provide a memorable experience in itself.

The paper is based on extensive fieldwork, including observations of product presentations and interviews with diverse practioners in Europe and Asia. The paper addresses the implications of co-branding as a strategy, and the question of how the fur trade has sought to influence public opinion, but its focus is on what happens in the meeting between the material and skilled practitioners.


Timothy de Waal Malefyt, (BBDO advertising and Parsons School of Design) or

“Mmm, Mmm, Good” is an advertising slogan made famous for years by the Campbell’s soup company. The company used television and radio, both traditional forms of mass media, to reach generalized audiences about the enjoyment of eating their prepared soup. Eating soup was typically depicted in the context of a shared family meal setting. Campbell’s recently used a new means to advertise to consumers through an I-ad application. The format works through Apple I phones by first showing an interactive ad teaser, “You’re getting warmer,” then when clicked through asks consumers to download cooking applications individually to their I-phones. This shift represents not only a change in the marketing of media for the soup company, but also in the appeal to consumers’ senses and social sensibilities – the former ad slogan and TV media approach appealed to a more gustatory sense and social sensibility– eating soup as an embodied pleasure shared with others; while the latter I-ad slogan and I-phone media approach appeals to a more tactile sense and individualistic sensibility– cooking with soup as a solo activity for the benefit of others. This paper explores ethnographic data on the particular confluence of social, sensory, and media factors that intersect with a marketed food brand, and discusses its implications for the way manufacturers mix and blend sensory messages, consumer media channels, and social changes in food preparation and people’s eating habits.


Brian Moeran, (Copenhagen Business School)

Both anthropologists and marketing professionals study how we make use of the senses to apprehend physical phenomena and communicate cultural values. Just as anthropologists have discovered colour systems based on distinctions between brightness and intensity, so have manufacturers and marketers created olfactory, visual and auditory systems as a means of branding as ‘totems’ everything from food to shampoos and shoes to automobiles.

This paper examines how perfumes are advertised. As Dan Sperber pointed out several decades ago, olfactory language is particularly poor, since it can only express the cause of a smell or its effect. How do advertisers get around this problem? They cannot convey the smell of the product itself, except through scent strip inserts in magazines. Even so, people have great difficulty in recognizing and naming smells (the so-called ‘tip-of-the-nose phenomenon’). So advertisers have to resort to other sensory emotions – in particular colour and language – to communicate a perfume’s fragrance.

Based on a database analysis of more than 400 perfume advertisements, the paper focuses on the relation between colours, colour symbolism and language, on the one hand, and the constituents that make up individual perfumes, on the other. It has been suggested that there are ‘correct’ colours for smells; appropriate colours increase and inappropriate colours reduce the accuracy of odour identification. The question is: are perfume advertisers aware of the correspondences between colours and smells? Or do they base their marketing strategies on other, random criteria?


William O. Beeman (University of Minnesota)

Hearing may be the most basic of the senses. We know from the work of cognitive scientists such as Joseph LeDoux that sound has the capability of triggering an immediate physical response in humans—hence the “startle” reflex in babies. Patterned sound, such as in rhyme or music, has an easier retention in memory. Finally, human hearing is most acute at 2800-3000 Hz. (cycles per second), so sounds in this range have high awareness. In this paper I will discuss all three of these factors in the process of “marketing” sound in the form of music, commercial messages and political discourse (“sound bites”). I conclude that all three basic properties of sound can be combined to “fix” messages in purposeful communication designed to motivate humans to action.