Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Why Leicester Square Always Smells Like Chocolate

Leicester Square always smells like chocolate. To be exact, a certain area in Leicester Square does. This mouth-wateringly sweet odour that always lingers in this area, situated in one of the most popular places in the whole of London, comes from none other than the M&M World, a popular attraction for children and adults alike. The M&M World, a store which dedicated four floors to the internationally popular chocolate brand, prides itself in its products which consist of key rings, mugs, shirts, and of course, M&Ms. This much, everyone knows. But what customers do not realise is that besides the eye-catching lights and friendly-looking characters, the chocolaty smell that surrounds the entrance of the store is in fact a form of psychological advertisement. The smell of chocolate in and outside the M&M World in Leicester Square provides an example of olfactory priming, a specific type of priming widely utilised by food brands.

Priming is an effect experienced when being exposed to a stimulus influences the response to another stimulus (Meyer & Schvaneveldt, 1971). Priming is widely used by different marketers, as it allows subtle stimuli to lead individuals to behave in a certain manner. Bargh, Chen and Burrows (1996) discovered that when exposed to phrases containing words intended to prime an elderly stereotype such as old, lonely and gray, participants walked significantly more slowly when walking down a hallway. In this experiment priming had occurred on an unconscious level, as the priming words did not explicitly mention slowness.

To return to the example of the chocolate-odourant in Leicester Square, olfactory priming is used widely by different marketers. Initially, most studies on priming had been on visual or auditory perceptions. However, a study in 2013 revealed that the sense of smell is also an influencing variable in priming. Gaillet, Sulmont-Rossé, Issanchou, Chabanet, and Chambaron (2013) focused on olfactory priming in food, and highlighted how certain odours influence consumer behaviour in real life. After having exposed their participants to different odourants, the experimenters measured the reaction times for certain words in lexical decision tasks, and also examined the choices of food they made in menus. The results were such that when exposed to a melon odour in the waiting room, the time it took to react to the word melon was significantly shortened, and the time it took to react to fruit-related words were also slightly decreased. The more applicable findings in the study by Gaillet et al. (2013) was that participants made different choices in selection of food from a menu when they had been exposed to different scents. Exposure to a melon odourant led more participants to choose starters that included vegetables, and exposure to a pear odourant increased the choice of fruit as dessert or snacks. 

The use of olfactory stimulation as cues for primed behaviour is a rapidly developing medium of persuasion. The luring scent of various bath bombs in Lush is another example, as the distinctive odour act as olfactory cues that remind individuals of its brand. Also, Steven Semoff of the Scent Marketing Institute claimed that Nike has boosted intent to purchase by adding scents in their stores, and the smell of coffee beans at petrol stations have reportedly raised coffee purchases at attached mini-marts by 300%. Although largely underestimated in marketing, smells can persuade individuals to behave in certain ways through priming. The human mind is influenced by various factors in interesting ways, and marketers can apply such psychological effects to use simple odours as seductive fragrances that entice their customers. It is no wonder the M&M World is always packed!


Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 230-244.

Gaillet, M., Sulmont-Rossé, C., Issanchou, S., Chabanet, C., & Chambaron, S. (2013). Priming effects of an olfactory food cue on subsequent food-related behaviour. Food Quality and Preference, 30, 274-281.

Meyer, D. E., & Schvaneveldt, R. W. (1971). Facilitation in recognizing pairs of words: Evidence of a dependence between retrieval operations. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 90, 227-234.

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