Taste, Smell, Sight, Or Sound: Which Senses Make You Buy Sooner?

A new marketing study out of Brigham Young University reports how triggering different senses can affect when we buy things.

Taste, Smell, Sight, Or Sound: Which Senses Make You Buy Sooner?
[Photo: Flickr user Johnny Silvercloud]

Over the past few years, advertisers have been increasingly looking to recruit all our senses in their quest of persuasion. As Dr. Ray Stantz once said, “Listen! Do you smell something?” Which could be something you’re muttering to yourself as you wander down the block. It’s nothing new–anyone remember when, in 2006, Goodby Silverstein & Partners made the bus shelters in San Francisco smell like freshly baked cookies for a Got Milk campaign? Now a new marketing study out of Brigham Young University and the University of Washington reports that even using the right words to trigger different senses can result in a different reaction.


The study found that ads highlighting more distal sensory experiences like sight and sound lead people to delay purchasing, while those that emphasize more proximal sensory experiences like touch or taste lead to earlier purchases.

Published last month in the Journal of Consumer Research, the report was conducted in four lab studies and a pilot study involving more than 1,100 people.

[Photo: Flickr user Holly Lay]
In one experiment, study subjects read ad copy for a summer festival taking place either this weekend or next year. One version of the ad copy emphasized taste (“You will taste the amazing flavors . . .”), and another focused on sound (“You will listen to the amazing sounds . . .”). Those who read the ad copy about taste had a higher interest in attending a festival this weekend, while those who read ads emphasizing sounds were more likely to have interest in attending the festival next year.

The authors also analyzed 31,889 Yelp reviews to look for connections between the sensory elements of a reviewer’s experience and the usefulness of a review. They found reviews from people who emphasized a more distal sense like sight were rated more useful when the review used the past tense (“We ate here last week and . . .”), while people emphasizing a proximal sense like touch had more useful reviews when they used the present tense (“I’m eating this right now and it is so good!”).

In an email, lead author Ryan Elder, associate professor of marketing at BYU, said the idea for the study came about when, as part of their research in multisensory marketing, they started looking at different sensory distances.

[Photo: Flickr user Stephan van Es]
“Vision and sound, which are more distal sensory experiences, will help sell products and experiences far from where the consumer currently is, or purchases made in the future,” says Elder. “They also help in advertising products consumers may buy for a more distant other, like a colleague. In contrast, taste and touch, which are more proximal (closer) sensory experiences, will help sell products or experiences physically close to the consumer, or for purchases made right now. In addition, when advertising products consumers may buy for a close friend, touch and taste will help sell the product better.”


Elder says agencies, brand managers, CMOs, and other marketers want to start thinking about matching the right sensory distance with other dimensions of distance, such as physical distance, social distance (how close the relationship is between individuals), or even distance in time.

“For any product or experience that has multiple sensory characteristics, advertisers want to make sure that the distance of the senses they choose to highlight matches the other dimensions of distance,” says Elder. “This will lead to higher attitudes toward the brand, and can even affect how soon customers want to buy.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.