Tag Archives: smell

Pee-Yew! The Politics of Body Odor

Laurie and Debbie, happy to be blogging again, say:

In the week and a half that we haven’t been blogging, we’ve come across a lot of interesting links, most of which we’ll get to in a later post. The first one we found came from fattest, who pointed out how Unilever is trying to get rich(er) by making Asians unhappy about their own body odor:

Russell Taylor, global vice-president for Axe, the Unilever-made deodorant marketed as Lynx in Britain, said that no one had yet found a way of making Asians self-conscious about body odour. “Asia is a market we have never really cracked. They don’t think they smell, but people everywhere smell,” he said.

The trick is to tailor …. paranoia to local sensitivities. To the company’s relief, risque British humour works well among young Indian men and Unilever is using its Lynx advertisements to good effect, but even so, it has to be careful.

“We tailor some of the media to private channels [such as mobile phones] so young guys are not subjected to watching things in front of their families,” Mr Taylor said.

Japan is an even more difficult prospect and the company has been forced to create commercials for the local market as Japanese teenagers don’t meet in as casual a manner as in the West. Mr Taylor said: “We showed a prearranged date and told a story. If we showed something too brash, people would ask, ‘How is that relevant to me?’”

Sophisticated multicultural diverse capitalism at its, ahem, best?

We don’t think we have to say very much about this campaign. Most of our readers have understood for a long time that the cleanliness industry is predicated on making us believe that things are either wrong with us or dangerous; overselling deodorant is not as socially dangerous as overselling antibacterial products or hair remover for preteen girls, but it’s noxious enough.

The article got us to talking, however, about body odor (not a commonly discussed topic).

As is clear from the article and the comments, body odor has enormous racial (and racist) implications. Some ethnic or racial groups perceive themselves as “cleaner” than other ethnic groups–which usually means that they believe they have less natural body odor than the other groups (and better hygiene). It’s perfectly possible that we’re evolutionary wired to distrust people who smell different from us. One function of deodorant is to minimize or eliminate any differences between people (which made Laurie point out with amusement that deodorant could be seen as a tool for social change, because it could be minimizing hostile reactions to other people’s natural odors).

Body odor also has class implications: people who do physical work for a living will smell more strongly at the end of the day than people who don’t. Therefore, when having a stronger odor is defined as inferior, doing manual work automatically identifies you as lower status. Similarly, if physical work is defined as lower status, which it generally is, that reinforces the class values of not having a strong body odor.

Culturally, we treat body odor as having health implications. Deodorant is not a health-related product, but “smelling clean” is associated with smelling healthy. There’s a persistent belief, which may well be true, that meat-eaters have stronger body odor than vegetarians, which can reinforce the sense that it’s health-related.

Babies smell very sweet, and thus “smelling like a baby” becomes a kind of marker of infancy. Since it’s well known that we are hard-wired to protect babies and very young children (and puppies and kittens), this is one reason people may be drawn to less intense body smells.

Finally, we raise a question of diversity: do we want to all smell the same? Is erasing our natural body odors a good thing? Especially when many of us replace them with jarred fragrances which make Unilever and its ilk rich and which don’t smell the same as each other … but they all smell different than human body smells. When are the differences in natural smells interesting and pleasing, and when are they disturbing and threatening? And what about human body odor as a source of sexual arousal? One thing the perfume industry does is try to rewire our sexual reactions to their fragrances.

Anyone doing a thesis on the politics of body odor?