Douglas Coupland: The power of smell

Man-made odours can affect us in emotionally unpredictable ways
Ken Mayer Studios © Douglas Coupland

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

At my gym there’s a sign saying, “This is a fragrance-free zone”. I thought about it and, yes, perfume in a gym might be kind of weird, like smelling cooking bacon when trying to fall asleep at night. And then last week a younger male gym-goer showed up and as he walked across the floor, everyone’s eyes started burning and their nostrils flared. This wasn’t because he was, in some way, hot. It was because he was wearing a “male body spray”. The odour was half-industrial, half-ultra-cheap soap, and had he been wearing any more he would have resembled Pig-Pen from Charlie Brown, going through life with his own visible weather system. Fortunately, the staff at my gym are fearless and they landed on this guy like hawks. He won’t be wearing Satan’s Tears there again any time soon.

The incident reminded me of something a teacher friend told me, that the single worst thing to happen to education since the 1960s has been the introduction and wide acceptance of body sprays among male teens. “They think it makes them God’s gift to women and they have no idea how bad it is. They don’t shower after gym any more — fear of perv lawsuits — so they arrive in the classroom and it’s like pepper spray in your face. On top of everything, it’s highly flammable and you can turn the cans into blowtorches with a Bic lighter. It’s a marketing perfect storm.”


Back in August somewhere in the late 1980s I returned to my apartment building after two weeks away and the lobby’s smell was unlike anything I’d experienced. The closest it came to was the time a rat got stuck and died in a roach motel in my bathroom in Honolulu. Mix vomit and shit together and . . . ugh, it was staggering. Of course, you’ve probably already figured out what it was: a tenant paid their rent and died on August 1. I returned on August 27. My apartment was in a different wing so I didn’t have the smell around me full blast, but I could hear the contractors cutting and crow-barring away every single surface in the offending apartment (and the apartment below it . . . leakage) to take it all away to be burned. The smell even got into the Formica countertops. And then the next morning the building’s lobby smelled like . . . cinnamon candy? Huh? Yes, cinnamon candy. It turns out that smell is a vector, and for every smell there exists an anti-smell, and the anti-smell of human death is artificial cinnamon. You learn something new every day, and this is what you learnt today.


I was in California years ago when they were aerially spraying malathion to stop the spread of pests called Mediterranean fruit flies, or the medfly. From the political noise surrounding the event, you’d have thought they were dropping plutonium on to the city, but the spraying went ahead regardless. One afternoon I was almost directly below a spray in progress, and I thought to myself, well this is interesting — today I get to learn what malathion smells like. And I did. It smells identical to the playground I spent eight years in from kindergarten to the seventh grade.

I think everyone has a few unusual smells that bring them back to happy times and places. On my first trip to Japan my hotel used an industrial cleaning agent that smelled like artificial peaches. About once a year I’ll smell it in an unlikely place like a European airport, or a mall in the US, and I’m right back in pre-bubble-collapse Tokyo. I wish they made a cologne that smelled like it. I’d wear it every day. I try to wear Eau Sauvage but it keeps on getting confiscated by airport security screeners because I always forget to not put it in my carry-on.

There are more odours I wish I could bottle: freshly sharpened pencils; a bag of Halloween candy; car exhaust in the 1960s, back when they put lead in it; a freshly peeled tangerine. A smell I don’t miss? High-end magazines from the 1990s that were laced with scratch-and-sniff perfume cards. Gag.

A friend of mine worked as a consultant for American Flavor and Fragrances, and he told me that the reason supermarkets have in-store bakeries is because the smell of bread is the one smell, more than any other, that makes people buy more food than they set out to buy. The bakeries themselves lose money. In a similar way, someone told me that the only reason couture designers do couture is to keep the brand healthy in order to sell its fragrance, which is the financial bedrock of most fashion houses.

It’s actually pretty rare to find people who wear a lot of perfume or cologne these days. I guess it’s like smoking — it’s on the way out, no matter how you look at it. But I think it’s actually kind of gutsy to wear too much scent: Hi, I’m going to colonise the space around me with my Jean Patou/Halston/whatever, and if you object it means you’re merely trying to recolonise the space I’ve just colonised from you — which is pretty much the formula for war. Bring it on.

And what is the best smell of all? We know the answer. According to surveys it’s the vanilla-y, plasticky smell of Play-Doh, a smell for which most people have potent 100 per cent happy memories. Wouldn’t it be nice if you found a Play-Doh scratch-and-sniff in this magazine right here?

Douglas Coupland is artist in residence at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris. He also has works in the exhibition ‘Electronic Superhighway’ at the Whitechapel Gallery, London. Instagram @douglascoupland

Twitter @dougcoupland

Photograph: Ken Mayer Studios © Douglas Coupland

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.