How To Smell Colours

(or, the devolution of human senses)

There is a disc of soap in my bathroom entitled ‘White Scents’, proudly declaring to the World that you can ‘gently unwind’ in this product’s ‘soft light’ of hygiene and all the rest of it, avoiding the obvious question: what the hell does ‘White’ smell like?

Does this mean that it will smell of white things? Because that means that due to the vagueness of the smell of ‘White’, that it must smell of all white things, and packing the smells of every white thing in the planet into a single disc that’s more easily obtainable than human companionship is no mean feat; the amount of smell-based collecting, research and chemical production should make such a product more expensive than gold. Fortunately for everyone, however, soap is cheaper than gold. Furthermore, what if the developers miss out a smell? What if they do not take into account the odour of a particularly obscure local newspaper, printed on white paper? Does this mean the soap is falsely advertised? Could said local newspaper take legal action against the manufacturers for not including their smell? Also, the colours of things change; to make my theory correct, the researchers for this soap would have to record the smell of my computer screen when writing this post, as the background is white, before I finish, because my computer’s normal background is largely black and blue. This all seems impractically problematic, so perhaps the soap does not smell of everything that is white.

Another idea is that the soap smells of things we associate with the colour white; the fact that the soap’s casing promises a sense of ‘cool light’ would support this argument, that we think of light when we see white, so we will think of light if we use this soap. But does this mean we would smell ‘light’? Because that’s even harder to define the smell of than white itself. Even the, seemingly, plausible advertisement of a ‘cool fragrance’ is confusing – not only does white not make me think of cool things (light blue does, as that’s the colour of every Ice-type Pokémon ever), but ‘coolness’ is a temperature, not a scent. Perhaps I’m too narrow-minded here; these descriptions may refer to the general ambience of a ‘White Scents’ bath; that to use this product is to be immersed in light and relaxation. Like falling asleep in a fridge. But even this idea isn’t consistent, as the soap is defined as a ‘bath fizzer’. So what, I’m meant to be relaxed and peaceful, but also fizzy, which suggests action and excitement? Maybe a better analogy is falling asleep not in a fridge, but in a blender with a white lid?

Trying to smell a colour is conceptually difficult, yes, but its also physically impossible – our nose cannot detect colour, and colours alone give off no scents that our nose can register. Despite this, advertisers in general keep trying to invert our scenes like this, providing evidence for the idea that we humans are now too old-fashioned for our own culture – it happened with that iPhone you couldn’t hold, now it’s spreading to minor hygiene products! Oh the humanity! (or lack thereof).

Another example of this is an air freshener I used to have in my house (do we no longer buy it because we’re perplexed by its impossible advertising schemes?). It was the fragrance of ‘Purple Mountain Flower’, because I’ve smelled blue mountain flowers, and let me tell you they suck compared to these purple ones. Although this is perhaps clearer than the smell of white, in that you can Google ‘purple flowers that grow on mountains’ to at least get an idea of what you’re getting into, the fact remains – no-one has smelled a mountain. And even actual mountaineers would probably not be reminded of that giant rock spire they climbed, with nothing but a Nepalese phrase book and some goggles, and could have died on, either by falling, cold, starvation, insanity, fatigue, landslides, snow-slides or sheer bad luck, at any point. Furthermore, mountains are rock. They smell of rock. You ever smelt a rock? Nope, because they smell of nothing.

The most troubling thing about all this idiocy is that someone thought it was a good idea. These examples aren’t improvised ideas flung together in five minutes, but are ideas worked on for weeks and months, by professionally-employed individuals, whose careers, and maybe even lives, revolve around knowing what stuff to sell us, and then packaging it in an attractive way. This is worrying in two ways – either the advertising industry is run by fools, and judging by the long-term competitiveness of ad slots around major music and sporting events, it is not, or that we, as a society, suck. It’s a sorry state of affairs when ‘attractive’ smells are things we can’t actually smell; for all our ‘civilisation’ and ‘modernity’, hunter-gathers knew how noses worked, so why the hell don’t we? Furthermore, we are paying money for this stuff – capitalism works when we exchange money we have earned for goods of an equal value; it does not work when we buy a scent that smells of absolutely nothing – we are losing money and gaining nothing for it.

It could be said that this is all one big placebo effect; the soap disc doesn’t smell of ‘soft light’, but we think it does, and that’s why we ‘gently unwind’ when we use it. I’ve played over 500 hours of Football Manager 2013; am I happier as a result? Largely, yes. Has it made me skilled in any meaningful way? Not at all. Maybe consumerism has changed from us buying stuff that makes life better, to buying stuff we think makes life better. And I guess that if we’re gonna argue over everything nowadays, right down to the physical impossibilities of coloured smells, getting stuff just for the hell of it might not be strictly a bad thing.

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2 thoughts on “How To Smell Colours

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