Earlier this week in San Francisco, the "Got Milk?" people launched a new campaign. The idea was to stick cookie-scented strips at bus stops that would get people thinking of cookies, and then, of course, of milk! The campaign was over in 36 hours. Some people complained about allergies. Some people said that homeless people would be sad because they would smell the cookies but couldn't eat them. Some said that this is all we need when we are fighting a losing (well we wish) battle against obesity. Some teenager said that the bus stops would smell like "cookies and bums." (Disclaimer: these are all rumors and I haven't verified any of them! But the campaign was real and I heard these rumors from other, mostly reliable news sources.)
My initial reaction was that it's just not fair to try and manipulate us with our sense of smell! But then, how is marketing using scent any different than imagery or sound? It's just another sense. But somehow it seems even more powerful. I vaguely remember from grad school learning how our sense of smell might be more closely linked to our memories by its the proximity of the olfactory bulb and cortex to the hippocampus. But I'm spreading rumors again. Anyway, here's a paper that might be a good starting point: "Odor Memory Induces Brain Activation as Measured by Functional MRI" (Levy, Lucien M.; Henkin, Robert I.; Lin, Chin S.; Hutter, Alf; Schellinger, Dieter).
I guess the more important question is this: would people really make the connection between cookies and milk, or would they just eat more cookies? When I see those huge chocolate chip cookies in the cafeteria at lunch, I don't think about milk. If they were Oreos, maybe I would. I guess at some point that one was drilled into me.