By Emily Heil
Washington – It was, perhaps, inevitable that food companies would see the masks that we’re wearing these days and envision them as blank canvases onto which they could project their brands’ advertising.
To marketers, the inches of cotton stretched across our mouths and noses amount to a rare new frontier in the logo-littered landscape of T-shirts and ball caps. But here’s the twist we didn’t see coming: Now, some masks don’t just bear the names or images of products, but also . . . their smell.
This week, fast food chain Jack in the Box is giving away masks that purport to be scented like chicken, so you can inhale eau de poultry as you comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and local masking requirements – a win-win-win, apparently, for safety-minded chicken superfans.
But here’s another odd thing (as if the very premise isn’t strange enough to begin with): According to the company’s website, the mask giveaway is a promotion for Jack in the Box’s new “Unchicken Sandwich.” That’s the brand’s new plant-based faux-bird offering, which swaps a pea-protein patty for the traditional puck.
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So, let’s get this straight. To celebrate fake chicken, Jack in the Box is giving people the chance to go about their days in a cloud of real-chicken scent? Is this stunt merely proof that the chain can so successfully mimic chicken-like properties that its new sandwich must taste convincingly like the genuine article? And does anyone really want to constantly be enveloped in a chicken-perfumed cloud, anyway? Isn’t that smell enjoyed more situationally? We have, as the saying goes, so many questions.
But it turns out JITB’s marketing wizards aren’t alone. The meat company Hormel also recently announced it’s giving away a mask that isn’t just printed with lifelike images of the company’s popular bacon. It’s also imbued with the aroma of its “black label” premium strips. “Don’t just eat bacon,” the website promoting the giveaway reads. “Inhale it.”
Barbara Kahn, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, senses that the bacon- and chicken-scented accessories are something of a novelty, likening them to the “flame-grilled” cologne that Burger King offered in Japan. “It’s a gimmick is my guess, but it’s one that’s clever and could go viral,” she says.
She notes that it wouldn’t be such a bad idea for companies to offer masks with scents. After all, hotels and retail stores spend a lot of money developing and piping in just the right smells they hope customers wind up associating with them. “A well-engineered smell can add to value of the brand,” Kahn says.
In our pandemic everyday, masks have emerged as opportunities for advertisers, and there are models emblazoned with presidential campaign slogans (you can buy official versions that read “MAGA” or “Unity,” depending on your favored ticket), sports teams and bands.
But part of the appeal of the scented mask, the companies offering them insist (with a possible wink), is to actually extend the enjoyment of their foods. Hormel boasts that it has employed “the latest in bacon-smell technology and irresistibly breathable, 2-ply fabric” to prolong the experience of consuming its product. “Finally, bacony-bliss can be with you always,” it enthuses.
At the very least, it seems that for die-hard bacon or chicken lovers, such sensations would merely prove frustrating. They transform wearers into a modern-day version of the mythical Tantalus, punished by the gods for eternity by being made to stand in a pool of water and surrounded by fruit trees that remained just out of his reach. You might be able to smell that bacon while standing in line at the post office, but you can’t eat it.
For a slightly more recent analogy, perhaps we should look to the masks worn by doctors during the 17th century Black Plague. Their long, beaklike noses were typically stuffed with sweet-smelling herbs and botanicals, thought to have disease-fighting properties – with the added bonus of covering up the smell of death. When it comes to a pandemic, scent might be just the distraction we need.