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Stereotype fears and the lovely scent of vanilla

Friday, April 8, 2011
posted by Douglas Keene

Tammy sang it and we keep track of it just for you. Yes. Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman. Especially when we are reminded of the fact we are women. Internationally based researchers studied the impact of stereotype fears [especially when it comes to science, technology, engineering and math] on women’s intent to purchase consumer goods.

The research subjects were women.  They reminded the women in the study about gender stereotypes as they were preparing to purchase goods from auto or tax/investment firms.  But they did this subtly.  In the first experiment they simply mentioned math in the advertisements for the firms providing services. In the second, they made the people in the ads cartoonish and identical with the exception of hairdo. What they found in both experiments was that women were less likely to indicate intent to purchase from firms advertising with male representatives. The interpretation was that when women are reminded of gender stereotypes, they are wary of male salespeople/service representatives.

So they tried again. This time, they scented the air with vanilla. Why vanilla, you ask? They explain:

We chose the scent of vanilla because it seems particularly important for stress reduction. Vanilla’s calming effects have been recognized for centuries (Bythrow 2005; Rain 2004). More recently, patients reported almost two-thirds less anx- iety when the room smelled like vanilla than plain air (Redd et al. 2005), and infants gazed longer and emitted fewer distress vocalizations (showing more approach and less avoidance behavior) toward a vanilla-scented toy than an unscented toy (Mennella and Beauchamp 2002).

So the air was scented with vanilla. And what happened?

Female consumers in a vanilla-scented environment who considered interacting with a car salesperson did not alter their intentions to transact on the basis of the gender of the salesperson, presumably due to vanilla’s anxiety-quelling abilities (Mennella and Beauchamp 2002; Redd et al. 2005).

Women were okay with the vanilla-influenced male representative salespeople. (Hmmm—I smell a market for vanilla-scented aftershave.)

KYOUNGMI LEE, HAKKYUN KIM, & KATHLEEN D. VOHS (2011). Stereotype Threat in the Marketplace: Consumer Anxiety and Purchase Intentions. Journal of Consumer Research, 38 (August)


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