There’s a great interview of anthropologist David Howes in the 14 September 2103 NewScientist (subscription access) about the role of synesthesia in marketing products. Synestesia—the sense of mixing senses (experiencing color as a flavor, for example) is often portrayed as a special sense that all of us dabble in, but a select odd few (the Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov, for example) experience in its fullness. I happen to be a marine ecologist whose second love is marketing and advertising, so I love the combination of multi-sensory perception and figuring out what sells people on stuff. I also think that we can learn from what sells Coke and Tiffany rings for how to spread scientific stories and “sell” conservation. Howes suggests that some examples of synesthetic advertising just came about through intuitive tinkering, like Skittles candy’s “Taste the Rainbow” slogan, or Canadian national radio’s, “Hear the Big Picture.” But the key to really understanding how synesthesia works in advertising, according to Howes, is good old fashioned ethnography—observing people in their natural environment—to see how they cross-associate sensations. Tellingly, he notes that you won’t get this understanding from a quick focus group or marketing survey. These kinds of controlled studies—akin to the laboratory experiments that Anibal and I call into question in Observation and Ecology—simply can’t capture the complexity of how we mix up our sensory experiences in the real world. We are pretty early in this science, so there are bound to be pitfalls, especially if you don’t understand different cultural sensitivities. Howes notes that while Westerners view the color white as associated with soft sweet smells, in China, white is associated with foul odors. Another kind of cultural sensitivity came into play in a failed attempt at synesthetic marketing that Howes discusses. In this case, the producers of the “Got Milk” advertisements piped in the smell of cookies to San Francisco bus depots to try to exploit consumers’ childhood association between cookies and milk. San Francisco consumers responded angrily to the campaign, suggesting it was cruel to the homeless people who tended to congregate at bus depots.