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Becoming a Measuring Instrument

This article provides an ethnographic examination of olfactory consumer testing in the perfume industry. What kind of reality is generated within such practices? The analysis is focused on one particular testing method used in order to assess the hedonic performance of fine fragrances. The authors observe what happens inside the testing venue. The article concentrates on the problem of the simulacrum (how the reality provoked within the test may serve as a proxy for the reality of ‘consumer behaviour’) and analyses how participants actively engage into the task of becoming measuring instruments (of fragrances and of themselves).

This paper offers a nuanced examination of consumer testing  in perfume marketing. The authors observe that, rather than being measured as consumers through the testing device, the participating persons engage in the work of becoming measuring instruments themselves. The authors focus on how participants are affected by such a task, but also, more generally, by the way in which the testing device provokes a number of realities that may stand as sources of useful knowledge for the purpose of marketing. The testing sessions observed followed a specific quantitative olfactory testing protocol. The overall purpose of the test was to assess the performance of a series of fragrances through blind taste-testing within large samples of participants so as to provide a sound basis for the decision of which fragrance to choose (as well as ways to improve it) for the development of a new perfume. The authors describe several interesting sub-aspects of the research, including the perfume engineers’ attempt to create a new vocabulary to measure the way in which a perfume is experienced, and the testing participants self-concern over their ‘reliability’, and ability to generate reproducible results. The discussion ends with the role of deception vs. interested participation of test participants in their contribution to the production of knowledge as well as the production of preferences, constructed under interrogation.

Muniesa, F., Trebuchet-Breitwiller, A., “Becoming a Measuring Instrument,” Journal of Cultural Economy, Vol. 3, Iss. 3, Nov. 2010, p. 321 – 337

Expertise Level

Professional Field
Consumer Testing, Ethnography

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