Ah, the Smell of... Burning Rubber?

A new ad insert for motoring game Forza 2 releases the delicate aroma of scorched tires

When the editors here were young, we'd often look forward to our monthly installment of the gaming magazine GamePlayers. We remember this one particular insert for Earthbound with pullable tabs over images of some of the game's enemies. When pulled up, the tabs unleashed a series of odd smells that were very pungent and supposedly representative of the game's odd foes. It kind of stank the magazine up at the time. But you know what? We remember that ad after all these years and thousands of different ads later.

Flash forward to a recent EGM magazine, with an odd insert with the image of a car in it. When you pull up the flap, it assaults the nasal cavities with the unmistakable odor of burning rubber. Once again, this ad sticks out in our mind. Maybe there's something to all those cologne ads saying memory has a very strong connection to smell.

We talked to Tim Stier, an art director at advertising firm McCann Erickson, about this pungent Forza 2 ad insert.

From start to finish

Not surprisingly, as a chief ad agency for Microsoft, McCann Erickson devised the idea for this ad. The insert was conceived by Tim Wolfe, a copywriter, and the abovementioned Tim Stier. They were looking to do something unique and apropos of the Forza 2 property when the idea struck them.

"The idea for the insert came from a real truth of the game itself. Forza is such a complete racing simulator, so how do we convey to people that it is so comprehensive? We'll demonstrate that by giving them something that it doesn't give you. Then we thought, 'What about the smell of burning rubber when you're peeling around the corner?' Smell is, of course one of the few things the game doesn't give," commented Stier.

The process for making the insert and the appropriate burning rubber odor turned out to be much simpler that we initially expected. There are apparently companies that deal in such processes and McCann Erickson approached the various printers and vendors. They had to do a number of smell tests for burning rubber, which ran the gamut of acrid to acid until they found the right one.

As for whether there was a kind of olfactory/memory connection that they were trying to make with the insert, Stier responded, "We're not looking to make people remember the ad; we're trying to get people to recall the game. Maybe they'll remember, 'Oh this is a game that's so compressive it gives us everything but the smell of racing.' Perhaps something like, 'Even in its ads it's looking to get you deeply immersed in the racing experience.'"

All tricked out or aerodynamic?

It's a fine line to run in traditional print advertising, for gaming and many other consumer products. Do you try and give the consumer as much information and media about your product as possible at the risk of creating something cluttered and uninteresting? Or do you create something that's simpler and almost artistic at the risk of having your product become obfuscated by the obtuse message? There's no absolute and definitive answer to this question, but this Forza 2 ad certainly says a lot for something that's simple yet unique in the ad.

"That's what we always strive to do is to create something unique. There's a lot of sensory overload for what people see on a page of advertising sometimes," Stier said. "What do we give to try and engage people in the ad? We try to cut through the bloat. On the front, I believe there was a visual of an arresting car that might really grab someone's attention and that's the sort of cool image that we like to think will get people interested in the ad."

"In general, we're looking for ads that don't follow a formula so closely. On the insert, it simply had a line reading 'The Smell,' and left it at that, giving people credit that they know it's burning rubber. Now, on the back of the insert, we gave the information for those people who want to dig deeper about the game, giving the best of both worlds."

Smell of originality

Above all else, Stier conveyed the willingness of Microsoft to go along with the concept of the ad.

"I want to give credit to [Microsoft] for going along with this. They have a lot of info they want to get across about the game, but they were willing to go along with this unique approach. Ultimately, the goal is to engage people's imaginations and we hope they appreciate that advertisers are willing to do that. I think that most game advertisers don't really do that."

Stier noted that Microsoft was willing to deal with whatever the extra cost was and sell the concept to various magazines (though there was apparently little hesitation in this regard). It certainly wouldn't hurt to have more original ad ideas spicing up print magazines these days, perhaps saving us from a world of postage stamp sized screenshots and insufferable bullet-point rundowns of a game's better qualities.

"I think what we're trying to do here... is we're trying to foster and push our client on an ongoing basis into new and different ways of communication. We're trying to come up with ideas that are more unique than the standard means. Forza 2 is and example of, 'This is different from the usual, but it matches up with the concept of the game.' I don't think I'd have them buy more sense-strip ads, but we might think of different things that are relevant for other games and other things that make people stop and think," Stier said. "So it's not an exclusive thing; we approach every Xbox product uniquely whether it's something with a smell to it or whatever. And I think our relationship with Xbox is getting better because we have more of those ideas and they know that sometimes we need to think in a slightly more unorthodox way."

"I was really pleased with the way it came out. This was an idea that was worked on a long time with [Microsoft] because it's something that makes sense and is unique. And to their credit, they were always behind it and are always looking to do more interesting things like it," he concluded.

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