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How the Dallas Cowboys Use Your Nose Against You

America's Team employs a variety of marketing techniques to boost revenue at AT&T Stadium—including pumping in 'covert ambient scent.'
By Dave Moore |

When Cowboys fans enter AT&T Stadium this fall, they will be walking into a monument to consumption: Miller Lite pours, loud music pumps, dancers prance in shorty shorts, fireworks explode, and Greek gods beat the hell out of each other. This happens in a cavernous spaceship that never leaves the ground. To slake the thirst of its rabble, AT&T Stadium racks up more beer, wine, and liquor receipts than anywhere else in Texas.

Beneath it all, fans might catch the hint of a scent that will appeal to their emotions. At most, they spend more than they would have otherwise. At the least, it makes them love their Cowboys—a brand valued at $4 billion—even more.

Aside from resembling a modern-day episode of “Game of Thrones,” these basic elements—visceral emotions, fire, sex, open spaces—all appeal to our reptilian brain centers. What more could a fan want? What more could Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones want? More.

The Limbic System

During one period in 2013, at least, Jones (or one of his contractors) has deployed something called “covert ambient scent” through the air ducts into AT&T Stadium’s 104 million cubic feet. We don’t know exactly when. But a few years ago, a salesman accidentally outed Cowboys Stadium as a user of aromas. Both the Cowboys and the contractor, ScentAir, declined to confirm.

“As I understand it, they are involved in negotiations with the stadium as to whether or not their product will be used there in the future. It is my understanding it isn’t being currently used,” Cowboys spokesman Rich Dalrymple wrote in an emailed reply in June. Of course, there were no major sporting events in June. The ScentAir document that lists the stadium as a client is dated 2013.

“We’re not selling [a return on investment]. We’re selling an experience.”

Robert Barnett, Prolitec Inc.

Industry insiders estimate it cost the Cowboys between $15,000 and $20,000 a month to pump the chemical scents. Why would anyone spend that kind of money on something no one consciously notices? Because smells reach directly into primitive regions of the brain (in the limbic system) that influence emotions and memories. So smells captivate consumers’ brains before they know what hit them. Studies show that scents can compel consumers to spend up to twice as much as they would have otherwise.

Of course, some in the industry say motivations aren’t that ham-fisted. “We’re not selling an ROI [return on investment],” says Robert Barnett, vice president of global sales at Prolitec Inc., a competitor of ScentAir. “We’re selling an experience.”

The Cowboys aren’t saying they ever deployed scents (though last December, a distinct-yet-cool aroma of a burger and fries spilled over the crowd during the Cowboys-Jets game). They’re also not ruling out their use in the future. Business Insider reports that the Rams’ former stadium in St. Louis (the Edward Jones Dome) deployed a cotton candy fragrance. The Brooklyn Nets’ stadium, Barclays Center, uses a fragrance tinged with citrus, fans have observed. Gaming establishments like the Choctaw Casino in Durant, Okla., are said to use scents to keep gamblers in place.

Market insiders say that secrecy is air tight because businesses don’t want any blowback from consumers. “Fans will say, ‘I didn’t have my guard up,’” says University of California at Irvine marketing lecturer Kevin Bradford, who co-wrote a paper warning against the ethical issues surrounding the use of scents. “It ticks people off,” Bradford says, adding that the practice has been banned in other countries. He says brands caught in the act face a loss of prestige, and consumer trust. Then again, this might just sail by many Cowboys fans.

“I have no problem with it as long as the scent isn’t coming from the locker rooms,” says Cowboys uber fan and Dallas attorney Bob Bragalone. “Even though the sense of smell cannot be turned off, this does not offend me. It even makes the experience more enjoyable. We are all responsible for our spending habits.”

Open Spaces, Open Wallets

The Dallas Cowboys/city of Arlington were in the midst of building their cavernous party palace in 2007 when a professor at the University of Minnesota published a study that showed wider open spaces encourage consumers to spend more.

“Ceiling height can prime thoughts that relate to the concept of freedom,” wrote Joan Meyers-Levy, a marketing professor. That sense of freedom, the study showed, liberated test subjects’ wallets right out of their pants. “Jerry and Gene traveled across the world to get inspiration for the stadium,” Dalrymple says. They were even inspired by Churchill Downs’ architecture during the Kentucky Derby, he says. Their motivation, he says, was to construct a second-to-none building that would enhance the fan experience.

Since the project was roughly half-way constructed when Meyers-Levy’s study was published, it couldn’t have influenced the Cowboys’ decision to build the new facility three times larger than Texas Stadium in Irving. Intuitively, architects have known open spaces are more appealing.

As it expanded from about 65,000 seats to about 80,000, the Cowboys nearly tripled beer and liquor sales. Even adjusting for inflation, an analysis by, for which I serve as editor, shows that the average fan spent $50 more per season on alcohol (the new stadium also introduced the Cowboyrita in partnership with Hornitos).

More seats and space, food and drink choices, bigger Jumbotrons, and mysterious scents all point in one direction, says Antonio Williams, sports marketing expert and University of Indiana professor: They want you to fall in love with their team.  “As a marketer, I can’t control what happens on that field. So, it’s important for marketers to control what’s going on in the periphery,” says Williams. “Fan experience is correlated with enjoyment.”

So, as poorly as the Cowboys play, as long as Jones keeps the Game of Thrones rolling at 1 AT&T Way, he’ll continue to come out smelling like a covert ambient rose.   

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