The Affect of Atmospherics

The following essay was written for “Rhetoric and Popular Culture” during my senior year.

The Affect of Atmospherics: A Literature Review and Popular Culture Critque
By Marlee Middlebrooks

In the following literature review and popular culture critique, I will examine four peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles, and then, I will assess a popular culture artifact by applying concepts from my research. The main question I hope to explore through my research is simply, “How do atmospherics rhetorically affect consumers?” I aim to learn how each of the five senses are activated and how these affect a consumer’s behavior and decisions. Then, I will consider how Starbucks so perfectly takes advantage of atmospherics whether or not we are even aware of what is happening around us.

image1In the article “Store Atmospherics: A Multisensory Perspective,” the authors seek to examine how the multifaceted aspects of atmospherics work together to positively or negatively affect a consumer’s shopping behavior and experience. The subtitle “A Multisensory Perspective” is critical to this piece of literature because Spence, Puccinelli, Grewal, and Roggeveen (2014) individually explore visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory aspects of the environment. Therefore, it is necessary to touch on each aspect in this critique, even if only with a sentence or two. The color, brightness, size and shape of a retail space can be known as visual atmospherics, and as a whole, visual cues affect a customer’s shopping experience positively. Specifically, lighting is manipulated to either relax or stimulate a customer. Auditory atmospherics, such as music, are easy to control and therefore studied often. According to the authors, many stores are using auditory atmospherics for branding. Additionally, they are successful at directing the behaviors of consumers such as customers spending longer in stores when the music has a slower tempo. Unlike visual and auditory atmospherics, olfactory atmospherics have not been studied as much by researchers. Nonetheless, some research does suggest that ambient scents can influence behavior positively like making a customer want to purchase a product rather than unscented scenarios. Even more research is needed to understand how and when specific scents should be activated in order to enhance customer experience. Softness, smoothness, and temperature fall into the category of tactile atmospherics. Touch is important for customers because they want to feel the product before they purchase it; however, it can be negative for retailers because people do not want to purchase an item someone has touched several times. Touch is important, but the authors suggest that perhaps it is underutilized possibly because it is “a given” and the focus is on activating the many other senses. Taste atmospherics were not discussed as in depth regarding store atmospherics as were some of the other senses. Still, they are important because they can ignite such strong reactions like a negative reaction that leads to long-term avoidance of a location or a positive reaction that is more vivid than one of the other sensory experiences. Overall, the researchers discovered unsurprisingly that store atmospherics impact individuals. When taking today’s consumer culture into account, one will undoubtedly experience multiple atmospherics working together. Therefore, it is crucial to understand that the combined influence of store atmospherics is highly affecting customers mostly in a positive manner. The researchers suggest being careful of a sensory overload, but generally, they conclude that multisensory atmospherics are much stronger than a single atmospheric cue in a given environment (Spence et al., 2014).

While Spence et al. (2014), intended to research store atmospherics from a multisensory perspective, the authors of the article, “Shining Light on Atmospherics: How Ambient Light Influences Food Choices” studied solely visual atmospherics in the form of lighting within the restaurant industry. Therefore, this summary will be much narrower in its focus as it reviews literature that is also very narrow in its focus. Nonetheless, the scholars still intended to see how a form of atmospherics affected the ambience of an environment and influenced a consumer’s experience and decisions. Specifically, Biswas, Szocs, Chacko, and Wansink (2014) were concerned with how light would affect choices between “healthy “and unhealthy” food choices. Before discussing the effects on the choices, it is important to note that softening light does lead consumers to spend more time in the area. In order to see how light would affect the consumers’ choices, the researchers conducted five experiments—one was conducted as a field study at multiple locations of a major restaurant chain, and the others were conducted in labs. I will not detail the five experiments here, but I will discuss the overall findings and how they are significant. As a whole, customers more often prefer unhealthy options when ambient light is dim versus bright. Additionally, in this setting, there is higher calorie consumption. The authors did mention that they are aware that ambient light is not the sole driving factor for consumers’ choices. However, they were pleased to know that their hypotheses were correct in that it is an influential factor. Yet again, this is more research to qualify how critical atmospherics are rhetorically. The authors also drew attention to the fact that especially in retail outlets and restaurant scenarios, managers typically can control atmospheric elements such as lighting with ease; therefore, it is vital to recognize how changing these elements can directly influence a consumer both positively and negatively (Biswas et al., 2014)

In the article “Effects of a Product Display and Environmental Fragrancing on Approach Responses and Pleasurable Experiences,” the authors once again explored the effects of atmospherics but this time to customers’ responses to products. Foremost, Fiore, Yah, and Yoh (2000) defined atmospherics which was helpful and something that the other authors had not done. In short, atmospherics can be described as “the conscious design of the store environment to positively affect the consumer.” In this study, the researchers wanted to know specifically how product display, which can consist of background, mannequins, fixtures, signs, etc. and environmental fragrancing impacted subjects’ approach responses to products and overall aesthetic experiences. In order to study this, the researchers assigned 109 females to four experimental treatment groups where they would be exposed to one of the following treatments: (a) a garment hung on a hanger with no display and no fragrance, (b) a garment in a display with no fragrance, (c) a garment in a display with an appropriate fragrance, and (d) a garment in a display with an inappropriate fragrance. The researchers statistically analyzed the women’s responses to these treatments and concluded that generally, an appropriately fragranced display left a positive effect on subjects. From a marketing standpoint, the authors suggested that combining appropriate environmental fragrances with product displays can enhance sales and profit margin; however, the scent must be pleasing. The fragrance can be contained by using small amounts and following the air-flow patterns. Additionally, the authors cautioned readers that some consumers may have allergic reactions (Fiore et al., 2000).

The last article I will summarize is titled, “Context Effects from Bodily Sensations: Examining Bodily Sensations Induced by Flooring and the Moderating Role of Product Viewing Distance.” It is similar to the others in that it deals with another sensory cue that is affected when consumers shop, but the article does not confront ‘atmospherics’ directly, that is the authors never use the term atmospherics. This is interesting to me—a field of study so heavily researched and mainly what this article is about, and the term “atmospherics” is not used to describe the article. Nonetheless, Meyers-Levy, Zhu, and Jiang (2010) explored what bodily sensations would emerge within a consumer, be it comfort or discomfort, from standing on a hard, tile floor or a soft, carpet floor and subsequently how this would affect their assessments of a product. Four separate experiments were conducted to which I will not detail the specifics of each experiment. Nonetheless, the authors concluded general results that supported their hypotheses: “The texture of the flooring on which consumers stand when shopping can prompt sensations of (dis)comfort, which in turn can foster context effects on people’s assessments of store products.” Even though participants wore shoes and many wore socks, this tactile atmospheric still left an impression on them. Another interesting factor the researches acknowledged was that the physical distance between the product and the consumer affected how he/she generated a representation of it (Meyers-Levey et al., 2010).

After reviewing four peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles, there are several pop culture artifacts I feel that the main concepts discussed in the overall study of atmospherics can be applied to, but one stands out to me above the rest: Starbucks. For the purposes of this portion of the critique, I believe it will be most beneficial to apply a multisensory perspective to Starbucks. I feel that it was vital to review the three articles that focused on very specific sensory cues, but I also appreciated reviewing a multisensory perspective, and I can confidently attest to the fact that Starbucks is a cultural phenomenon that rhetorically affects every sensory aspect of a person throughout their entire experience in the store. The green color that is associated with Starbucks is the first cue that visual atmospherics are at play. Secondly, like Biswas et al. (2014) discussed regarding ambient light, this is at work significantly within Starbucks. The dim light is working to keep customers in the shop longer. Starbucks shops are smaller giving them a “homey” feel. They are a place where you can come to hang out with friends and drink coffee or catch up on your studies. Again, the visual atmospherics are working positively to keep people lingering. Moreover, auditory atmospherics are prevalent at Starbucks. You can hear the grinding of the beans and the individual sounds that make up the process of creating the perfect Starbucks drink. Another auditory cue is simply the calling out of names once each barista has prepared a drink. This positively affects the customer and acknowledges each person as a human being within the company. Thirdly, I believe olfactory atmospherics are stronger at Starbucks than other coffee shops. The smell of the coffee is richer, and because of this, you will remember the smell of a Starbucks more than you will remember the smell of a Dunkin Donuts. For coffee connoisseurs, this may be what brings you back to Starbucks time and time again. Even tactile atmospherics are at work at Starbucks. The presence of comfortable lounge chairs is a sensory cue. For the people sitting in them, it affects their bodily sensations positively and in a comfortable manner. For those who are not sitting in them, they are drawn to the hope that they might get to sit in one if someone leaves. Lastly, gustatory atmospherics might be the strongest atmospheric at work in a Starbucks. After all, most, if not all, come for the coffee or some food or beverage. The richness of the coffee is what keeps Starbucks’ lovers coming back for more and more and more.  Between the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes, the atmospherics working in Starbucks are enormous. I only described one or two examples per sensory cue, and there are several more. Like the research suggested that I reviewed, and like we have discussed in class, one cannot ignore how overwhelmingly atmospherics are engulfing us within popular culture phenomena such as Starbucks. We are blinded by how these sensory cues truly affect us in our day to day lives. The four summaries of the journal articles open our eyes to research heavy material that supports these theories; however, through a few examples, I have proven how a coffee chain has complete control of our senses once we enter the doors.


Biswas, D., Szocs, C., Chacko, R., & Wansink, B. (2017) Shining light on atmospherics: How ambient light influences food choices. Journal of Marketing Research (JMR), 54(1), 111-123. doi:10.1509/jmr.14.0115

Fiore, A. M., Yah, X., & Yoh, E. (2000). Effects of a product display and environmental fragrancing on approach responses and pleasurable experiences. Psychology & Marketing, 17(1), 27-54. Retrieved from

Meyers-Levy, J., Zhu, R., & Jiang, L. (2010). Context effects from bodily sensations: Examining bodily sensations induced by flooring and the moderating role of product viewing distance. Journal of Consumer Research, 37(1), 1-14. Retrieved from

Spence, C., Puccinelli, N. M., Grewal, D., & Roggeveen, A. L. (2014). Store atmospherics: A multisensory perspective. Psychology & Marketing, 31(7), 472-488. doi:10.1002/mar.20709


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s