Yankee Candle customers have been flocking to the brand's Amazon reviews section this month with a similar complaint: The scented candles they bought have no scent at all. "No scent. Disappointing," read one review that made the rounds online Tuesday. "Don't give off much smell...," read another.
On Twitter, users joked that reviews panning Yankee Candles for being odorless are the best COVID-19 indicator we've got. But could they be on to something?
Northeastern University professor Nick Beauchamp decided to try to find out. Beauchamp, who specializes in natural-language processing and machine learning, used a scraping tool to pull reviews from the top three Yankee Candles that included the words "no smell" or "no scent." The pattern he found almost eerily resembles the current COVID-19 surge.
Knowing the number of reviews might grow with the holidays, Beauchamp created another plot that looks at what percent of reviews contain the words "no smell" or "no scent." "It shows the same pattern, though it's less dramatic since some of the count spike is due to an overall rise in sales and reviews each winter," Beauchamp tweeted.
Beauchamp's interest in using alternative data sources to track COVID-19 isn't exclusive to candles. He's also conducting ongoing, grant-funded research on using Twitter data to track COVID-19 trends. Plus, he told Protocol, his father studies smell and taste at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.
Beauchamp is also not the first to detect a tie between Yankee Candle reviews and upticks in COVID-19 cases. Last year, Bryn Mawr College researcher Kate Petrova conducted a similar experiment, tracking Yankee Candle reviews before and after the pandemic began. She found that reviews of Yankee's scented candles lost one full star after January 2020. Unscented candles mostly maintained their rating.
Of course, these analyses are purely observational and not exactly scientific. On the other hand, if you do happen to find yourself sniffing a jar of Sparkling Cinnamon this holiday, and it smells like precisely nothing, perhaps what your nose really needs is a swab.