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Why Are Car Air Fresheners Shaped Like Trees?

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Why are air fresheners for cars shaped like trees, even if they smell like vanilla? The answer involves pin-ups, chemistry, and a little crying over spilled milk.

In 1952, a chemist and perfumist named Julius Samann was chatting up a milkman in Watertown, New York, where Samann had settled down to explore new business opportunities. The delivery driver was complaining that his truck had been fouled with the odor of spilled, soured dairy products that no amount of cleaning would erase.

Samann, who had spent years in the Canadian wilderness extracting pine needle oils, had an idea: seal a fragrance in something absorbent like blotting or filter paper and hang it inside the vehicle to mask unwelcome scents. He drew up a United States Patent and Trademark Office application for a “container of volatile substances” and submitted it in 1954. On August 7, 1956, he was granted patent number US2757957 for this:

As you can see, that is not a tree. Samann’s original intention was to offer an air-freshening product in the shape of the pin-up models that were popular in the 1950s. The cut-out featured a woman, her back arched, with a string affixed to her head. He sent out samples to gas stations, who reported brisk sales; cab drivers appreciated how they could hide the stink of cigarette smoke and passenger body odor. Encouraged, he started the Car-Freshner [sic] Corporation in Watertown.

At some point, though, the incongruity of a pine-scented woman must have bothered him. In 1959, he filed an application for an “improvement” over his previous sketch.

The abstract Evergreen tree shape made more sense, both in context and in function. Samann’s invention called for a scented paper covered in cellophane that would trap the fragrance until the consumer was ready to use it. By slowly pulling down the plastic over the branches across a period of weeks, more of the odor could be retained for later use.

Samann called his aromatic add-ons Little Trees. In an example of iconic brand shapes, the Trees became instantly recognizable. This was both a blessing—the product has sold billions, according to Car-Freshner estimates—and a curse.

Because the Little Trees are so familiar, people often mistake it for a generic design. As a result, Car-Freshner has been very, very aggressive in protecting their trademark over the years. When Old Navy produced a t-shirt depicting a similar shape, they sued. When Rite-Way marketed a line of knock-off fresheners, they sued. When Glade issued a tree-shaped plug-in for the holidays, they sued. When Urban Outfitters released tree-shaped holiday gift tags, they got pretty upset. In many of the cases, Car-Freshner Corp. emerged victorious. (Against Glade, they had to settle for a dismissal.)

The Ttrees have also entered the legal system in another way. Several states, including Michigan, Illinois, and Virginia, have passed laws prohibiting objects hanging from a car’s rearview mirror on the grounds it could potentially obstruct a driver’s view of the road. Several cases have been brought before courts alleging that law enforcement is using the air fresheners as pretext to make traffic stops with vehicles they suspect harbor drugs. In Wisconsin, one driver who was found to have marijuana in his vehicle had his conviction reversed because the officer had pulled him over owing in part to a swinging pine tree in his cabin. The stop was considered unlawful.

It’s not likely Samann, who died in 1999, could have imagined his invention would one day be a pawn in the war on drugs. His family-owned Car-Freshner Corp. continues to manufacture Little Trees in Watertown. Recently, they’ve protested plans to build a meat-packing plant close to their factory. They claim the smell of a slaughterhouse would overwhelm their ability to conduct proper fragrance testing. Masking spilled milk is one thing; covering up animal carcasses is asking a lot.     

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How Frozen Peas Made Orson Welles Lose It
Rebecca O'Connell (Getty Images) (iStock)
Rebecca O'Connell (Getty Images) (iStock)

Orson Welles would have turned 103 years old today. While the talented actor/director/writer leaves behind a staggering body of work—including Citizen Kane, long regarded as the best film of all time—the YouTube generation may know him best for what happened when a couple of voiceover directors decided to challenge him while recording an ad for Findus frozen foods in 1970.

The tempestuous Welles is having none of it. You’d do yourself a favor to listen to the whole thing, but here are some choice excerpts.

After he was asked for one more take from the audio engineer:

"Look, I’m not used to having more than one person in there. One more word out of you and you go! Is that clear? I take directions from one person, under protest … Who the hell are you, anyway?"

After it was explained to him that the second take was requested because of a “slight gonk”:

"What is a 'gonk'? Do you mind telling me what that is?"

After the director asks him to emphasize the “in” while saying “In July”:

"Why? That doesn't make any sense. Sorry. There's no known way of saying an English sentence in which you begin a sentence with 'in' and emphasize it. … That's just stupid. 'In July?' I'd love to know how you emphasize 'in' in 'in July.' Impossible! Meaningless!"

When the session moved from frozen peas to ads for fish fingers and beef burgers, the now-sheepish directors attempt to stammer out some instructions. Welles's reply:

"You are such pests! ... In your depths of your ignorance, what is it you want?"

Why would the legendary director agree to shill for a frozen food company in the first place? According to author Josh Karp, whose book Orson Welles’s Last Movie chronicles the director’s odyssey to make a “comeback” film in the 1970s, Welles acknowledged the ad spots were mercenary in nature: He could demand upwards of $15,000 a day for sessions, which he could use, in part, to fund his feature projects.

“Why he dressed down the man, I can't say for sure,” Karp says. “But I know that he was a perfectionist and didn't suffer fools, in some cases to the extreme. He used to take a great interest in the ads he made, even when they weren't of his creation.”

The Findus session was leaked decades ago, popping up on radio and in private collections before hitting YouTube. Voiceover actor Maurice LaMarche, who voiced the erudite Brain in Pinky and the Brain, based the character on Welles and would recite his rant whenever he got the chance.

Welles died in 1985 at the age of 70 from a heart attack, his last film unfinished. While some saw the pea endorsement as beneath his formidable talents, he was actually ahead of the curve: By the 1980s, many A-list stars were supplementing their income with advertising or voiceover work.

“He was a brilliant, funny guy,” Karp says. “There's a good chance he'd think the pea commercial was hilarious.” If not, he’d obviously have no problem saying as much.

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How Google Chrome’s New Built-In Ad Blocker Will Change Your Browsing Experience
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If you can’t stand web ads that auto-play sound and pop up in front of what you’re trying to read, you have two options: Install an ad blocker on your browser or avoid the internet all together. Starting Thursday, February 15, Google Chrome is offering another tool to help you avoid the most annoying ads on the web, Tech Crunch reports. Here’s what Google Chrome users should expect from the new feature.

Chrome’s ad filtering has been in development for about a year, but the details of how it will work were only recently made public. “While most advertising on the web is respectful of user experience, over the years we've increasingly heard from our users that some advertising can be particularly intrusive,” Google wrote in a blog post. “As we announced last June, Chrome will tackle this issue by removing ads from sites that do not follow the Better Ads Standards.

That means the new feature won’t block all ads from publishers or even block most of them. Instead, it will specifically target ads that violate the Better Ad Standards that the Coalition for Better Ads recommends based on consumer data. On desktop, this includes auto-play videos with sound, sticky banners that follow you as you scroll, pop-ups, and prestitial ads that make you wait for a countdown to access the site. Mobile Chrome users will be spared these same types of ads as well as flashing animations, ads that take up more than 30 percent of the screen, and ads the fill the whole screen as you scroll past them.

These criteria still leave room for plenty of ads to show up online—the total amount of media blocked by the feature won’t even amount to 1 percent of all ads. So if web browsers are looking for an even more ad-free experience, they should use Chrome’s ad filter as a supplement to one of the many third-party ad blockers out there.

And if accessing content without navigating a digital obstacle course first doesn’t sound appealing to you, don’t worry: On sites where ads are blocked, Google Chrome will show a notification that lets you disable the feature.

[h/t Tech Crunch]

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