Can Yankee Candle reviews predict Covid-19 surges? It's complicated

Alexandra Ciufudean October 10, 2022
Can Yankee Candle reviews predict Covid-19 surges? It's complicated

Featured

According to researchers at Northeastern University, Massachusetts, negative Yankee Candle reviews can help track covid-19 cases.

As the CDC announces a switch from daily to weekly covid-19 updates, the internet is turning to perhaps the most unconventional tracking method yet.

The Northeastern study is part of a rising trend of scientists using online clues, or “breadcrumbs” – such as Google searches for chicken noddle soup delivery – to potentially predict spikes in covid cases.

Crop unrecognizable female lighting aromatic glass jar candle while standing at table in evening at home

What can Yankee Candle reviews tell us about Covid-19 cases?

Amazon reviews of highly scented products – such as Yankee Candles – tend to be associated with rises in cases of covid-19. One of the disease’s signature symptoms, anosmia or loss of smell, might be to blame for the upticks in disappointed one-star reviews.

But the researcher behind the recent Northeastern University study, assistant professor of political science Nicholas Beauchamp, was not the first to notice the connection.

The topic became popular during the height of the covid-19 pandemic when a number of Twitter users noticed a spate of recent reviews complaining their scented candle was…just a candle. Maybe, the user quipped, the reviewers were also “feeling a little hot and nothing has much taste for the last couple days.”

In other words – maybe it was covid.

Stanford psychophysiologist Katie Petrova seized the opportunity to dig deeper. In a detailed Twitter thread, she analysed reviews from a number of online scented candle sellers between January 2017 and November 2020.

Petrova’s Twitter study, though not official, did account for run-of-the-mill negative reviews and compared data from across different brands of scented candles for accuracy.

Her conclusion? “Since the beginning of [2020], the proportion of reviews mentioning lack of scent grew from < 2% in January to close to 6% in November.” Reviews complaining of “no scent” had also gone up considerably.

Northeastern study cautious about power to predict covid-19 surges

In his study, Beauchamp charted scented candle reviews over a three-year period, from September 2018 to January 2021, adjusting for the seasonal overlap of colds, flus and the purchase of candles.

He found that increased covid cases seemed to predict a spike in “no smell” reviews: “For every 100,000 new covid-19 cases a week in the US over the study period, the number of Yankee Candle reviews saying the product had no smell went up by 0.25 percentage points.”

The covid-19 cases preceded the negative reviews, but when Beauchamp added data from the past six months, including the Omicron wave, there was a reversal. “It is now predictive in the sense that, in theory, the reviews give us a slight heads up,” he says. 

However, Beauchamp is self-deprecating when talking about the study. “It’s not revolutionizing the study of either COVID or smell or social media,” he says, though he admits that he may have tapped into a previously-underrated data source.

“The core idea behind this approach,” he adds in the paper’s conclusion, “is that unwitting symptoms may be especially revealing, perhaps even more revealing than symptoms that may be confounded by conscious expectations, and that this may particularly be the case when there happens to be a single symptom like anosmia that is both highly distinctive, yet underappreciated and little-discussed.”

Twitter goes to town on the Yankee Candle – covid connection

As Beauchamp himself says, “it starts with a viral tweet, and it ends with a punchline.”

Considering the connection between Yankee Candle reviews and covid-19 surges was first noticed and popularised on Twitter, the study has come full circle in a way.

Users are already picking up on Beauchamp and colleagues’ research to validate long-held hunches, and to turn into a meme.

 

Have something to tell us about this article?
Let us know
Alexandra Ciufudean is the Head of Entertainment at The Focus where she manages a growing team of outstanding writers. On a day-to-day basis, she hunts for the latest in online trends and keeps her finger on the pulse of US culture, politics, and celebs. Alexandra helped launch The Focus in 2020 and developed the site into an expert online news source. A language nerd through and through, she boasts 5 years of experience as an editor, writer, and content specialist across web, video, and social platforms, and a master's degree in Comparative Literature.