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The Behind-The-Scenes Marketing Tricks That Make Food Irresistible (Hint: You Can’t See It!)

There’s a somewhat insidious form of marketing that you may not be aware of that’s being used everyday in restaurants, hotels and retail stores. It’s not something obvious that you’ll see on their signs or advertising. They are using a powerful technique to quietly lure you in without overtly selling you anything – and the food industry is taking full advantage of this tactic. They are pulling out all the stops to tempt us with irresistible smells that are hard to resist. Whether you’re at the mall, the airport, your office break room, or walking at an amusement park…You are being manipulated by this very subtle technique…

Slide1

We are being inundated with fake chemical scents designed to get us to buy!

The Hard Rock Café Hotel in Orlando pumps out artificial scents of sugar cookies and waffle cones that act as “aroma billboards” to draw people to their ice cream shop in the basement (increasing sales by 45%). The marketing company ScentAndrea attached chocolate artificially-scented strips to some vending machines in California, tripling Hershey’s sales. The Hershey’s store in Times Square uses artificial scent machines that blow the scent of chocolate into their store. Disney reportedly applies an artificial “grilled scent” to their frozen burgers to make them smell fresh, along with strategically placed scent machines in the bushes that disperse scents of cotton candy, popcorn, or caramel apples. According to the Scent Marketing Institute, when the smell of fresh baked bread was pumped into a grocery store, sales in the bakery department tripled. A grocery chain in New York (Net Cost) admittedly places scent machines that release scents of chocolate and baking bread to make customers hungry, and sales jumped.

Even subtle changes in operations can trick our noses and make a big impact on increasing food sales. For instance, Panera Bread recently moved its baking time to daytime hours so that customers smell the bread all day long and their New Haven, Connecticut location has a small “show oven” without a hood, so the smells vent into the restaurant. This is the same reason that Subway places their bread ovens up front in their restaurants, so that smell hits you when you walk in the door. Starbucks has an “aroma task force” to make sure their stores smell like coffee and not the cheese from their breakfast items.

Using scents to sell more products isn’t a new tactic by a long shot and is taken straight out of Monsanto’s playbook, as demonstrated by this vintage 1947 Monsanto ad: 

Monsanto Smell 1 

“The principle of chemical attraction also defines the path to hidden sales…Used for years to contribute sales appeal to foods, candies, perfumes and cosmetics… Yes – Smells Sell!  If you wish to know more about this proved sales strategy in your business, a contact with Monsanto may reward you with the right chemical answers”. 

Monsanto smells that sell-3 copy

Clearly, using scent as a tool is super effective, and this marketing technique shows no signs of slowing down. It’s probably just a matter of time before the chip aisle at the grocery store will artificially smell like Doritos – so it’s a good time to arm ourselves with this knowledge now. 

How “Scent Marketing” makes us want to eat something we shouldn’t…

Who hasn’t walked past a Cinnabon and could barely control the urge to buy one? I used to be guilty! I know that feeling all too well. It’s seriously hard to resist, but after I tell you what ingredients they use to make their treats you may find it easier next time. According to Adweek, food retailers realize that scents are very powerful because they can trigger emotions and motivations that are more “immediate and intense than those brought on by anything else, and it takes a while for our brains to rationalize why we want what our noses tell us”. Alan Hirsch, director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago explains, “Unlike other senses, smell skips the rational filter in the brain. The olfactory system is a pure emotional sense”. So all those happy childhood memories you may have about eating warm cinnamon rolls come flooding back every time that Cinnabon smell hits you, and this emotional connection entices you to buy. Even if logic tells you it’s unhealthy or that you aren’t hungry, your emotions are very powerful. 

Pro Tip: Plug your nose next time you walk near a Cinnabon! 🙂

This is what’s been called Cinnabon’s “greatest asset”. The President of Cinnabon, Kat Cole, agreed in a video interview that their aroma is all part of the “emotional experience” of Cinnabon, and that it can sway you into being “a little bit bad” to “treat” yourself on a whim. Here’s a few scent marketing tricks that Cinnabon uses to make it so hard to resist their treats:

  • Cinnabon franchisees are required to put their ovens near the front of its stores. When one Cinnabon location put their oven in the back of the restaurant, it hindered the smell and they suffered a “tremendous drop” in sales
  • Cinnamon rolls are baked at least every 30 minutes and they sometimes also heat additional sheets of brown sugar and cinnamon (without any rolls) just to keep the scent in the air. 
  • Cinnabon franchisees are told to buy “the weakest hood possible” within local laws for their ovens – this keeps more of the smell inside, just where they want it. According to one franchisee, “In a perfect world I plant something within the structure of the oven, or just above it, that would pull out that smell”.
  • Cinnabons are intentionally located in malls or airports, and only in closed indoor locations that allow the smells to linger and not get watered down by the outside air. 
  • They avoid competing smells by attempting to negotiate leases that allow for “normal food aromas”, in locations far from other scented establishments like Abercrombie & Fitch, and ideally on the ground floor near a stairwell that allows the scent to rise throughout the floors above. 

The ingredients are chemically designed to smell good too. 

After I received the complete list of ingredients in the Cinnabon Classic Cinnamon Rolls, I immediately noticed that they use two ingredients that are used to artificially add “aroma” to the flavors in a product. The “heliotropin” used in their vanilla frosting is also used in perfume and is described as “delectable, like a billowy dessert you can’t resist”. They also use the aroma ingredient “citral” that mimics the flavor and scent of lemons. You won’t find any actual vanilla extract or lemon juice in their frosting, it’s all artificial. The smell of food greatly affects its taste, so aroma ingredients are usually added to make fake flavors taste more realistic. You can’t just make something taste like vanilla, it needs to smell like it too. Usually these aroma ingredients aren’t listed on the label, as they’re a component of the proprietary “artificial flavor” or “natural flavor” ingredients used. Interestingly, Cinnabon shared the ingredients used within their artificial flavors in the frosting. 

Slide2

Why not just use real ingredients?

If real vanilla and lemons were used to flavor their frosting, the flavors and aroma would be natural just like when you cook at home – and it would taste a whole lot better too. The only problem is that it’s more expensive. Overall, the quality of ingredients used by Cinnabon are really poor and just goes to show that they are cutting corners when they choose ingredients, including some with blatant health hazards. They’ve already lured you in with irresistible smells – they’ve won you over before you know it. The actual taste and quality of ingredients used at this point are secondary. However, they could make some changes that would drastically improve their products. These are the biggies:

Trans Fat – Cinnabon uses the worst kind of fat in their Cinnamon Roll: partially hydrogenated oils. These oils are the primary source of artificial trans fat in the typical American diet, and have been shown to contribute to heart disease. In a huge move last year, the FDA made a preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is no longer “generally recognized as safe” –  but it’s still allowed in food until their determination is made final. The CDC says that cutting these artificial trans fats from the diet could prevent up to 20,000 heart attacks per year. In light of all this information, Cinnabon should remove these oils ASAP and use healthier fats instead such as coconut oil.

Yellow #5 – This artificial color requires a food warning label in Europe because it’s been shown to cause hyperactivity in children. It’s probably used to make their cinnamon roll look buttery, since real butter isn’t an ingredient. They should take a cue from Kraft and replace this with a safer color like beta-carotene – if it’s even necessary at all. 

Preservatives – The preservative potassium sorbate may cause DNA damage when it’s combined with ascorbic acid – another Cinnabon roll ingredient. The other preservative used, sodium benzoate, has been linked to possible DNA damage and hyperactivity in children. Cinnabon’s President says that “we’re baking our rolls fresh all day long…today’s consumer, they actually do want to indulge, but they want to know that there’s authenticity to their food…so people are willing to indulge if there are freshness cues in the operating model and in the product itself”. If their products are really fresh, why add these preservatives?

Dough Conditioners – L-cysteine is just a really gross ingredient that’s commonly derived from human hair (yes, you heard me right), and sometimes hog hair, duck feathers, cow horns, pig bristles, or synthetic sources. Even if it’s not dangerous to eat, I think we can all agree that we’d rather eat a Cinnabon without it. Following my petition last February, Subway removed azodicarbonamide from their bread and several other bakeries have followed suit and removed this unnecessary ingredient without many consumers even realizing it. This ingredient is banned in other countries across the globe, linked to health issues and isn’t necessary, so why does Cinnabon use it?

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) – Although the corn industry denies this, sucrose (cane sugar) and HFCS are not processed by your body in the same way. According to Dr. Mark Hyman, unlike sugar there is no chemical bond between the fructose and glucose molecules in HFCS, so they bypass digestion and are more rapidly absorbed into your bloodstream:

“Fructose goes right to the liver and triggers lipogenesis (the production of fats like triglycerides and cholesterol) this is why it is the major cause of liver damage in this country and causes a condition called “fatty liver” which affects 70 million people. The rapidly absorbed glucose triggers big spikes in insulin–our body’s major fat storage hormone. Both these features of HFCS lead to increased metabolic disturbances that drive increases in appetite, weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia, and more”. 

Don’t be tempted into eating these ingredients! It’s not worth your health.

Until Cinnabon makes these ingredient changes (and a few more), I’ll be plugging my nose when I walk by. It’s clear that restaurants know smells induce cravings, and this is just one of the many tricks they’re taking full advantage of. It’s been shown that “many overweight and obese people are resistant to a hormone called leptin, which creates a sense of fullness, making sugary, salty and high-fat foods difficult to refuse. All of those things play into buying more foods and buying more of the wrong types of foods… it can be really hard to resist”. This can really sabotage any weight loss goals and good intentions you have about eating healthy. I wanted to equip you with this knowledge so that it would be easier for you to spot when your nose is tricking you into buying an unhealthy treat. 

If you know someone who is tempted by these treats (aren’t we all?) – please share this post with them! The more we know the better we are off!

Xo,

Vani 

P.S. In my #1 bestselling book The Food Babe Way – I teach you even more ways you can break free from the hidden toxins in your food, lose weight, look years younger and get healthy in just 21 days. In my 2nd book, Feeding You Lies, I blow the lid off of the lies we’ve been fed about the food we eat – lies about its nutrient value, effects on our health, label information, and even the very science we base our food choices on. And, my first cookbook, Food Babe Kitchen, contains over 100 mouthwatering recipes to show you how delicious and simple it is to eat healthy, easy, real food. Available anywhere books are sold.

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153 responses to “The Behind-The-Scenes Marketing Tricks That Make Food Irresistible (Hint: You Can’t See It!)

  1. Casinos have long used scents (don’t know which ones) that they aerosolize into the air in their gambling areas to entice people. They also pump in oxygen to keep people awake and make them feel “alive” or energized when they breathe it in so they gamble longer. Big companies will do anything that will make people spend more money.

    1. I don’t know which, either, because every casino I’ve ever been to has smelled like nothing but cigarette smoke, yuck!

  2. AT LAST !!! the question I have always asked myself as to whether these odours were artificial has been answered. I never thought people could actually go ahead and do this but obviously yes, and for many years. Congratulations on bringing out this very informative, but equally depressing news, sad in that we, the people, can do this sort of thing to others in the name of ’employment’ and sad that so many of us are suckers to marketing, and to our stomachs. Well done.

  3. I back the Food Babe 100%. However, it is my understanding that L-cysteine, despite its gross sounding source, is
    is the rate-limiting factor in the production of glutathione by every cell in the body, meaning that of the three amino acids used by the cell to make glutathione, L-cysteine is the one in least supply. Dr Oz called glutathione “the most important molecule in your body that you have never heard of.” Without glutathione the cell dies. Then, the organ dies. Then, the body dies. It has been said by Dr Robert H Keller, MD that there is only one disease, cell disfunction, caused by low levels of glutathione, and given a different name wherever it shows up in the body. Glutathione is called the “Guardian of the Cell”, and is the master antioxidant, master anti-inflamatory and master detoxifier of every cell in the body. So, L-cysteine, despite its source may be a good thing. But, what do I know?

    1. I think you might be thinking of L-acetyl cysteine rather than L-cysteine, which is not actually the same thing…..

      1. No, it’s definitely L-cysteine. It’s also found in almost every protein in your body and yes, Harry is correct in saying that it’s in glutathione, which is an extremely important antioxidant. As far as chemical boogymen go, L-cysteine is one of the least scary, considering your body makes decent quantities of it anyway.

  4. What? Monsanto hasn’t bottled a “For Sale” scent for Realtors? They are missing the boat here, for this is an old Realtor’s trick to make the home for sale more appealing and “home like,” and make the buyers stay longer in the home. The thought made me smile!

    1. Yeah like melted crayons in a closet, chocolate chip cookie sent both say children. And also invoke childhood memories. Thus subliminally telling the prospective buyers, this is the place for your children to have there memories.. There are so many smells/ scents that Realtor’s can use.
      Car salesmen capitalized on the new car scent, as did car washes, and county state fairs, with the corn dog on a stick scent. Why they are always placed by entrances.

  5. Yes, it’s about time something is done about this invasive issue! Maybe the EPA should also be looking into this. Even companies like Origins, Aveda, and office buildings have these devices built in. Home Depot and Lowes have a smell of fertilizer and chemicals that is so offensive that I feel is very unhealthy to be breathing for employees and customers. I visited one of these stores one day recently for about a half hour, I had just washed my hair so it was damp, for the entire day I smelled of this awful aroma never mind what I was inhaling ! I couldn’t wait to take another shower! I’m no longer supporting these businesses for this reason.
    This is just like the second-hand smoke issue and the issues of not knowing what’s in the food we are injesting.
    We should have the right to not eat and breathe their poisons!
    The poor employees that have to work in these evironments!!!!

    Let’s keep our air we breathe clean and free of the companies’ poisonous profit makers . We all have to keep up the good work!!

    Maureen

    1. Maureen, most states do not have indoor air quality standards. We should have the right not to breath their poisons, but we won’t ever. Absent indoor air quality standards, if we are in public building ie. stores, apartment buildings, office buildings, hospitals, nursing homes, are not legally made to maintain ventilation systems, HAV systems etc. Legionnairs Disease, Mold induced infections, strong artificial fragrances to cover up. Fake food chemical smells! It’s nauseating to me! The poor American people follow like lemmings over the cliff ! You’re right, we deserve not to have to breath it!!! I’m hypersensitive anyway, and hate to think about the day I’ll have to wear a vapor mask to go out. I’ve petitioned for indoor air quality standards, and gotten no where. I hope things will change, But I’m not going to hold my breath! :O

  6. The power of scent is an amazing thing. Too bad they care more about lining their pockets than the health of country. Thanks for opening our eyes a bit. I had not idea this was going on.

  7. I have never walked past Cinnabon nor have tried any of their things.. I don’t like those kind of things (sweets). I happen to dislike the smell and taste of almost all sweets.

  8. Increased sales by 45%. Increased sales by 205%. Increased sales by 130%. Increased sales by 310%. Increased sales by 70%. Increased sales by 180%. Increased sales by 50%. Increased sales by 140%. Increased sales by 85%. Increased sales by 225%. IT’S CALLED GREED. The amount a consumer has to spent is usually a FINITE amount. For example, I may have $50 per month to spend on such things like cinnamon rolls or coffee and that’s it. Therefore aggressive marketing HURTS the general economy it doesn’t help it. Not to mention the runaway chemical industry. Whatever happened to the concept of a good product selling itself. Now, whether it’s technology or food it’s aggressive marketing and “fool” the consumer.

  9. Personally I am sick and tired of being trespassed upon with toxins. We have no idea what is actually in these artificial scents.

  10. I actually read about this issue in the Fast Food Nation book. This is not about smell directly but wondering if Food Babe could talk to Nature’s Path and other companies that put soy lecithin in products. I want to eat something organic and then find this ingredient. It’s even in Clif Bars. I wrote to them but I don’t remember exactly what they said. Also I wrote Muir Glen who I found out is owned by I think Campbells and they said BPA is safe. Also maybe an expose on the whole raw milk issue because in Europe raw milk is sold in vending machines in some countries and here only a few states allow retail stores to sell it and other states a person has to drive to a farm to get it. I wish the Coop here in my town did more advocacy like for gmos. Does anyone know why some coops still sell gmos and toxic chemicals for beauty products. A person may not agree with raw milk but gmos are banned from stores shouldn’t customers decide themselves.

    1. I’m repeating myself is someone in case someone doesn’t see my other comment. I meant advocate against gmos. No I’m not a troll or work for Monsanto I just made a typo.

    2. Did other posts go through. I didn’t see them when I clicked submit that they posted. So I apologize if this is the third post. I don’t want people think work for Monsanto. I made typo. I honestly did. What I meant the coop I know still sells gmos and I wish they would do more advocacy against it.

  11. Sorry I did a typo I said I wish my coop would do more advocacy for gmos I meant against gmos. I need to read better before I post.

  12. We the people need to take our rights back! We need to all stand together ,and stop this crap in our foods its not right let them loose money , let them get sick, I want my kids to have better I didn’t realize this stuff till I started reading food babe thank you for what your doing I stand behind you keep sending us info to help you thanks!

  13. I shouldn’t be surprised by this but I was. (A little). Oddly on a sub conscious level i knew it though. Often when I have gone through airport or mall food zones I have found myself feeling queasy. I sort of shrugged it off as just being my awareness of the horrid crap people were stuffing into themselves. Now I think it was really the artificial aromas there. I will avoid those places from now on.

  14. These artificial aromas remind me of the lobby of most movie theaters these days. The popcorn is coated with oil and artificial “butter” that you can smell hanging in the air. The popcorn “butter” chemical Diacetyl is linked to lung cancer and the manufacturer of the product has been the subject of large lawsuits.

  15. “Starbucks has an “aroma task force” to make sure their stores smell like coffee and not the cheese from their breakfast items.”

    Really?
    Do this experiment. Grind coffee, put about thirty 1 lb bags around the room, brew a pot of coffee, then grab some cheese danish’s out of a box in the storage room and put them in the display case. What do you think your room will smell like.

    Let’s use the brain here.

  16. Jaw dropping information! Is it inappropriate to say that I Love You? I am so thankful to have a responsible, reliable, intelligent food investigator such as yourself to help me make healthy choices. On behalf of my three young boys, I thank you. I look forward to reading your book. Keep up the important work, your literally changing lives and contributing to the wellbeing of our future .
    With Sincere Gratitude,
    Cynthia

  17. We are all now the Pavlov’s dogs and these marketing minds have used us well and I type this as I sip drinking my organic dry ginger coffee (Dry ginger, pepper, palm sugar, basil) after walking past starbucks and donut shops. Welcome to the brave new unprocessed world of the FoodVani.

  18. Glad I make my own Cinnabon cinnamon rolls. I know all that garbage isn’t in them. The bad part is, once they come out of the oven you always have to snatch one. lol

  19. I rarely watch Live TV because I DVR my shows and fast forward commercials. BUT this weekend I was watching the ABC Family channel and THREE Monsanto commercials aired in two hours. I was so blown away that they were talking about “food is love” “family time” “sustainable farming” “working with farmers” “balanced meals” “being part of the conversation.”

    These commercials were so convincing that I can just feel people being brainwashed.

    Check out their GREEN webpage http://www.discover.monsanto.com

    SCARY!!

  20. Not surprised by the companies using this, but I hope Disney makes some changes. Would love it if their squeaky clean image was really squeaky clean.

  21. Wililams-Sonoma runs a rice cooker with scents behind all of the registers. I did cooking demos in many of their landmark stores last summer and they had water and BBQ sauce running to push the BBQ sauce display.

    What’s funny, is that they didn’t use their OWN BBQ sauce, they had a big ‘ol plastic bottle of some brand they got at Costco!

    But they did let me use their REAL BBQ sauce for my rib demo (the sweet onion one is particularly good and the ingredient list is short and sweet!)

    L

    P.S. I’ve been doing cooking demos in cookware stores for years and it’s difficult to get the customers to the kitchen to start the demo (so I don’t have to repeat everything each time someone walks up). Now, one of the first things I do is saute’ an onion – it’s a people magnet!

  22. When I was in college I LOVED 7-11 hamburgers. Aside from the fact that it was the only place where you could pile as much lettuce tomatoes and pickles (yay! Free Salad!, you can’t overestimate the value of free salad to a college student) not to mention nacho cheese on your burger, but they had this taste…this idk taste that I always assumed was whatever they used as filler in their beef. Maybe it was “artificial grill flavoring”

  23. Since I was a child walking through the mall smelling the wonderful smell of Cinnebon never once did I EVER buy them…Mrs Fields choc chip cookies on the other hand…Epic fail=( Trying to do better by my kids. Not easy in this sugar addicted fast food world!

  24. Dear Vani,

    Request you to please post a review on Cookware as I heard Non-Stick and Aluminium are worst materials to use. Are Clay pots type of material cookware the best as it recommended in other countries or do you recommend Stainless steel, cast iron, etc? As there are many manufacturers who do not provide detail toxic information about their product, I request you to please research on this and let us know. Cookware is the important part of our daily life and choosing the correct one is very important. Thank you very much.

    I read that during British rule in other country, they used to cook and serve in Aluminium cookware so prisoners would die fast.

  25. I don’t have a problem with good smells being used for marketing as long as they are honest and actual smells. The fact that a bakery uses their baked goods to have smells permeate the bakery is a good marketing tool and no reason for them no to. However, when the smells are artificial or use some of these horrible ingredients, then yes, that is what needs to be known. I mean really, even in your own home, you cook good foods and love the smells so what’s wrong with that? Smell is one of our senses and should be enjoyed but not at the expense of health or lies.

  26. I find it interesting that you focus on such minute ingredients, when two of the principal ingredients should be enough to give everyone pause: bleached white flour and plain old sugar are enough to send your pancreas into insulin overtime, and, unless you are an extreme athlete, of little positive value to the vast majority of folks.

    I hope you will also discuss auditory marketing. I am not talking about spoken or written words in advertising, but sounds in stores and in packaging.

    1. I see what you mean Joe. I work in retail. For the last several months I’ve noticed many companies are changing the color schemes and shape of the packaging. Much visual “brain washing” I guess. Too many flavors and choices. Made synthetically with chemicals. I read the labels,shudder then move on. Such fun.

  27. Food Babe
    Let you know about this website. I just did petition at organic consumer association against McDonald, Donuts, Subway … who sell GMO apples !! I want them to stop to sell GMO apples. Please pass this out. You did successful to remove bad chemical from yoga mat to Subway. but apples!!! Can you do this please. I have no way to direct contact you about this updated website. http://salsa3.salsalabs.com/o/50865/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=15704
    Thanks

  28. When I finally woke up, I started making my own everything. Homemade all soaps, deodorant, toothpaste, flour, homegrown food, insecticides, ect. We must become totally independent from those greedy big commercial producers. Stop buying their poisons. If we stop consuming the artificial, over processed, crap, them they will stop and or change. In the aftermath, we will have more money in our pockets and live longer.

  29. Hi, I have also purchased the book from Target and have not been able to get a grocery guide. I have my receipt as proof of purchase. What do you recommend I do. I tried To order it and the system only works for people who have not already purchased the book. What do I do? Robin

  30. We were so glad to see this article because every time we would go to Carrabbas… RIGHT BEFORE WE OPENED THE DOOR TO GO IN…I would say to Joe “wow! That odor is so strong! I bet they have a system that blows out that odor lol!!!” But my gosh…I never knew places really do that!!!!!” No wonder the meals went from a salad TO A STEAK DINNER! You smell the grill odor at the front door!!! I dont know for a fact that they do this, but after reading this article…?????????? Thanks Vani & Team

  31. Heliotropin is an organic compound that naturally occurs in a number of plants, including vanilla, so it’s logical that heliotropin can be found in Cinnabon’s vanilla frosting. Citral occurs naturally in a number of plants, including lemons, limes and oranges. Again, logical to find it in Cinnabon’s patries. How is using these natural products in food a problem? The senses of smell and taste are inextricably linked, and taste is extremely dependent upon smell. Aren’t we allowed to have food that both smells and tastes good?

  32. Oh rats! The gremlins ate my comment. Not writing it again. Short and sweet now. Know I need to eat better. For physical and mental health. My parents and one of my brothers suffered from diabetes. I don’t want that. 11 yrs.ago at age 50 I was in amazing shape. Not bad now but weight located where it shouldn’t be. I’d like to try your book and your methods. And eat healthy with it being affordable too.

  33. I would like to know what McDonald’s sprays on their food; the guy in 28C can ruin the flight for everyone.

    As to the food additives – dough conditioners specifically – I lost 25 lbs by baking my own bread.

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