Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Who Is Making Your Healthy Food Choices? 19+ Exemplified Arguments It Could be a Clever Advertising Psychologist

Image 1: How free is your "free choice" really when it comes to when, what and how much you eat or consume? Are you controlled by cunningly placed triggers and cues?
One, if not the most important ideal of the modern Western world is (supposedly) "freedom"! *hold the obligatory minute of silence, here* And still, the whole system would probably collapse in no time, if we were not all slaves to a whole host of endogenous and exogenous constraints, restraints and compulsions, which influence our public and private behavior and decisions. From the shirts we wear at a club to the foods we buy at the grocery, more often than not, our choices have little to do with the deliberate decision the term seems to imply. Take the obese 300lbs person from across the street for example - does he chose to eat his family pizza alone in front of his telly, when he comes home from the office? What about the bag of chips? Did he chose to eat the whole bag, before he gets up from the couch and continuous with some fat-free popcorn, or did it "just happen"?

Behavioural economics + Social psychology + Neuroscience = POWER!

Over the past few decades, behavioural economics, social psychology and neuroscience have uncovered a complex network of hard-wired trigger => action pairs and instinctual processes which govern our day-to-day choices. And over time, this knowledge about psychological mechanisms, which may originally have evolved as a means to cope with the complexities of life without having to rationalize for hours over the vast amount of choices and their individual consequences, has developed into one of the most important and probably single-most effect marketing tools of the 21st century.

Therefore, I did decide to use the recent publication of a pertinent paper in the journal of the Internationals Association for the Study of Obesity as an opportunity to tackle a few of the endless subtle and no so subtle messages by which the food, entertainment and fitness industry is trying to guide your and my daily dietary and behavioral choices into those directions which will generate the greatest revenue for them.

Hardwired (food-)choices: From Pavlov's bell to the priming effect of "fat free" stickers

Image 2: "Peel me I'm Fat Free" - I would laugh, if it wasn't so maddening.
From an evolutionary perspective it does make sense that our brain is designed to process contextual stimuli automatically: the neurons that transmit signals from our senses to the brain are directly connected to motor neurons, so people can respond reflexively, without having to make a conscious decision (Libet. 1991).

There is yet plenty of evidence which suggests that what was intended to facilitate survival can - assuming a "false" wiring - can turn against us, these days.

Here are a couple of examples:
  • It takes only 20ms for the average consumer to identify his favorite cookie and 1/3 of a second to make his / her choice (Milosavljevic. 2011) - even if they were there, when we are in a hurry (and let's be honest, aren't we constantly "on the run"?) chances that we would even see, recognize and think about healthier alternatives right next to our staples, the Snickers, Oreos, Twinkies or Syntha-6 Decadence Protein Bars of this world, are not close to, they simply are zero.
  • Consumers pick products based on brands / recognizable labels, without taking a closer look at what they are buying (MacVean. 2009) - If it says "weight watchers approved", it must be good, for weightloss and "all natural corn sugar" is certainly healthy, right? Ah,.. and if "Whole Foods" sells it, you don't have to think twice, it's whole food, man!
  • Exposure alone and subliminal familiarization renders products more attractive (Zajonc. 2001; Auty. 2004) - It does not have to be one of those dubious "drink coca cola" inserts that was (supposedly) run in single frames in the movie theaters back in the day, when the pictures started moving (for the efficacy of which there is by the way some scientific evidence; cf. Copper. 2002) for us to react to constant exposure by being more attracted to a certain product. This effect is particularly pronounced though, if we are not noticing how it is pushed on us. And the "cholesterol causes heart disease hypothesis, the current carb scare or the rampant vitamin D craze are contemporary examples which show that this also works for "non-material" goods or concepts.
  • Preference for heuristic choices (Scheibehenne. 2007) - We gravitate towards so-called heuristic choices, i.e. we like to base our "decisions" on exactly one and only one (often learned) parameter. For food, for example this has become the amount of fat the food contains for an unfortunate majority of the folks who say of themselves that they "eat healthy". If you either know which parameters these are or invest enough new marketing dollars to replace an old by a new heuristic parameter, you can sell rancid plant oils as cholesterol-lowering super-margarine and push your latest testosterone booster onto people because it contains the highest amount of bulbine of all products that are currently on the market. For the former you can simply rely on the ground-breaking *rofl* work of the government, with the latter you will have to pay a handful of "reps" (these are people who frequent the major bulletin boards and tell other people whatever you pay them for) to install the bulbine natalensis acid contet as the novel #1 criteria for people to look for in a testosterone booster.
I guess, this should be enough to recognize the picture that's emerging here: In essence, the way (food-)marketing works is not all too different from the often laughed-about "Pavlovian conditioning" by which dogs were made to salivate, whenever Dr. Pavlov rand his famous bell. The main difference is though that people are drilled to buy (the technical term is "priming" vs. "conditioning"), not to dribble. And since this won't work without the actual deed, i.e. the purchase, being possible, when they see the "no fat" or "low fat" sticker, we call this "priming" not conditioning ;-)

From Mac Donald's to your local sushi bar - they all how to push your buttons

Now that you are familiar with some of the fundamental mechanism, let's take a look how the evil clown with the red hair and the innocently smiling manager of your local sushi place exploit your (hard-)wiring to help you you make the "right" food choices at their restaurants - "right" obviously for them, not necessarily for you!
  • Restaurant or Supermarket - Where's the Difference?
    According to their different business model supermarkets employ other techniques to persuade you into buying things you don't need and certainly shouldn't eat. The way managers of supermarkets, grocery stores and even your local farmer take (unfair?) advantage of fundamental human psychological wirings, when they press the buttons on remote control of your subconsciousness is the same for all salesmen and women:
    • Omnipresence - <5% of the US citizens have no supermarket within half a mile of their home and when it's close and convenient, they buy
    • Expanding and constantly revised product range - From 7,000 in the 1970s to >40,000 products, today; individual supermarkets have >50,000 items in one store (!), needless to say the vast majority are processed foods
    • Special arrangement of the products - From simple surveys to video and eye-tracking, lighting and perfume; setting up the perfect store setting has become a science in it's own right. End-isles which account for for 30-40% of all sales are only one of the countless examples of how you are lead to buy stuff you don't need or shouldn't eat (Sorensen. 2003 & 2008)
    • Slogans and keywords - Against the background that the average customer will read no more than 8-12 lines of text on an average shopping trip, it is of paramount important to make those count (Sorensen. 2008)
    • Structured chaos - Not sorting soups, cereals and co and forcing people to search for what they want within a range of similar / related products will increase sales, esp. of new products (Larson. 2006).
    • Using XXL cartonages - They convey the notion of "making a bargain" or "getting more for one's money" regardless of the content (Mayer. 2008)
    • Putting Mickey and the Ice Age characters on whatever you want kids to buy - While the right cartoon characters render even fruit as attractive to kids as candy, they are mostly (ab-)used by candy producers to outdo one another (De Droog. 2011)
    • "Buy X, get Y for free" incentives - When costumers see those, their brain goes into hibernation (Wansink. 1998)
    • Providing a decent range - Five different types of fruity ice cream increase the chance that customers buy one of those by 21% over having only a binary choice between fruit and chocolate, for example (Sela .2009); too many choices, e.g. 20 types of icecream, will yet overwhelm customers (Iyengar. 2000; Schwartz. 2003).
    Being next door - Since most of the decisions to eat-out are made spontaneously (>64% for the younger generation; >52% for the 60+ agers), the redheaded clown will soon open his 13,000+ (US only) franchise restaurant right next to your local sushi place, to increase his chance that you pick him, and not the sushi guy, whenever you spontaneously decide to "eat" out.
  • Placing unhealthy items first - Items that come first on the menu, even better on the upper right hand of the menu, will get picked first (Hadden. 1997; Dayan, 2011). Smart move of owner of the sushi place that he placed the overpriced junk right in this "sweet spot" of his menu.
  • Hiding expensive stuff in the bargain section - If you did not notice that the Sushi Master Plate is not one of the bargain, although it is listed in a box in the upper right corner on the bargains page, the manager of your local sushi store, must have read that Poundstone's "Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Make Advantage of It" twice ;-)
  • Not being afraid of labeling the calories - The redheaded clown has no problem to publicly display the caloric value of his junkfood on the Internet. After all, he has hired enough experts to know that you, just as the participants in most of the pertinent trials won't really care (Harnack. 2008; Elbel. 2011; Vadiveloo. 2011)
  • Using a traffic light system to highlight "healthy" foods - Your sushi bar manager has decided against the calories and for the classic traffic light system, to guide the food choices of lean women to overpriced foods with a green light (Temple. 2011), and increase his sales of desserts - how come? Well, the average (not necessarily lean and female, though) consumer who picks an item with a green light (=healthy), will feel inclined to make up for this "sacrifice" by ordering a neat dessert (Heathcote. 2011).
  • Not using the world "healthy" explicitly - With "healthy" being perceived as synonymous with "less palatable" and "untasty", the redheaded clown is well aware that putting to much of an emphasis on the term "health" could compromise his sales (Raghunathan. 2006).
  • Serve repeated customers smaller servings - Your sushi bar guy knows his customers and that they won't notice, when he gradually reduces the amount of expensive raw tuna on their plates. After all, the majority of people have long given up on judging their satiety by how much they eat (e.g. Orlet Fishe. 2003; Levitsky. 2004; Steenhuis. 2009). As long as they eat the same "number" as the last 27 times they have been at the sushi place, they will be happy and satisfied for the rest of the day.
  • Offering only tongs at the salad bar - You may not have realized that, but the tongs at the salad bar increase the revenue of your local sushi bar by 8-16%! Those 8-16% by the way, people will eat less, when loading stuff on their plates is made minimally less convenient (Rozin. 2011) - so don't wonder if they replace the tongs with chopsticks next month ;-)
  • Playing the right kind of music - Your burgers taste like crap, not a problem if you serve them with the right music. People don't drink enough liquor on one of the afterhours parties at your bar? A couple of songs related to music and your business will flourish (Spence. 2010)
  • Recommend food to your (overweight) costumers - Ever wondered why the nice young waitress at the Sushi place keeps telling your obese aunt Mary that they did now offer Häagen-Dazs super premium ice cream? She is probably aware of the results of a 1983 study by Herman et al., which showed that obese customers are highly "obedient" to social influence (Herman. 1983) - whether it's obedience and not rather the good feeling of someone else suggesting that she can have that large bowl of icecream on top of her sushi that makes your aunt forget about all your dietary advise is certainly debatable, the results, on the other hand, are conspicuous :-(
Now, eating out is unfortunately not the only occasion, when our right and ability to chose freely is corrupted by clever marketing strategists. The subconscious messages are so omnipresent that you can be sure that even your local farmer has more than just a rudimentary understanding of what it takes to convince you that it is well worth to pay the +50% more for the "omega-3 eggs" of his pastured hens; if he hadn't he would already have been put out of business by another guy, who will tell his clients that the beautiful yellow color of the yolk was a sign of how well he was treating his chicken, when it is in fact nothing but the colorful testimony of his cheap sweet corn-based feed pellets.
Implications: The German word "Zeitgeist" is - at least in my humble opinion - probably the term which captures the idea of how certain social paradigms, or I should clarify the paradigms of the social circles we belong to or want to belong to, influence our "freedom of choice" best. Yet, in the end, it does not even matter, whether you, your friends and everyone from your social milieu shops at the local farmers market, the classical supermarket or Whole Paychecks, as my friend Carl Lanore from Super Human Radio likes to refer to a certain not exactly cheap supermarket chain that has successfully green-washed his image, ...
  • your decisions to shop at whichever of the available "markets" you chose are rarely as reasonable as you persuade yourself they were.
  • at the very moment you've set your foot amidst the market stalls or grabbed yourself one of those XXL caddies, (too) many of us have already handed over the reins completely
This is why I would hope that this post can help you to identify at least some of those perceived "choices" as automatisms and primed behavior triggered by the afore listed psychological tricks supermarkets, restaurants and the rest of the salesmen and women, who are alway interested in their, yet rarely in your best (unless you are one of those poor critters who considers their money "his best"), avail themselves, these days.
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