It turns out we may be a little more susceptible to advertising than we thought: a new study from Ohio State University found that a surprising number of people unconsciously internalize the packaging on food labels.
In the study, 120 people aged 18 to 70 were given two samples of either saltine crackers or chocolate chip cookies. They were told that they were evaluating either a typical sample from a major supplier, a sample of a new and improved version, or a sample of a version that had received customer complaints, although each sample was in fact identical. They indicated how they felt after each bite on a nine-point scale, marking their preferences from “dislike extremely” to “like extremely.” They were also asked to rate additional attributes, like freshness or crispness, as positive or negative.
The researchers found the food’s labels had a major influence on how consumers thought about them: people rated the foods labeled “new and improved” as significantly better than the ones marked “factory typical” or “consumer complaint.” (The “consumer complaint” saltines, specifically, were given a very low rating.) They also rated the “complaint” foods with fewer positive qualities and more negative ones.
One significant finding was that the negative messages appeared to hold more sway than the positive ones.
“With the negative contextualized messaging, there were more negative attributes selected — people didn’t like it as much, it wasn’t as fresh. People had a more negative opinion of it,” senior study author Christopher Simons told the university’s news outlet. “The positive messaging slanted toward being more positive, but not nearly as much.”
What that means for advertising, then, is that consumers should be less suspicious of positive claims than the conspicuous absence of negative ones.
Brands “get a bigger bang for [their] buck by removing things people find negative than you do by optimizing those positive attributes,” Simons said. “Take care of the negatives first and you’re probably going to have a more successful product.”
And perhaps consumers need to learn more about how to interpret the way that food is packaged and sold.
A 2016 study found that the general population needed more training on how to understand food labels. “In order to induce the whole population to use food labels as an effective self-protection tool, more efforts should be done to improve their knowledge on nutrition fundamentals and basics about food labeling, because that would make them able to take safer and more conscious choices as regards their own health,” the study said.