Think your food label vigilance is helping you eat healthier? Don’t get too cozy.
Just when we’ve figured out how to be conscientious consumers… marketers get sneakier. They have now found ways to trick you with the food package design of their products.
It’s not even just the obvious stuff (like unrealistic serving sizes, which we usually fail to notice, according to researchers).
No. It gets much trickier than that. Have a look at the following “hidden packaging persuaders.”
#1 – Sights and Smells
The FTC may regulate what companies can say about their products, but it doesn’t interfere with other elements of the packaging.
But scents and pictures of fresh fruits and veggies may influence us unconsciously.
Wait, scents? That’s right: companies add scents to food packaging—sometimes dubbed “smellvertising”—to influence customers. Aromas waft from cereal boxes, yogurt cups, fruit drink bottles, even bread bags. Thus, the packaging hints at freshness and natural ingredients, which our subconscious brain is likely to factor in when we decide to buy.
And then there’s imagery. The potato chips sliced straight off the potato. The fruit bursting from the drink.
Even if we know a food has come a long way since its whole food form, that picture may make us feel like we’re buying something nutritious.
And even if we “know” a drink doesn’t have real fruit in it, it may still persuade us. While the conscious mind sees food-colored sugar water, the subconscious mind tends to take things more literally (as in, “ooh, fresh fruit!”).
#2 – “Honest” Admissions
We know to be suspicious of what ISN’T said.
So when something IS said—front and center—we tend to pass right over it, or assume it’s a redeeming factor. Like vitamins & minerals and whole grains touted on the front of sugar-loaded cereal boxes.
But the new “240 calories” bubble on the Coca-Cola bottle label? That one deserves a double-take.
If they’re going to admit it, it can’t be that bad, people might think. And not only are they admitting it, but they’re flaunting it.
So is it a positive? “Only” 240 calories? Let’s see… it’s a meal’s worth of calories—all from sugar.
Why would they advertise that?
One simple reason: it’s the old “transparency” trick.
Advertisers know that we read disclaimers with less skepticism, and assume that highlighted claims are selling points.
Oh, Coca-Cola. Fooled us again!
#3 – Elaborate Descriptions
When a “seafood filet” becomes a “succulent Italian seafood filet,” people are more likely to buy—and enjoy—and keep enjoying, Brian Wansink pinpoints in his book Hidden Persuaders.
“Research shows that this common advertising technique, called descriptive labeling, not only attracts customers to selected menu items, but also causes them to eat more,” the NIH website says of Wansink’s findings.
Things get even trickier when the fancy adjectives are buzzwords we’ve come to assume are healthy.
Natural. Organic. Fresh. Or how about “grilled” and “turkey”? The Cheesecake Factory’s Grilled Turkey Burger stealthily contains double the trouble—1331 calories and 31 g saturated fat—of the Factory Burger, Men’s Health discovered. But which would you assume to be the healthier option?
The above persuasive tactics are only a few of many. It bears repeating: don’t judge a food by its package!
When it comes to reading (and sniffing) food packaging, there sure is a lot to take in, but we can band together and help each other be conscious consumers.
Have you spied any deceptive ads lately?
By Chelsea Bush