Friday, March 15, 2013

Is Health Consciousness Making Us Stupid?

Marketing Tricks
That Make Us Fat
Does being health conscious make you… well, not so bright?  I don’t mean to offend anyone, but according to a couple of different studies published this month we find that people who consider themselves health conscious are more likely to fall for simple labeling tricks and could also use a little extra help reading menus. 

The first study comes to us from Cornell.  Yes, Cornell, a bastion of blue blood brilliance.  They wanted to know if the color of nutritional labels made a difference in the perceptions of consumers.  Specifically, if the nutritional information was printed in the color green would people assume the product was healthier than a similar product label printed in the color red. 

93 Cornell students were told to imagine that they were standing in the grocery store line and they were hungry.  42% of these kids had to first imagine that they were a housekeeper and that’s why they’d be standing in a grocery store line.  Anyway, they then showed these future Congress members images of candy bars with clearly readable nutrition labels, some with green font and some in red.  Regardless of the fact that the calorie content was identical they overwhelmingly chose the green as the healthier (lower calorie) choice.  The researchers pulled the same stunt with green vs. white labels and fooled them again. What’s curious and delights me to no end is that the students that considered themselves the most health conscious were the worst candy bar pickers of all. 

The next study comes to us compliments of the Fighting Illini of the University of Illinois and some promising young Oklahoma State students.  These smarties wanted to know how effective calorie values on menus were in helping people make healthier (lower calorie) choices.  They put three types of menus into a local eatery.  All had the same foods on them, but one had no calorie reference, another had a numerical value for the calories and the last had the numerical values and a traffic light with a red light, yellow light or green light (the red being the highest in calorie, yellow medium and green lowest).  Duh. 

Here’s how it all shook out.  There wasn’t too much difference between what the patrons ordered from the no listed calorie menus and the numeric calorie menus.  There was a difference however, in what people ordered from the menus with the traffic lights.  People actually ordered lower calorie entrées.  This is wonderful.  Our over-eating problems might actually be solved… Oh, wait a minute.  It turns out that the traffic light patrons made up the difference by ordering more desserts and appetizers.  Crap.  Here’s the fun part.  Once again, the most health conscious patrons were most affected by the traffic light menus while the least health conscious were not impressed by the stupid lights at all, they were able to evaluate their choices just fine with the numeral values. 

The authors of the study were very enthusiastic and want the government to add some sort of symbol requirement to the calorie content on the menus.  As a side note, the majority of patrons didn’t like the traffic light thing.  I don’t like it much either so let me know what you think about the symbols below.


Now if you’re health conscious this isn’t meant to lessen your concern or make you feel dumb.  Eating healthy is super important.  What I think we should pull from these studies is that the advertisers and marketers are way ahead of us.  They know before we do what kinds of imagery, colors and fonts we are likely to associate with health and nutrition.  They think we’re suckers.  Just because that pasta comes in an ugly, recycled looking matt finished box baring the image of some Oregon hippy doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
Well, that's my two cents and it's worth every penny,
Jake Holmes

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