Like scissors, shoes and underpants, momentous scientific discoveries come in pairs. Scarcely had I put down my pen after reporting here on the pioneering work of Dr Bianca C Wittmann, whose research revealed that people are drawn to buy previously unwanted products when they are wrapped in new packaging, than another exciting breakthrough surfaced.
It was eerie, almost telepathic. No sooner had Dr Wittmann, of the University of London, shouted “Eureka!” than there came a distant echo, an answering cry of “Bingo!”, from across the waters in Holland. Tilburg University boasts among many other things a professor of marketing, Rik Pieters by name. He is, like Dr Wittmann, no slouch. Not for him the head buried in the book or the eyes glazed before the flickering computer screen. He prefers active experimentation and gritty empiricism.
His methods are similar to Dr Wittmann’s. First, secure the services of a group of volunteers, then ask them to perform interesting tasks. Third observe the results. And finally draw conclusions. Well, not quite finally. The best part is when you publish the findings and bask in a ripple of applause.
Dr Wittmann, if you recall, asked volunteers to play a game involving cards and cash rewards. She wired their brains to a machine and, to cut a long story short, found that humans have a sense of adventure that leads them to try something that looks new even when their better judgment tells them that it is probably something they have sampled before and rejected.
For his part, Prof Pieters rounded up 140 student volunteers and gave them either two 200g bags of crisps or nine 45g bags, to eat as they watched television. At this point the shrewd reader will have sensed something afoot that was bound to be of no good to the marketer. To the legions of the politically correct, the health food votaries, and the massed enemies of multinational, capitalistic greed and exploitation, the potato crisp is powerfully emblematic. Its crimes include being artificially flavoured, salted, steeped in fat, and addictive. Let there be no doubt, a world without crisps would be a happier place.
But back to the professor. Cunningly, he induced his volunteers into a “diet mindset”. There could be a number of ways of achieving that aim. He could, for example, have shown them photographs of people with fat bottoms. To have done so, however, might have been to run the risk that certain of his subjects would enter a wayward, lustful mindset, thus ruining the experiment. He chose instead to ask members of each group – those with the big bags of crisps and those with the small – a series of questions and then to weigh them in front of a mirror.
Then it was down to business. The students ate the crisps and in so doing unearthed a conspiracy. The volunteers who were worried about their weight ate twice as many crisps if they came in small packets rather than in large packets. They were also more likely to open the smaller bags and start eating than they were the larger ones.
The conclusion is that fun-sized or diet-sized snack packets may cause dieters to drop their guard and stuff their faces with guilt-free abandon. Prof Pieters gives three possible reasons why companies persist in selling smaller -sized products when they make people eat more.
“Some may truly want to help consumers, although our results suggest they won’t. Some may want to prevent lawsuits by showing it’s not their fault consumers are overweight. Or they may know this happens, and want to look good while selling more of their product at a higher profit.”
So, just as Dr Wittmann exposes the dark practice of repackaging goods to boost sagging sales, Prof Pieters discloses the machinations that lie behind the fun-sized snack pack. In both cases there are dark forces at work. We should not be at all surprised to find companies doing both things at once – repackaging snack-sized foods – in a double conspiracy.
The result is that people are being induced to buy goods they don’t want and then to consume them in larger quantities than is good for them. The buyer is a hapless fat dupe quite bereft of willpower and the ability to make independent adult choices.
Let us then be grateful for the forces ranged against the manipulative tactics of the marketers. They are the politicians who know what is best for us; the law courts who will not shrink from awarding compensation to those who eat too many crisps; and above all the academic researchers through whose tireless efforts the wily ruses of the capitalists are laid bare. Remember, there ain’t no such thing as a fun snack.