Reclaiming food-marketing tricks from the dark side

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Photo by USDAgov via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Yesterday NPR’s food blog, The Salt, featured a piece from Kevin Charles Redmon that reported the results of a recent scientific study on how small changes in the school lunchroom can nudge students to make healthier choices. Redmon writes,

A minor lunchroom makeover could make a big difference, says Andrew Hanks, a behavioral economist at Cornell University.

In a study published online by The Journal of Pediatrics, Hanks and his colleagues David Just and Brian Wansink, at the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs, demonstrate that small, simple changes in presentation and layout can have a large impact on how — and what — students eat.

Wheel the salad bar into a high-traffic area, for example, and place an attractive fruit basket next to the register. Stock juice popsicles alongside ice cream in the freezer, and have the cafeteria staff gently “up-sell” fruits and vegetables – for example, by asking, “Would you like to try an apple?”

“The whole premise behind this is that, as consumers, we have behavioral biases that lead us to make certain decisions,” Hanks tells The Salt. “If a food is more convenient to reach in a lunch line or store, “we’ll probably take that over a close substitute. If the cookies are easier to reach than the apple, you’re probably going to take the cookie.”

It’s a tantalizing idea, turning techniques of processed-food makers and marketers into tools for positive social change. Check out Redmon’s article for the details and links. Also check out a related video from one of the study’s collaborators here.

The post reminded me of the closing section of Michael Moss’s great piece in The New York Times Magazine, based on his book Salt Sugar Fat (both of which I blogged about here and here). As Moss wrote in the NYT:

When I met with [Jeffrey] Dunn, he told me not just about his years at Coke but also about his new marketing venture. In April 2010, he met with three executives from Madison Dearborn Partners, a private-equity firm based in Chicago with a wide-ranging portfolio of investments. They recently hired Dunn to run one of their newest acquisitions — a food producer in the San Joaquin Valley. As they sat in the hotel’s meeting room, the men listened to Dunn’s marketing pitch. He talked about giving the product a personality that was bold and irreverent, conveying the idea that this was the ultimate snack food. He went into detail on how he would target a special segment of the 146 million Americans who are regular snackers — mothers, children, young professionals — people, he said, who “keep their snacking ritual fresh by trying a new food product when it catches their attention.”

He explained how he would deploy strategic storytelling in the ad campaign for this snack, using a key phrase that had been developed with much calculation: “Eat ’Em Like Junk Food.” …

The snack that Dunn was proposing to sell: carrots. Plain, fresh carrots. No added sugar. No creamy sauce or dips. No salt. Just baby carrots, washed, bagged, then sold into the deadly dull produce aisle.

“We act like a snack, not a vegetable,” he told the investors. “We exploit the rules of junk food to fuel the baby-carrot conversation. We are pro-junk-food behavior but anti-junk-food establishment.”

Yes, Luke, The Force is strong in you!

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