A question of (Christmas) taste!

As you fight the scrum in the shops and gaze longingly at all those beautifully packaged products remind your brain that all is not as it appears! Consumer packaging has been market tested for donkeys’ years and for good reason…it exerts a mystical power over us in the persuasion stakes.

Did you know that even the colour of a pack can have a remarkable effect over the taste of the contents…yes the taste — really, it’s true I tell you!

In his book “Blink”, Malcolm Gladwell talks to marketing guru Louis Cheskin a man with many, many years experience of testing products and packaging. They discuss various examples from margarine to brandy but the one that caught my attention was the 7up can as it demonstrates how colour has a dramatic effect on our thinking even when the shifts are subtle. They tested a can where 15% more yellow was added to the standard green (15 % isn’t a great deal – here’s an example, wont be very accurate on-screen but gives the idea).

The square on the right has 15% more yellow than the one on the left.

The response from consumers was remarkable with participants saying it now tasted more strongly of lemon or lime and getting quite upset that the company were messing with their 7up! In fact there had been absolutely NO change to the content  –  it was all in the mind.

The old adage  – “you get what you pay for” is also one that can really skew our thinking. In a study in 2008 by Baba Shiva and his team at Stanford University, participants were given what they believed to be 5 red wines to taste – in fact there were only 3 and two were given twice. The only other piece of information they were given was the price of each – prices which were made up by the researchers! Whilst in an fMRI machine the wines were tasted and the brains of the subjects scanned. Shiva noted that not only did respondents say they could taste the difference between 5 wines (rather than the reality of just 3) they also noted that the wines alleged to be more expensive tasted better! The researchers found that an increase in the perceived price of a wine lead directly to increased activity in the prefrontal cortex (responsible for analytical thought) in the region that experiences pleasure (the medial orbitofrontal cortex, or mOFC) because of an associated increase in taste expectation. Marketeers take note!

This is all very closely related to the placebo effect — tell someone it will do them good and it will because our expectations govern our experience.

What happens when we don’t have that superfluous information to deal with? Well, the other night I was watching a SuperScrimpers Christmas on Channel 4 (it is, after all, very much in vogue to have a frugal Xmas). And thought I’d share with you that a £3 Christmas pud from a well-known budget supermarket (beginning with A and ending in A) won hands down in a “blind” taste test over all its supposedly posher cousins. The blind test means all the extra information is stripped away and the differences in packaging and price become irrelevant and only our basic emotional brains can get to work. Our emotional brain knows only too well what tastes best! Which is why blind taste tests are the only ones to believe.

So keep that in mind — rely on the blind taste test and your emotional brain and don’t over over excite your supposedly logical prefrontal cortex.

All that remains now if for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas before I dash off to decant my cheap plonk and hide the wrapper for my Christmas pudding!!

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