"Snack" Vs. "Meal": How Wording Affects CPG Consumer Behavior

POSTED BY Greg Keating ON Dec 11, 2017 8:40:00 AM

“What’s in a name? That which we calla a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” says Juliet to Romeo in the famous Shakespearean balcony scene. While she is technically correct, the rest of the play goes on to prove her wrong; names can, in fact, have deadly consequences. In short, words have definite connotations, and those connotations have considerable influence over how we behave, whether logical or not.

rosesShakespeare showed how drastically logic can be overridden by labels in "Romeo and Juliet."

It is an important concept to those exploring consumer behavior because what a product is called and how it is presented can have a tremendous impact on how it is consumed. One recent study from the University of Surrey demonstrated that what you call a food and how it is presented affect the foods people eat and the way they eat them. 

Study: Food Designation and Presentation Affect Consumption

This study of 80 female participants set up four different eating scenarios:

  • A group provided with a pasta dish referred to as a “meal” and presented at a sit-down table
  • A group provided with a pasta dish referred to as a “snack” and presented at a sit-down table
  • A group provided with a pasta dish referred to as a “meal” and presented in a stand-and-eat (from a container) scenario
  • A group provided with a pasta dish referred to as a “snack” and presented in a stand-and-eat scenario

Note that the pasta dishes were identical in size and composition for all four groups. After consuming their “snack” or “meal,” participants were offered a sweet snack (chocolate candy) and researchers recorded how much of it they consumed. 

Labeling the pasta dish as a “snack” increased consumption of the candy regardless of whether the pasta was presented in a sit-down or stand-up scenario. Those who consumed the most candy were given the pasta dish labeled as a snack, presented in a stand-up scenario. Participants whose pasta dish was labeled as a “meal” consumed less chocolate candy afterward, regardless of whether they ate it sitting down or standing up. In other words, it appears that the very word “snack” causes people to consume more of a food offered afterward.

The Word “Snack” Gives Consumers a Feeling of License

The pasta dishes in the study were identical, yet people behaved differently depending on whether it was called a snack or a meal. Perhaps designating a food as a snack gives people a feeling that it somehow “does not count,” thus giving them psychological permission to go on eating the chocolate candy in larger quantities. In contrast, the word “meal” has a connotation that the food is substantial, and that after a meal, one is not as hungry as after a snack. 

woman eating french friesIt is psychologically easier to follow snacking with more snacking than it is to follow meals with snacking.

Momentary Cues and Snacking

Another study, published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that momentary cues can have a strong effect on snacking behavior. More specifically, seeing someone else snacking tended to lead to snacking behavior. In addition, mood (particularly a bad mood), and simple snack availability were associated with increased snacking behavior, but proximity to places where food is readily and quickly available (such as a fast food restaurant) did not appear to influence snacking significantly. 

Supply Plus Distraction Equals Maximum Snacking

Brain scans of snackers have shown that merely looking at a snack food, like a bowl of chips, provokes a brain response that is similar to that seen in alcoholics presented with images of alcoholic drinks. The effect may be because snack foods high in carbohydrates offer some protection from stress to the brain. Researchers also found that distraction is another factor in snacking behavior, and that maximum snacking behavior happens when someone is distracted by, say, a movie or television program and has a ready supply of a snack food. 

Consumer behavior is influenced by what products are called and by how they are presented. Specifically, if something is called a snack, it gives consumers psychological license to consume more. Additionally, cues like ready availability of snack foods and the presence of distractions (particularly when both happen together) influence consumer behavior by significantly ramping up snack eating. It would appear, therefore, that makers of consumer food products can influence

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