Food choices are often automatic and made without full conscious awareness. An editorial published in the New England Journal of Medicine discusses how it’s beyond probable, it’s certain, that placement of foods in stores and access to foods in our environments make a significant contribution in our consumption.
Millions of people in the U.S. claim that they want to lose weight but with traditional weight-loss models only 5-20% are actually able to do so and keep it off. Human behavior doesn’t always conform with professed goals.
The reality is that food choices are often automatic and made without full conscious awareness. In many cases, they may even be the opposite of what the person deciding would consciously prefer.
What and how much people eat are highly influenced by in-view and access factors. If the food is in sight it’s more likely to be eaten. If it’s out-of-sight but still easily accessible it’s more likely to be eaten. More likely to be eaten than what? More likely to be eaten than out-of-sight and NOT easily accessible.
It doesn’t take a marketing degree from the Wharton School Of Business to know that candy is placed near the cash register for one reason – impulse marketing. Putting the candy there encourages spur-of-the-moment, emotion-related purchases that are triggered by seeing the product or a related message.
In fact, the arrangement of products in stores is the most important determinant of sales. For example, goods placed in prominent end-of-aisle locations account for about 30% of all supermarket sales. Indeed, vendors pay a slotting fee to retail markets to guarantee that their products will be placed in these locations. Placing products in prominent locations or spots where consumers will see them at the end of their shopping journey can increase their sales by as much as a factor of five.
“Placement of foods in prominent locations increases the rate at which they’re purchased; purchase leads to consumption; and consumption of foods high in sugar, fat, and salt increases the risks of chronic diseases. The prominent placement of foods associated with chronic diseases should be treated as a risk factor for those diseases.”
Are people who buy impulsively in this manner just pathetic weak-willed losers? Do they just lack self-control? No to both.
Research using eye-tracking equipment has shown that the attention drawn by special displays, particularly on the ends of aisles, has more to do with the display characteristics than with the goals and capacities of individual people. Something about the arrangements and the edges of such displays compels a response.
Marketers carefully pretest their promotional displays and often use the same sophisticated eyetracking equipment to make sure that customers cannot ignore them. People lack the capacity to fully control their eye gaze, and what they look at the longest is the strongest predictor of what they will buy. Furthermore, most purchasing decisions are made very quickly and automatically without substantial cognitive input, usually in less than a second. And choices of foods high in fat and sugar are made more quickly than are choices of healthful foods such as fruits and vegetables. For all these reasons, promotional displays of low-nutrient foods are both particularly influential and difficult to resist.
Even when people are consciously trying to make healthful choices, their ability to resist palatable foods in convenient locations wanes when they are distracted, are under stress, are tired, or have just made other decisions that deplete their cognitive capacity (I refer to this as self-regulation reserves in my book “The Leanness Lifestyle”). Once cognitive capacity is depleted, automatic processing that relies on mental shortcuts dominates, and under these circumstances people are more likely to choose foods high in sugar and fat.
Often people regret their purchases of candies, sodas, chips, and cookies. They may recognize that they were impulsive but have no way of avoiding being confronted with these goods, even if they initially went into the store seeking other products.
“Although placement is a factor that is right in front of our noses, we should consider treating it as a hidden risk factor, like carcinogens in water, because placement influences our food choices in a way that is largely automatic and out of our conscious control and that subsequently affects our risk of diet-related chronic diseases.”
In general, buildings, cars, toys, and other products are designed to account for limits of human capacity. Although people could certainly stay away from the edges of balconies and not lean out of windows, mandatory railings and window guards protect them from falling in cases in which they may otherwise wander too close. With strong empirical research, it should be possible to identify which marketing strategies place people at risk or undermine their health, as well as to quantify the magnitude of risk. This kind of knowledge should be applied in informing regulations that could govern the design and placement of foods in retail outlets to protect consumers.
We need to test new approaches to risk reduction that do not place additional cognitive demands on the population, such as limiting the types of foods that can be displayed in prominent end-of-aisle locations and restricting foods associated with chronic diseases to locations that require a deliberate search to find.
Harnessing marketing research to control obesity could help millions of people who desperately want to reduce their risks of chronic diseases.
Source: n engl j med 367;15 nejm.org october 11, 2012