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If you think buying junk food in small packages will help you eat less, look out — marketers know the truth.
Two new marketing studies found that some people tend to consume more calories when junk food portions and packages are smaller. For some, it’s because they perceive small packages to be . . . get this . . . diet food.
For others, it’s just the temptation of small sins.
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Manufacturers are releasing more and more products in smaller packages. And in recent years, several brand-name products, from chips to cookies to candy, have been released in smaller packages promoted as having just 100 calories. In terms of sales, the tactic has proven successful, past research shows.
The strategy might seem counterintuitive, because in many past studies, people tended to consume more when given more. . . .
But one of the new studies, led by Rita Coelho do Vale at the Technical University of Lisbon, found people believe smaller packages help them “regulate hedonic, tempting consumption,” but in fact their consumption can actually increase. Large packages, on the other hand, trigger concern about overeating.
The participants watched episodes of “Friends” and were told the study was about evaluating ads. Bags of potato chips — of differing sizes, of course — were slipped into the test.
The result: Smaller packages are more likely to fuel temptation. “Because they are considered to be innocent pleasures, [small packages] may turn out to be sneaky small sins,” the researchers conclude.
The finding is detailed [here] in the October 2008 issue the Journal of Consumer Research
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Chronic dieters tend to consume more calories when foods and packages are smaller, according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research [here]. Authors Maura L. Scott, Stephen M. Nowlis, Naomi Mandel, and Andrea C. Morales (all Arizona State University) examined consumer behavior regarding “mini-packs,” 100-calorie food packages that are marketed to help people control calorie intake.
The researchers believe their research shows that the ubiquitous small packages may actually undermine dieters’ attempts to limit calories. “On the one hand, consumers perceive the mini-packs to be a generous portion of food (numerous small food morsels in each pack and multiple mini-packs in each box); on the other hand, consumers perceive the mini-packs to be diet food. For chronic dieters, this perceptual dilemma causes a tendency to overeat, due to their emotion-laden relationship with food.”
In a series of studies, the researchers assessed peoples’ perceptions of M&Ms in mini-packs versus regular-sized packages. They found that participants tended to have conflicting thoughts about the mini-packs: They thought of them as “diet food,” yet they overestimated how many calories the packages contained. In subsequent studies, the researchers assessed participants’ relationship with food, dividing them into “restrained” and “unrestrained” eaters. The “restrained” eaters tended to consume more calories from mini-packs than “unrestrained” participants.
The authors conclude that dieters should keep an eye on small packages: “While restrained eaters may be attracted to smaller foods in smaller packages initially, presumably because these products are thought to help consumers with their diets, our research shows that restrained eaters actually tend to consume more of these foods than they would of regular foods.”
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Thanks to Brad Rosen for alerting us to these stories.
For those interested, here is a list of related Situationist posts to date: “The Situation of Eating – Part II,” “The Situation of Eating,” “The Situation of the Dreaded ‘Freshman 15′,” “Our Situation Is What We Eat,” “Social Networks,” “Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil,” “The Situation of Fatness = Our ‘Obesogenic’ Society,” “Innovative Policy: Zoning for Health,” “Situational Obesity, or, Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat and Veg,” “McDonalds tastes better than McDonalds, if it’s packaged right,” “The Science of Addiction, The Myth of Choice,” “The Situation of our Food – Part I,” “The Situation of Our Food – Part II,” “The Situation of Our Food – Part III,” and “The Situation of our Food – Part IV.”