PROVO — Eating unhealthy foods might not be the consumer's fault, but rather the fault of fictional heroes and villains.
A new study from BYU and the University of Utah finds that people are more likely to pay higher prices for "vice" or indulgent foods, like ice cream, when a superhero is on the packaging.
"If someone wants an ice cream bar and it is packaged with a hero on the label, the kind and benevolent character makes the indulgent product seem less vice," said Tamara Masters, co-author of the study and a Brigham Young University marketing professor. "It helps us provide justification for what we really want anyway."
And when a villain is on the label for "virtue food" or healthy food, people are more likely to pay higher prices for that product than when a hero is on the packaging.
"A product that is already healthy, like water, is preferred more with a villain labeling because it makes the water seem more edgy and exciting," Masters said.
The study is titled "The Influence of Hero and Villain Labels on the Perception of Vice and Virtue Products."
Masters said the idea for the research came from a trip to the grocery store where she noticed a lot of products branded with either heroes or villains.
"I just thought, 'I wonder how that affects consumers. Does that affect how we value products?'" Masters said. "So I started looking at it and went, 'Wow, this is really interesting.'"
Masters and Arul Mishra, a University of Utah marketing professor and co-author of the study, conducted six experiments to test the effects of a "hero versus a villain label on the preference for virtue versus vice products," the study says.
For one experiment, a cheese curd sampling table was put on display at a grocery store. The researchers changed the label on the cheese curds to either images of Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader with either the words "healthy and nutritious" or "tasty and decadent." After trying the cheese curds, participants were asked how much they would pay for a package of 10.
The data showed that on average, consumers were willing to pay a higher price for the curds — an average of $3.45 — when they were described as healthy and nutritious with an image of Darth Vader than when they were described the same way but with an image of Luke Skywalker — $2.17, according to a BYU press release.
Do meal planning before you go to the store, so that you know what you're looking for. That way you're there on a mission, rather than the impulse purchasing — which is what the marketing is taking of advantage of.
–Brianna Rhodes, registered dietician and owner of RD and Me Nutrition
People were also willing to pay more when the image of Luke Skywalker was displayed and the curds were described as tasty and decadent.
Brianna Rhodes, registered dietician and owner of RD and Me Nutrition, offered her advice to consumers who want to look past the labels.
"Do meal planning before you go to the store, so that you know what you're looking for," Rhodes said. "That way you're there on a mission, rather than the impulse purchasing — which is what the marketing is taking of advantage of."
A big takeaway from the data, Masters said, is the impact something so small can have on people's purchasing choices.
"People don't realize how much labels are used to justify their buying decisions," she said. "Something just as simple and fun as heroes and villains can affect us by how much we perceive a product as being boring or more exciting."
Rhodes said people allow themselves to be heavily influenced by packaging. The solution to that influence, she said, comes down to people's perception of food — not the labels themselves.
"I don't think we need to change our packaging laws," Rhodes said. "People need to have a better relationship with eating, and food in general, so they're not as susceptible to these messages."
It's important for people to look past the labels, Masters said.
"I think it's always good when people understand how labels can impact how they perceive a product," she said. "A product may not be healthy simply because it has a hero label to it."