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How our food choices are manipulated by marketers

Have you ever wondered why sweet treats are placed next to the cashier at your favorite supermarket? Or why certain products are sold at heavily discounted prices on certain days? What is your preferred brand of toothpaste? How did you decide on that choice? Is it based on scientific information?

In this article I will focus on subtle, and not so subtle, strategies employed by marketers to determine your final food choice. I have seen many people swear by the quality of a certain food product only to discover they had never studied the label on the same product. Many of us have been using the same brand of toothpaste all our lives.

It’s good to exercise discretion with everything you buy but its also good to ask oneself how you landed on that choice. This article is related to my previous article on food advertising. It is not exhaustive but will highlight the common ‘tricks’ I have seen people fall for.

Location is everything

Your supermarket is like a giant suburb where food, and other products of course, reside. Imagine yourself buying a house in a suburb. You would naturally look at the distance from the busiest road or other amenities like the police station and clinic. You could also consider proximity to public transport and, for most cities, the borehole.

The same happens with food products in the supermarket. Everyone wants the most prominent positions. This is usually the area with most shopper traffic such as the shelf all shoppers see as they enter and shelves at eye level. A common term used in that industry is “eye level is buy level”.

Next time you visit your supermarket just try and see which brands get the lower shelves and which brands are at eye level. I can bet you that your favourite brand of soup will be at eye level. And the one you consider inferior will be either at the bottom or top. 

There are many other considerations for example customers are known to scan from left to right so shelves are arranged to take full advantage of that. Most big brands will get the prime positions and gullible customers will go for these. But this does not mean they have made the best choice. 

Absence may sharpen love but presence strengthens it

This is the least subtle way that marketers manipulate us. They shower us with adverts until we succumb. And its not just about the ads you see on TV or in your paper. Its about sponsoring your favourite TV show and sport events. Its about showing up when there is a charity event with media coverage.

Its about the brand you see behind your favorite soccer player during a press conference. Big brands spend a lot of money on that and we automatically associate it with product quality. A study conducted in the US in 2017 showed that 90% of consumers’ choices were determined by adverts they had seen. That would be a big mistake mostly because the guy making the advert is the same guy making the product and they would never paint their own product in a bad light. 

Associating their products with affluence and beauty 

I remember the first time I travelled to South Africa the first item I ate was a pizza I had been seeing regularly on TV. In my mind I had already decided it was way better than the pizza found here in Zimbabwe. I was extremely disappointed to discover how wrong I had been.

This phenomenon exists everywhere in the world. Guys living in rural areas can’t wait to get into town and lay their hands on some deep-fried chicken.

Someone else cant wait till they can move from roller meal to refined maize meal. Terrific Tuesday anyone? I am sure you have seen car and chocolate adverts mostly dominated by provocatively-dressed beautiful women. This kind of marketing tricks the consumer into believing that buying certain products is a sign that they have “arrived”. This couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Catch them young!

When push comes to shove the marketers will simply change tact and target the most demanding customer- your child! We briefly discussed this in the previous article. Most adverts for junk foods are specifically made to target children. The biggest question here would be why waste time on that since children have no income of their own. There are two quick answers to that question.

The first is well understood by all parents who have had the misfortune of shopping with their children. Children can be very demanding and rarely back down, especially when they have seen the item on the shelf. You will buy it, simple.  The second is more strategic and has more to do with securing future market space.

Once a child grows up thinking a certain product is good they will likely be loyal to it in future. You have probably experienced this when you tried introducing a new product to an elderly relative. They usually swear by the old brands, including some that have been discontinued. My dad misses Tarino while I really miss Calypso (do you know them?).

How should we make our choices then?

Every customer must make a choice based on their needs rather than some fantasy created by the seller. My suggestion is that one needs to look at the evidence in front of their eyes. Most food products have labels with a list of ingredients and their quantities.

That label is usually as small as possible, probably because it has all the information you need to make an informed decision. If you can’t tell how your food was prepared, then you must ask yourself if its wise to be eating it. In future articles I will expand further on how we can avoid making decisions that will harm our health in the long run. 

Brief Bio:

Craig Nyathi is a Nutritionist registered with the Allied Health Practitioners Council of Zimbabwe. He has over ten years’ experience practicing public health nutrition in Zimbabwe. He writes in his personal capacity. 

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