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The implicit power of packaging

July 22, 2013 0 Comments

I came across an interesting post in ScienceDaily – Consumer Behavior about how people draw inferences from seemingly neutral packaging features.  The referenced article is by two Canadian researchers:

Hammond D, & Parkinson C (2009). The impact of cigarette package design on perceptions of risk. Journal of public health (Oxford, England) PMID: 19636066

The ScienceDaily post describes the design, which did not involve any implicit or preconscious measures.  About 600 subjects, both smokers and non-smokers, were shown subtly different fake cigarette packs and asked to judge which would taste smoother, deliver less tar, or be the better choice if they were trying to reduce their health risks from smoking.

The packaging differences were selected because the did not explicitly make any claims about these questions:

Each pair differed in only a single design aspect – either a word such as “silver” versus “full-flavour” or “smooth” versus “regular” or “mild” versus “regular” or “light” versus “ultra-light”; a number incorporated into the brand name, such as 6 versus 10; a colour such as light blue versus darker blue or white versus grey and the presence of an illustration of a filter with the words “charcoal filter” written above it. All the packets included standard health warnings and could be picked up and handled by the study participants.

The results were impressive, and more than a little scary:

A total of 80% said they believed the package labelled “smooth” would be less hazardous than the one labelled “regular.” Similarly, 73% judged the brand labelled “silver” as less hazardous than the one labelled “full-flavour” and 84% thought the pack with “6″ in the brand name carried less health risk than the one with “10″ in it. Also, 79% said the lighter blue pack would have a lower health risk than the darker blue one and 76% said the one depicting a charcoal filter would not be as bad for their health as the one without such an illustration.

Similar results were found for the words “mild,” “light” and “ultra-light,” consistent with previous research. The misconceptions were more marked in smokers, and more prevalent among smokers of so-called “light” or “mild” brands than among other smokers.

The tobacco industry is properly under a microscope for this sort of implicit message delivery, since there is this kind of “catch me if you can” game going on between the industry and public health advocates, who obviously want to control the delivery of an addictive product that is the leading cause of preventable death in the world today.

But given my own fixations on implicit and preconscious influences on consumer behavior, I was also struck by the more general point – that packaging for any product can influence our decision making in ways we often are not aware of.

Having, I hope, established my support for the researchers in their important public health purpose, I have to say I’m a little suspicious of the high percentages reported. This is the kind of result you see when you give people a very specific question to answer – in this case, “tell me which would be a safer cigarette.”  Once you ask a question like this, you create a social context very different from “buying cigarettes”.  You are now engaged in a game with this person that might be called “give the right answer.”


Suggested cigarette packaging that does not prime brand attributes (from the article).

If I’m the subject and you want me to tell you which cigarette brand might be better for me, and you give me two choices, you can bet I will scan those choices for any clues for which is better – to answer the question “correctly”.  So the experiment becomes a game of “Where’s Waldo.”  If I see that one package says “silver” and the other says “full-flavored”, and otherwise the packages appear identical, I’ll pick the “silver” one.  And apparently 73% of the subjects managed to pass this test in the same way.

I believe the researchers have tapped into a real pheonomenon in identifying the subtle effects of packaging, but I would like to see this study replicated with more implicit measures to explore what is going on when people are outside the “explicit question answering game.”  This is the kind of question implicit measures were designed to answer.

Originally posted to my previous blog, July 29, 2009.

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About the Author:

Steve is a writer, speaker, researcher, and marketing consultant. He is author of Intuitive Marketing (2019), a study of persuasion and influence in marketing theory and practice, and co-author of Neuromarketing for Dummies (2013), a comprehensive overview of neuromarketing science, applications, methodologies, and ethics. He is Managing Partner at Intuitive Consumer Insights, where he focuses on marketing education and consulting.

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