Good vs. Evil: How heroes and villains affect the food you buy

Heroes on packaging can make vice food seem less harmful to consumers

PROVO, Utah – Jan 10, 2019 – A new BYU study finds the battle between good and evil is being waged in our food packaging, and we are paying the price because of it, both in terms of health and money.

Research led by professor Tamara Masters finds people are willing to pay more for vice foods — think ice cream, cookies, and other unhealthy snacks — when a superhero is used in the packaging. That’s right, Captain America and Luke Skywalker may be the little nudge that causes us to indulge more than we should.

"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," Masters says. "But a product that is already healthy, like water, would benefit more from villain labeling because it makes the water seem more edgy and exciting."

In a series of six experiments, recently published in an article in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, Masters and coauthor Arul Mishra set out to see if vice or indulgent foods with hero labels would be more compelling than the same foods shown with villain labels, while also looking to see if healthy foods are more compelling with villainous labels than hero labels.

The researchers tested their hypothesis by setting up a sampling table for cheese curds in a grocery store. They changed the sign describing the cheese curds throughout the day to show images of either Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader with the words "Healthy and Nutritious" or "Tasty and Decadent." The participants sampled the cheese curds and then wrote how much they'd be willing to pay for a package of 10 curds. The data revealed that consumers were willing to pay an average of $3.45 when the curds were described as healthy and nutritious with a picture of Darth Vader, but they would pay only $2.17 with the same description accompanied by an image of Luke Skywalker. Conversely, when the curds were described as tasty and decadent, consumers were willing to pay more when the picture showed Luke Skywalker.

The researchers also studied grocery store sales data to determine if consumers followed the pattern with their purchases. The investigators tracked sales of a vice product, Betty Crocker fruit snacks, that were packaged with either a heroic image of Scooby Doo or a villain from Star Wars. They found that consumers favored the hero labeling with the vice product, with 289 Scooby Doo sales compared to 156 Star Wars sales.

In a country battling an obesity epidemic, these findings could inform policy makers who are eager to discourage unhealthy food choices and encourage nutritious eating. Showing healthy food with villains could make nutritious food more exciting, while villain labels on indulgent foods could decrease interest in those foods.

"We see hero and villain labeling everywhere we go, and people don't realize how they use these labels to justify their buying decisions," Masters says. "People may want to be healthy and spend less, but they still want something that is exciting, and the right labeling can make this possible."

A child dressed as Spider-Man reaches for a box of cereal

Media Contact: Todd Hollingshead (801) 422-8373
Writer: Todd Hollingshead