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

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

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Research on product labeling, 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 label is used in the packaging. That’s right, Captain America and Luke Skywalker may be the little nudge that changes our preference.

"If someone wants an ice cream bar and it is labeled 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, is preferred more with a villain labeling because it makes the water seem more edgy and exciting."

In an article, forthcoming in an article in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, Masters examines if vice foods with hero labels would be preferred than the same foods shown with villain labels, while also looking to see if healthy foods would be preferred 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. The results revealed that consumers were willing to pay more when the curds were described as healthy and nutritious with a picture of a villain, but they would pay less with the same description accompanied by an hero image.

The researchers also studied grocery store sales data to determine if consumers followed the pattern with their purchases. The investigators tracked sales of an indulgent product, offered with a hero or villain label. The article helps begin our understanding of how consumers might perceive hero or villain labels. However, a lot more work needs to be done to examine all aspects of such labeling.

"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."

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