Study: In pitching veggies to kids, less is more

The New York TimesJune 7, 2014 

One of the fiercest marketing battles in the world takes place in kitchens and at dining room tables across the world. The sellers are parents, trying everything to persuade their children to eat their vegetables.

Now, new research shows why parents - and food marketers - might be doing themselves no favors. The problem is the pitch: It is too aggressive, even at its most well-meaning and heartfelt. The best way to pitch food to children, the research finds, is to present it with no marketing message whatsoever.

Don’t tell them it’s healthy or it will make them smart or strong. Telling them it’s yummy is OK, but even that message doesn’t seem to help the cause. “You just need to give them the food. You mess them up by giving all kinds of messages,” said the paper’s co-author, Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. When giving food to children, “nothing helps beyond no message whatsoever.”

The findings, to be published in October in Journal of Consumer Research, offer insight not only into children’s decision-making around food, but also, more broadly, into the powerful and counterintuitive ways that overzealous marketing can misfire - with adults and children alike.

The idea for the study came from Michal Maimaran, a visiting assistant marketing professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern and co-author of the paper. She wondered why her tactics could backfire when she tried to sell healthy food to her children, ages 7, 4 and 2.

To be scientific about it, the two scholars devised a series of experiments that they ran with the cooperation of a YMCA outside Chicago. In the first experiment, children ages 4 and 5 were read a story about a little girl named Tara who ate some Wheat Thins before she went out to play.

But not all the children heard the same story. In one version, Tara ate the Wheat Thins and “felt strong and healthy.” The children who heard this version were reminded that the crackers are good for their health. Another group of children heard that “Tara thought the crackers were yummy, and she was happy.” A third group heard that Tara ate Wheat Thins but without any description of whether the crackers were healthy or yummy.

Then each child got a moment alone to snack from a bowl of Wheat Thins. The number of crackers the children ate varied sharply depending on which version of the story they heard.

If children heard that Wheat Thins were healthy, they ate, on average, three crackers. If they heard that the crackers were yummy, they ate 7.2.

But most noteworthy, the researchers said, was the choice made by children who got no information at all about the character of Wheat Thins: They ate nine. In subsequent studies, the researchers discovered the same phenomenon in younger children, and with carrots.

Why was no message the best message? One possible explanation has to do with the “dilution effect” - the watering down of a marketing message that makes too many claims.

For instance, a video game system that is marketed as a movie player/video game console/Internet device might fare less well among consumers than if it is pitched as an “entertainment system.” Too many claims devalue each one.

Similarly, the researchers hypothesize, if children think food is good for them, it can’t also taste good.

So what to do? Let children make their own decision with a major caveat: Choose what food to put in front of them. Don’t pitch, but also: “Don’t let them do the shopping,” Fishbach said.

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