In February I wrote about the insidious power of marketing. “We can try not to be swayed by advertising and marketing,” I said. “But no matter what we do, we are all affected by attempts to manipulate our subconscious. Even when we believe we are immune to manipulation, we are not.”

At that time, I e-mailed Malcolm Gladwell for permission to post an excerpt from his best-selling Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (published in 2005 by Little, Brown and Company). Gladwell granted permission, but I haven’t found time to post the excerpt until now. Note that I have added paragraph breaks, inserted photographs and hyperlinks, and bolded short passages in order to make this excerpt more readable in weblog format. Here is Malcolm Gladwell on the role our subconscious plays in buying decisions:

Then there’s the issue of what is called sensation transference. This is a concept coined by one of the great figures in twentieth-century marketing, a man called Louis Cheskin, who was born in Ukraine at the turn of the century and immigrated to the United States as a child. Cheskin was convinced that when people give an assessment of something they might buy in a supermarket or a department store, without realizing it, they transfer sensations or impressions that they have about the packaging of the product to the product itself. To put it another way, Cheskin believed that most of us don’t make a distinction — on an unconscious level — between the package and the product. The product is the package and the product combined.

One of the projects Cheskin worked on was margarine. In the late 1940s, margarine was not very popular. Consumers had no interest in either eating it or buying it. But Cheskin was curious. Why didn’t people like margarine? Was their problem with margarine intrinsic to the food itself? Or was it a problem with the associations had with margarine? He decided to find out. In that era, margarine was white. Cheskin colored it yellow so that it would look like butter. Then he staged a series of luncheons with homemakers. Because he wanted to catch people unawares, he didn’t call the luncheons margarine-testing luncheons. He merely invited a group of women to an event.

“My bet is that all the women wore little white gloves,” says Davis Masten, who today is one of the principles in the consulting firm Cheskin founded. “[Cheskin] brought in speakers and served food, and there were little pats of butter for some and there were little pats of margarine for others. The margarine was yellow. In the context of it, they didn’t let people know there was a difference. Afterwards, everyone was asked to rate the speakers and the food, and it ended up that people thought the ‘butter’ was just fine. Market research had said there was no future for margarine. Louis said, ‘Let’s go at this more indirectly.’”

Now the question of how to increase sales of margarine was much clearer. Cheskin told his client to call their product Imperial Margarine, so they could put an impressive-looking crown on the package. As he had learned at the luncheon, the color was critical: he told them the margarine had to be yellow. Then he told them to wrap it in foil, because in those days foil was associated with high quality. And sure enough, if they gave someone two identical pieces of bread — one buttered with white margarine and the other buttered with foil-wrapped yellow Imperial Margarine — the second piece of bread won hands-down in taste tests every time.

“You never ask anyone, ‘Do you want foil or not?’ because the answer is always going to be ‘I don’t know’ or ‘Why would I?’ says Masten. “You just ask them which tastes better, and by that indirect method you get a picture of what their true motivations are.”

The Cheskin company demonstrated a particularly elegant example of sensation transference a few years ago, when they studied two competing brands of inexpensive brandy, Christian Brothers and E&J (the latter of which, to give some idea of the market segment to which the two belong, is known to its clientele as Easy Jesus). Their client, Christian Brothers, wanted to know why, after years of being the dominant brand in the category, it was losing market share to E&J. Their brandy wasn’t more expensive. It wasn’t harder to find in the store. And they weren’t being out-advertised (since there is very little advertising at this end of the brandy segment). So, why were they losing ground?

Cheskin set up a blind taste test with two hundred brandy drinkers. The two brandies came out roughly the same. Cheskin then decided to go a few steps further. “We went out and did another test with two hundred different people,” explains Darrel Rhea, another principal in the firm. “This time we told people which class was Christian Brothers and which glass was E&J. Now you are having sensation transference from the name, and this time Christian Brothers’ numbers are up.” Clearly people had more positive associations with the name Christian Brothers than with E&J. That only deepened the mystery, because if Christian Brothers had a stronger brand, why were they losing market share?

“So, now we do another two hundred people. This time the actual bottles are in the background. We don’t ask about the packages, but they are there. And what happens? Now we get a statistical preference for E&J. So we’ve been able to isolate what Christian Brothers’ problem is. The problem is not the product and it’s not the branding. It’s the package.” Rhea pulled out a picture of the two brandy bottles as they appeared in those days. Christian Brothers looked like a bottle of wine: it had a long, slender spout and a simple off-white label. E&J, by contrast, had a far more ornate bottle: more squat, like a decanter, with smoked glass, foil wrapping around the spout, and a dark, richly textured label.

To prove their point, Rhea and his colleagues did one more test. They served two hundred people Christian Brothers Brandy out of an E&J bottle, and E&J Brandy out of a Christian Brothers bottle. Which brandy won? Christian Brothers, hands-down, by the biggest margin of all. Now they had the right taste, the right brand, and the right bottle. The company redesigned their bottle to be a lot more like E&J’s, and, sure enough, their problem was solved.

Cheskin’s offices are just outside San Francisco, and after we talked, Masten and Rhea took me to a Nob Hill Farms supermarket down the street, one of those shiny, cavernous food emporia that populate the American suburbs. “We’ve done work in just about every aisle,” Masten said as we walked in. In front of us was the beverage section. Rhea leaned over and picked up a can of 7-Up. “We tested Seven-Up. We had several versions, and what we found is that if you add fifteen percent more yellow to the green on the package — if you take this green and add more yellow — what people report is that the taste experience has a lot more lime or lemon flavor. And people were upset. ‘You’re changing my Seven-Up! Don’t do a ‘New Coke‘ on me.’ It’s exactly the same product, but a different set of sensations have been transferred from the bottle, which in this case isn’t necessarily a good thing.”

From the cold beverage section, we wandered to the canned-goods aisle. Masten picked up a can of Chef Boyardee Ravioli and pointed at the picture of the chef on the label of the can. “His name is Hector. We know a lot about people like this, like Orville Redenbacher or Betty Crocker or the woman on the Sun-Maid Raisins package. The general rule is, the closer consumers get to the food itself, the more consumers are going to be conservative.

“What that means for Hector is that in this case he needs to look pretty literal. You want to have the face as a recognizable human being that you can relate to. Typically, close-ups of the face work better than full-body shots. We tested Hector in a number of different ways. Can you make the ravioli taste better by changing him? Mostly you can blow it, like by making him a cartoon figure. We looked at him in the context of photography down to cartoon kinds of things. The more you go to cartoon characters, the more of an abstraction Hector becomes, the less and less effective you are in perceptions of taste and quality of the ravioli.”

Masten picked up a can of Hormel canned meat. “We did this, too. We tested the Hormel logo.” He pointed at the tiny sprig of parsley between the r and the m. “That little bit of parsley helps bring freshness to canned food.”

Rhea held out a bottle of Classico tomato sauce and talked about the meanings attached to various kinds of containers. “When Del Monte took the peaches out of the tin and put them in a glass container, people said, ‘Ahh, this is something like my grandmother used to make.’ People say peaches taste better when they come in a glass jar. It’s just like ice cream in a cylindrical container as opposed to a rectangular package. People expect it’s going to taste better and are willing to pay five, ten cents more — just on the strength of the package.”

What Masten and Rhea do is tell companies how to manipulate our first impressions, and it’s hard not to feel a certain uneasiness about their efforts. If you double the size of the chips in chocolate chip ice cream and say on the package, “Now! Bigger Chocolate Chips!” and charge five or ten cents more, that seems honest and fair. But if you put your ice cream in a round as opposed to a rectangular container and charge five or ten cents more, that seems like you’re pulling the wool over people’s eyes.

If you think about it, though, there really isn’t any practical difference between those two things. We are willing to pay more for ice cream when it tastes better, and putting ice cream in a round container convinces us that it tastes better just as surely as making the chips bigger in chocolate chip ice cream does. Sure, we’re conscious of one improvement and not conscious of the other, but why should that distinction matter? Why should an ice cream company be able to profit only from improvements that we are conscious of? You might say, “Well, they’re going behind our back.” But who is going behind our back? The ice cream company? Or our own unconscious?

Neither Masten nor Rhea believes that clever packaging allows a company to put out a bad-tasting product. The taste of the product itself matters a great deal. Their point is simply that when we put something in our mouth and in that blink of an eye decide whether it tastes good or not, we are reacting not only to the evidence from our taste buds and salivary glands but also to the evidence of our eyes and memories and imaginations, and it is foolish of a company to service one dimension and ignore the other.

We all want to believe we make completely rational decisions in the supermarket. I want to think I do, too. But even the smartest shopper is constantly manipulated in subtle psychological ways.

Malcolm Gladwell, one of today’s top essayists, writes about all sorts of fascinating topics for magazines like The New Yorker. He is the author of the best-selling books The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. (This passage was taken from Blink chapter 5.3, pages 160 to 165.)

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