Cereal Deal: How the Physical Appearance of Others Affects Attention to Healthy Foods

Abstract

This eye-tracking study investigated whether the physical appearance of another consumer can influence people’s visual attention and choice behavior in a grocery shopping context. Participants (N = 96) took part in a lab-based experiment and watched a brief video recording featuring a female consumer standing in front of a supermarket shelf. The appearance and body type of the consumer was manipulated between conditions, such that she was perceived as 1) healthy and of normal weight, 2) unhealthy by means of overweight, or 3) unhealthy through visual signs associated with a potentially unhealthy lifestyle, but not by means of overweight. Next, participants were exposed to a supermarket shelf with cereals and were asked to choose one alternative they could consider buying. Prior exposure to a seemingly unhealthy (vs. healthy) consumer resulted in a relative increase in participants’ visual attention towards products perceived to be healthy (vs. unhealthy), which prompted cereal choices deemed to be healthier. This effect was stronger for products that holistically, through their design features, managed to convey the impression that they are healthy rather than products with explicit cues linked to healthiness (i.e., the keyhole label). These results offer important implications regarding packaging design for marketers, brand owners, and policy makers. Moreover, the findings highlight the value of technological tools, such as eye-tracking methodology, for capturing consumers’ entire decision-making processes instead of focusing solely on outcome-based metrics, such as choice data or purchase behavior.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Participants in the validation study viewed each of the cereal options included in the main study and rated their healthiness on a single-item scale (1 = unhealthy; 7 = healthy). Relying on the same categorization as above, an index of the unhealthy cereal options yielded a high reliability (α = .90). The same applied to the index of the healthy cereal alternatives (α = .92). A repeated measures ANOVA revealed that the healthy cereal options (M = 4.35, SD = .83) were perceived as significantly healthier than the unhealthy cereal options (M = 2.56, SD = .81; F(1, 27) = 121.57, p < .001, η2 = .82). Furthermore, the unhealthy cereal options were rated as significantly more unhealthy than the scale midpoint of 4 (t(27) = -9.34, p < .001), whereas the healthy cereal alternatives were rated as significantly more healthy than the scale midpoint (t(27) = 2.24, p < .05), thus indicating an appropriate classification. Two extreme cases were removed from the analyses because they scored beyond two standard deviations from the mean on the index of healthy cereal options (cf. Otterbring, Löfgren, & Lestelius, 2014a), i.e., these participants rated all cereals as very unhealthy, as reflected by their consistent use of the two lowest response alternatives (i.e., 1 or 2). Males and females did not differ significantly in their responses and the inclusion of participant gender as a between-subjects factor did not change the nature and significance of the results.

  2. 2.

    This assertion does not, however, imply that all individuals perceive such stimuli as aversive, although our results suggest that this may be the case at the aggregate level. We thank an anonymous reviewer for bringing up this point.

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Correspondence to Tobias Otterbring.

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The first author wrote the initial draft of the manuscript and conducted the statistical analyses. The second and third author contributed substantially to the conceptualization of the article and made significant contributions with respect to subsequent drafts. The fourth author collected the data.

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Otterbring, T., Gidlöf, K., Rolschau, K. et al. Cereal Deal: How the Physical Appearance of Others Affects Attention to Healthy Foods. Perspect Behav Sci 43, 451–468 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40614-020-00242-2

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Keywords

  • Visual attention
  • Eye tracking
  • Food choice
  • Health
  • Packaging design
  • Nonverbal cues