When cookies catch the cooties

April 30, 2007

DURHAM, N.C. -- Of all the things companies worry about when selling food products, catching "cooties" is probably not high on the list. But new research suggests it should be.

Products such as lard and feminine napkins evoke feelings of disgust that can reduce the appeal of other products they may inadvertently come in contact with in shoppers' grocery carts or on store shelves, according to researchers at Duke University and Arizona State University. The researchers suggest that companies may want to reconsider their packaging and shelf positioning strategies in order to safeguard their brands from offending products.

The researchers say food items sold in clear packaging are especially vulnerable to the effects of "product contagion," the phenomenon by which one product's negative properties can be transferred to another.

The research was conducted by Gavan Fitzsimons, a professor of marketing and psychology at Duke's Fuqua School of Business, and Andrea Morales, an assistant professor of marketing at Arizona State's W.P. Carey School of Business. The findings will appear in the May 2007 Journal of Marketing Research.

Other ordinary products that can evoke feelings of disgust in consumers include trash bags, cat litter, diapers, cigarettes, mayonnaise and shortening. "Because these products are so common, consumers are likely to experience feelings of disgust on routine shopping trips," Fitzsimons said.

Fitzsimons and Morales sought to understand how "disgusting" products can affect consumers' opinions of other products in their grocery carts. They performed a series of experiments in which participants observed food products placed close to or touching a distasteful product.

In all cases, products that touched or rested against disgusting products became less appealing than products that were at least an inch away from the offending products. The effect was also enduring. Participants asked more than an hour after observing the products how much they wanted to try a cookie were less likely to want it if the package of cookies had been in contact with a package of feminine napkins.

The researchers say this behavior is not necessarily irrational, as it likely derives from basic instincts that caution humans against eating foods that have come in contact with insects or other sources of germs.

"Our experiments demonstrated quite clearly that caution about eating contaminated food is simply misapplied to contexts where real contamination is not possible," Morales said.

Fitzsimons and Morales identified product packaging as one factor that can prevent product contagion. Opaque packaging was seen as a sufficient barrier to prevent the spread of unpleasant qualities, while products in transparent packaging remained susceptible to the negative qualities of their neighbors in the shopping cart.

In one experiment, participants viewed packages of rice cakes -- some wrapped in transparent packaging and some in opaque paper carrying a "rice cakes" label --that were touching a container of lard. The rice cakes in the clear packaging were later estimated to have a higher fat content than those in the opaque packaging.

"The product packaging and positioning led the participants to view the rice cakes as taking on fat content from the lard," Morales said.

"Prior marketing research on packaging has held that clear packaging helps sell products because it allows customers to visualize what they are buying," Fitzsimons said. "Based on this research, I would caution marketers that they need to be attuned to not only what is inside their packaging but also to what is around a product that could negatively affect its sales."

Fitzsimons and Morales point to multiple opportunities for products to mingle in grocery carts or on store shelves, where products such as lard and baking goods, diapers and baby food, and mayonnaise and soup are often found together.

Duke University

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