The focus group-led consumer study, published in Appetite, noted that with growing scrutiny over how the food industry advertises products aimed toward children and fewer consumers using nutrition facts panels and ingredient lists, the fronts of food packages have become an increasingly important marketing tool to understand.
Led by Katie Abrams from Colorado State University, the research team report that the variety of approaches that manufacturers use on food packaging are perceived differently by parents compared to that of a child's perception.
In particular, parents use nuanced strategies to manage the meanings for different situations but still come to some incorrect conclusions based on mental shortcuts, say the team.
“Parents clearly want to provide healthy snacks to their preschool children, and seem to understand that the occasional sweet is just that: something to give on occasion,” wrote the team. “However, FOP visuals and claims can lead them to believe that some options lead to a healthier snack and perhaps no longer necessarily part of the junk food category, leading to potentially poorer food choices for their children.”
Indeed, the team noted that parents often categorise all foods that have bright packaging or a character as less healthy, while those with health claims, ‘realistic graphics’ and natural claims seem healthier.
“While parents recognized that the health claims and some visuals may not truly mean the food is healthier, they agreed that they rarely think beyond their initial impression,” commented Abrams and colleagues – who added that fruit graphics that are intended to communicate flavours are often perceived as ingredients.
Perception is everything
Findings from the focus groups show that characters and colours on front of pack cue fun for kids but ‘unhealthy’ to parents, with participants reporting that their preschool-aged children would be attracted to the characters and colours of the FOP visuals while, for the participants themselves, these visuals indicated a less healthy option.
“Although the food industry has reduced its television advertising, the use of television and game characters on food packaging is prevalent and, according to this study's participants, highly persuasive to preschool children,” said the team. “Known characters and other fun visuals are recognised by children, and some parents reported these appeal to the child even if they are not familiar with the food.”
Meanwhile health claims and ‘natural’ designs create perceptions of product healthiness, even if the product category is not perceived as entirely healthy. The groups also suggested that FOP visuals with more realistic fruit on the packaging were a healthy alternative to characters and ‘fun’-coloured packaging.
“While less commonplace to advertise healthy or fresh foods with playful FOP visuals (particularly characters), doing so could potentially be detrimental for the product if parents continue to associate characters with reduced healthiness,” suggested the team – suggesting that new research should examine whether this is indeed true with healthier foods.
Another theme that emerged from the data was in relation to well-known product brands. Brands seemed to go a long way in influencing perceptions of both health and trust, said the team.
In general, they found that recognisable brands reminded the participants of other associations they have with the brand from other contexts – noting that brands with health or educational associations in particular were received with loyalty and trust.
“For those who want to provide a healthier snack, parents are persuaded by the health claims, visuals and claims about the ingredients' naturalness (e.g., realistic graphics of fruit, earth tone colouring), and using familiar ‘fruit’ brands or cross-branding with products associated with health and education,” wrote the researchers.
Is ignorance bliss?
Abrams and her team said that while most participants from the focus groups talked about brands, realistic visuals, and health claims as indicators of healthier fruit snacks, some also noted that they might realise is not necessarily healthier than others - but when they are shopping and they are in a hurry or need to make a quick decision, they will choose the healthier looking option if they can.
“Giving off the illusion of a healthy choice was more important than actual health,” said the team. “Participants implied it was easier to believe one fruit snack is healthier over another than to learn the truth.”
“In general, not knowing the true nutrition of a fruit snack was perceived as almost better for some participants.”
Volume 87, Pages 20–29, doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2014.12.100
“Ignorance is bliss. How parents of preschool children make sense of front-of-package visuals and claims on food”
Authors: Katie M. Abrams, Caitlin Evans, Brittany R.L. Duff