February represents that time of year when the post-holiday diets converge with the pre-swimsuit exercise regimen. All that discipline can wear a dieter down, says Beth Vallen, Ph.D., assistant professor of marketing in the Schools of Business. As spring approaches, passing the glazed doughnuts in the corner coffee cart becomes all the more challenging.
“It’s probably better that you hit the coffee cart in the morning, because self-control is a resource that becomes depleted with use—like a muscle,” she said.
Vallen’s latest research focuses on how environments affect consumer food consumption. She co-authored a study, published last summer in the journal Appetite, which found that people who are regularly exposed to healthy food ads were better equipped to avoid fattening foods later in the day.
Her work also builds on existing research studies that indicate both environmental factors and motivational components influence self-regulation. Everything from plate size to fork size can affect a choice. Dietary limitations, doctor’s orders, and individual regimens can color a study.
And when it comes to food, said Vallen, these external factors often trump individual restraint—or even reason.
For example, she noted that people tend to mimic the eating behaviors of their dining partners even if their personal goals differ.
“When I go to McDonald’s with other friends, it’s accepted that everyone is going to eat unhealthy food,” said Vallen. “When individuals eat with a group they tend to choose less-healthy items at less-healthy venues and more-healthy items at healthy venues.”
Even though McDonald’s offers a variety of salads that are low-calorie, healthy alternatives, the perception of the chain as unhealthy influences choice.
“We call this the halo effect: McDonald’s is bad and Subway is good,” said Vallen. “When in fact, you can get an outlandishly unhealthy meal at Subway.”
The same holds true for Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants—only in reverse. When compared to its main competitor Taco Bell, Chipotle, which promotes itself as serving “food with integrity,” takes the halo.
“At Chipotle you can get a 2,000-calorie item, but consumers don’t think of it that way,” she said. “We see ‘natural’ or we see ‘organic’ and we think ‘good,’ but in terms of fat and calories you can still have a pretty unhealthy meal.”
Vallen said there is a natural tendency to categorize a brand because it requires less effort from the consumer and reduces the consumer’s need to process or analyze. She is currently studying how the halo effect is strengthened when people are in groups.
It’s a theme that runs throughout Vallen’s work. In 2011 she co-authored another study that focused on a candy item, merely changing its name. Another experiment focused on a meat, cheese, and pasta dish, with a bit of lettuce for color. When dubbed a “salad special” it was perceived as being healthy. But when it was named “pasta special” it didn’t fare as well. Both studies showed how name changes affected consumers’ perceptions of a product’s nutritional value.
Vallen hopes her studies will help consumers better understand the variables that affect their product decision-making. However, given her findings so far, quite a bit of responsibility falls into the hands of the manufacturer and marketer.
“It’s a business, so the bottom line is going to be a factor in your decision-making process, but you do have to take an ethical standpoint too.”
And ethical considerations aren’t just an academic affair; business leaders are demanding it too. Vallen said that graduates must be able to look at marketing’s larger impacts on consumer health and what that means from a societal standpoint.
With diabetes and hypertension reaching epidemic proportions in the United States, business has an important role to play in consumer health. Vallen said that it’s not unprecedented for businesses to enter the fray before they are required to act—such as CVS’s decision on Feb. 5 to stop selling cigarettes. She noted that food marketers initiated putting trans fat information onto product labels years before the Food and Drug Administration required the information on labels.
“A lot of this has to do with market demand,” she said. “Consumers are starting to hold firms accountable.”