Business 2.0 Magazine assistant managing editor
According to Stanford marketing professor Baba Shiv, it all comes down to the choice between cake and fruit salad.
For a 1999 research paper, Baba Shiv, then an assistant professor at the University of Iowa, told two groups of experimental subjects that they would be participating in a memory study. He asked the first group to memorize a two-digit number; the second group got a seven-digit one. Then, before the subjects were asked to recall the numbers, Shiv offered them a choice: a scrumptious piece of chocolate cake or a healthy bowl of fruit salad.
Shiv was less interested in feeding his subjects than in validating a new model of how consumers make decisions. Marketers tend to view consumer needs as monolithic: Meet them and you make the sale. But now psychologists suggest that consumer decisions are really the outcome of an epic battle.
On one side, they say, are primitive emotions such as desire and fear--known as "affective" urges. On the other are higher-order cognitive thoughts, such as "Cake is not healthy." If that's true, Shiv wondered, could a marketer improve the odds that the side favorable to a certain product will win out?
Remarkably, 63 percent of the subjects who were trying to memorize the longer number chose the cake, compared with 41 percent of those in the shorter-number group. "We distracted the cognitive side so that people were more likely to go with emotional impulses," Shiv says.
Since that study, Shiv, now a marketing professor at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, has been using cake and fruit salad to explore different ways of getting consumers to yield to temptation. For marketers, the implications of his research are both significant and counterintuitive. In another experiment, Shiv determined that, regardless of their answers, people choose cake more often after being asked the following hypothetical question: "If strong evidence emerges from scientific studies suggesting that cakes ... have some major health benefits, what would happen to your consumption of these items?"
For a 2005 paper titled "Let Us Eat and Drink, for Tomorrow We Shall Die," he found that reminding people of their own mortality--by asking them to recall memories of 9/11--likewise shifted the odds away from fruit salad, especially among women. "For people who normally exert a lot of self-control over eating," Shiv says, "thoughts of death can serve as a distraction, just like the numbers."
For his first try at the number-distraction experiment, Shiv offered a choice between a week at a fitness resort and a week in Bora-Bora. That didn't work, he concluded, because subjects would ask questions and pore over photos, so that even the Bora-Bora trip failed to stimulate pure longing. A devoted foodie, he considered cookies and chocolate bars before stumbling into a local bakery: "I saw this piece of chocolate cake, and I was, like, 'Wow, this is just awesome!'" He says fruit salad was a natural for the cognitive side. "We left out strawberries because they look too appealing."
Shiv admits that it would be dangerous--if not illegal--for marketers to use some of the tactics he's found effective. For instance, the use of hypothetical questions is commonly employed by political marketers but could violate some consumer protection laws. Likewise, mortality reminders could easily lead to bad press. But if you're asking consumers to, say, sample a new candy bar, it might help to have a TV playing nearby with distracting content. "We're telling marketers that if you're catering to a compulsive need, here's the way to go," he says. "If it's a more rational appeal, try the opposite."
The main takeaway from his work, Shiv says, is that--contrary to the fundamental assumptions of traditional microeconomic theory--consumers are far from consistently rational. "When emotions kick in," he says, "people sometimes act against their own self-interests."