Would plain packaging of unhealthy products raise the same problems, or new ones? Discussion with Dr Laurie Balbo, professor at Montpellier Business School

It is a good start in the year for assistant professor of marketing, Dr Laurie Balbo with her article « Is plain food packaging plain wrong? Plain packaging increases unhealthy snack intake among males » that was accepted and that will be published shortly in the newspaper « Food Quality and Preference », ranked A by the CNRS.

« This article was co-written with 3 other researchers - Carolina Werle (Grenoble Management School), Cindy Caldara (Grenoble Alpes University) et Olivier Corneille (Catholic University of Louvin) – and the subject came from one simple question », explains Dr Laurie Balbo. « Countries like Australia are thinking about introducing plain packaging for snacking products that are seen as « not healthy », as they did for tobacco with proven positive effects in terms of decrease of consumption. Would the implementation of this legislation have the same positive effect on snacking products? »

To answer this question, Dr Laurie Balbo and her co-writers realized 3 studies. « We worked with the famous little yellow M&M’s pack. We had original packs and neutral packs (white with the usual information written in black, with no other visual elements referring to the brand). For the first study on visual perception, some individuals were exposed to the neutral pack and others to the original pack. We found that the neutral pack was less well perceived than the original pack and diminished the desire to eat the product. Here, we have the same results as with tobacco ».

But the two following studies showed more impressing results. « For the tasting tests, we asked to the individuals to taste the products in each packs and to answer to some questions.  But what they didn’t know, is that we weighted the quantity of products remaining at the end of the experience. And surprise! It emerged that, for men only, the quantity of M&M’s consumed is more important for the plain pack (compared to the original pack). This would imply that plain packs unconsciously generate less caloric perception for men ».

Lastly, for the 3rd study, we introduced a new pack. It was an original M&M’s pack with « light » written on it. We found that for men, the consumption is always higher with neutral packs and that there is no difference in consumption between the original and the light packs. By contrast, for women, the consumption is the lowest with the light pack and there is no difference between the neutral and the original packs.

Those 3 studies allowed to conclude that if countries introduced a plain packaging policy for snacking products, the effect could be counter-productive for brands in the men segment.

With this study she has enough to bring new marketing subjects to her students during her Psychology and Behaviour of the consumer class.

For more information about the study and Dr Laurie Balbo’s work: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it