Food Ads and Marketing to “Cravers”


chocolateLast May, we posted Food Ads: How Brains Respond, which discussed research showing that images of food triggered a response in the brain’s reward centers. Now, as reported in the Seattle Times in Chocolate: Love at first bite or sight, Ciara McCabe and Edmund Rolls of Oxford University in England will present additional food image research at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience later this week.

McCabe gathered seven chocolate cravers and eight non-cravers for her experiment… She placed the volunteers in a functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, a scanner that measures activity in the brain. McCabe then gave them a taste of liquid chocolate. The cravers and non-cravers registered the taste to the same degree in parts of the brain involved in detecting taste. But people who crave chocolate perceived the taste as more pleasant than did the non-cravers. The difference showed up in the brain scan and in the volunteers’ ratings of the experience.
When she showed the mouth-watering pictures of chocolate to cravers, the ventral striatum, a part of the brain involved in drug addiction, turned on. Non-cravers showed no activity in that part of the brain.

Viewing a picture of chocolate while tasting it increased the pleasure of the experience for cravers and non-cravers alike, but the cravers responded far more to the combination than the non-cravers did. The reaction was particularly strong in a part of the brain called the pregenual cingulate cortex, a reward and pleasure center.

This is good news for food stylists, food photographers, and others who make their living by crafting “perfect” food images – now they have neuroscience research to justify their efforts. It would be interesting to extend this research to see whether a superb photo makes a difference in brain activation, or whether any old snapshot of a chocolate bar will do. It would also be interesting to compare artistic images (sketches, paintings, etc.) with photos, not to mention moving images such as those in a television ad.

As we noted in our earlier post, yummy images of a food product aren’t the panacea for sales growth – while images seem to have a strong impact on “cravers”, other individuals seem to be barely affected by them. Nevertheless, for products like chocolate, marketing to those already craving the product seems like a sound strategy and far more cost-effective than trying to convert non-cravers. So what should a marketer hoping to put a neuromarketing spin on her food ads do?

Maximize Impact at the Point of Sale. The research shows that the brain is activated by delicious-looking images, but translating that activation into a sale takes more work. A magazine advertisement showing a slice of chocolate cake may well trigger a craving in some viewers, but how will they act on that craving. Most, of course, will do nothing… but will some purchase the cake mix on their next visit to the supermarket? Or will they see the ad, think, “Mmm… looks yummy!”, and then grab a chocolate chip cookie from their cookie jar to get their “fix”? One place where consumers CAN act on their craving is at the point of sale. A marketer selling a product that consumers crave should, if at all possible, use the product packaging effectively. A great image will work better than a thousand, or even a few, words. Another option is a point of sale display – counter standups, wall posters, etc. provide a larger canvas to work with and permit larger, more detailed images than most product packages. Fast food restaurants often use this strategy to good effect – presenting the diner with a large image of a mouth-watering hamburger or steaming, crisp french fries as he approaches the counter to order is a sure-fire approach to fire up his reward centers.

Combine Images with Sounds and Actions. We’ve discussed in past posts how sounds can trigger brain responses, and also how individuals may “mirror” the actions of others in their brain. It stands to reason that using a medium (e.g., television ads, rich media web ads, etc.) that allows visual images to be combined with sound and motion could be more effective than an image by itself. Soft drink marketers know a bit about advertising, and their television ads reflect that – superb product images of cold, sweaty bottles… the seductive sound of a bottle cap popping and the soft drink pouring… one or more individuals tilting a bottle or glass back and drinking… Ads like this can work on multiple brain areas at once – when marketing to cravers, this is a particularly effective strategy.

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