At the Y

Luke Skywalker Could Sell Twinkies

Child in Spiderman costume at the grocery store looking at products in an aisle.
Photo by Nate Edwards

People prefer vice foods—think ice cream, cookies, and other unhealthy snacks—when a superhero appears on the packaging, according to research led by BYU marketing professor Tamara Mitchell Masters (’80). That’s right: Luke Skywalker could nudge you to make poorer food choices. And in a strange twist, Darth Vader could nudge you to make better ones.

Hero characters make an “indulgent product seem less vice,” says Masters. But a healthy product, like water, is preferred more with a villain on the labeling. “It makes the water seem more edgy and exciting.”

For the study, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, Masters and her team offered cheese-curd samples in a grocery store. Every 30 minutes, they changed the signage marketing the curds to show images of either Skywalker or Vader, alternating each image with the phrases “Healthy and Nutritious” or “Tasty and Decadent.” Shoppers sampled, then wrote how much they’d be willing to pay for the snack.

Consumers, it turned out, were willing to pay more when Skywalker billed the curds as tasty and decadent—or when Vader billed the curds as healthy and nutritious. “People don’t realize how they use labels to justify their buying decisions,” says Masters.

The researchers also studied grocery-store sales data to determine if consumers followed the pattern with their purchases, tracking sales of products offered with hero or villain labels.

“People may want to be healthy and spend less, but they still want something that is exciting,” says Masters. “The right labeling can make this possible.”

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