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There is No Accounting For Taste

Back in the 70s and 80s competing coffee companies would do just about anything to make their product the mainstay in your pantry (this was well before Starbucks, and the artisan coffee movements of the last 20 years). One memorable television commercial was for Folgers Crystals, which employed the use of hidden cameras and a questionable set up where the presumably premium coffee of a white tablecloth restaurant was replaced by Folgers Crystals. Diners drank, and in a heavily edited account, they seemed to love the coffee, even after they were informed that the coffee they were drinking was relatively cheap instant coffee (see video below):

The believability of this commercial is somewhat suspect, but the conceit is that if you think you are consuming something premium and desirable, your taste buds won’t know the difference – just as long as you think you are eating or drinking the good stuff. This commercial concludes with an announcer revealing what the diners are actually drinking, and everyone seems pleased as punch. No outrage, no spitting into their napkins, no existential crisis, just pleasant surprise.

But really, are we so gullible?

According to certain marketing research officials, yes we are. ABC News reports Marketing researcher Keith Wilcox and colleagues at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., conducted a series of experiments showing that a little information can have the opposite of the desired effect if it is delivered after a taste test instead of before. Meaning, that if someone was told that the chocolate they were about to taste was from Switzerland (a source for quality chocolate) they will appreciate it far more than, say, a piece of chocolate said to be from China (a place more well known for assembly line sneakers than fine confections). However, being told the origin of the product (in this case chocolate) immediately after tasting the product would alter the taster’s perception of the quality. The participants who tasted the chocolate before they knew where it came from probably really thought both pieces were about the same. But when they learned one came from China, they would have expected it to taste inferior to the famous stuff from Switzerland, and “it was much better than they would have expected it to be,” Wilcox said. Similar studies were conducted with Italian and Indian wines, and similar results were logged (one interesting fact: none of the chocolate or wines used in this experiment were from any of these places, they were all standard products from Trader Joe’s inventory and all exactly the same).

So are our taste buds misleading us? Are we slave to our notions of elite food? Several studies have shown that knowing the cost and/or provenance of an item can influence judgment, because if it’s more expensive, and from a region known for its quality, it must be better, right? But what if there really is no accounting for taste? How do we reckon with our $8 bars of chocolate and our $75 bottles of wine?

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

12 comments

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8:32AM PDT on May 14, 2013

Thank you for the information.

3:00AM PDT on May 14, 2013

Thank you :)

2:35PM PDT on May 13, 2013

Are we really so automatic and mechanical in our habits..... er, yeah...

At least... I'm a big coffee drinker, and part of our make-up is that, when we're in our element, enjoying something, we sometimes delude, fool ourselves into this illusion of heaven, or world of delight, and then go to lengths to kind of insulate ourselves by way of self-praise... I think there's a big element of this that goes on for everyone all the time... like a "self-calming" type thing... breaking this down, is to do things completely out of our normal sphere of habit, and then observe what's going on.

12:52AM PST on Jan 31, 2013

Thank you :)

6:37AM PDT on Jul 31, 2011

Chinese chocolate might have melimine right?

3:12PM PDT on Jul 28, 2011

This article is interesting and very true. Thank you.

3:08AM PDT on Jul 27, 2011

Interesting information. Thanks

2:47AM PDT on Jul 27, 2011

thanks!

8:01PM PDT on Jul 26, 2011

Some people may be but not everyone...thanks for the article!

7:14PM PDT on Jul 26, 2011

Cute article Eric, to play with people's palates. I agree with this entirely and it just lends to the success of creative marketing!

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