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?