Hungry to learn more about motivation

According to new research by Associate Professor of Marketing Adriana Samper, the ‘level effect’ affects indulgent food choices.

By Jenn Woolson

Have you ever wondered why sales signs are plastered with prices that end in “9” or “99”?

It’s because the marketing technique works (frighteningly well!) to convince consumers that the price is significantly lower than something just a penny or a dollar more.

It’s the result of a cognitive bias called the “level effect” and, within pricing, it’s fairly well established that 9-ending or below-threshold values can be particularly persuasive in getting consumers to be more likely to show interest, explains Associate Professor of Marketing Adriana Samper. The level effect argues that people tend to focus on the left digit in numerical processing. That's why $199 seems significantly less expensive than $200 even though there’s only a $1 difference — and why a price like $193 doesn’t feel like that much less than $199.

Because of how our brains process information — from left to right — the level effect is relatively universal. So, argues Samper, regardless of whether you’re looking at money or calories, when we see 199 vs. 200, we tend to perceive 199 as a lot lower than 200.

While used for decades as a pricing strategy, companies like Corona, Budweiser, and Nestlé are all leveraging the level effect by marketing 99-calorie products to appeal to health-motivated consumers. Is it working?

That was the question put forward by Samper and her co-authors in a study recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research called “The Influence of Health Motivation and Calorie Ending on Preferences for Indulgent Foods.” They hypothesized that the level effect could be shaping behaviors in choosing whether or not to indulge in higher-calorie treats. In particular, they expected that people who were health-motivated or wanted to be healthy would be more susceptible to this effect.

Sweet studies

To figure out if the level effect was affecting preferences, the researchers created four studies to test if health-motivated participants were more likely to consume indulgent foods — like Hershey’s kisses — that were labeled with “just-below” calories.

To determine the participants’ level of health-motivation, they asked questions including: How important is being healthy to who you as a person? How motivated are you to live a healthy lifestyle? They also subtly induced health motivation by asking study participants to unscramble sentences with a disproportionate number of health-related words, thereby reminding them of their health goals.

The studies then used Hershey’s Kisses, beer, and doughnuts with calorie counts that ended in “99” to assess how likely participants were to indulge. For example, in the first study, participants were given seven Kisses and researchers tracked how many they ate while they watched a video. They found that during the two-and-a-half-minute video, health-motivated participants ate 18 more calories when the Kisses were labeled as having 199 calories, relative to 200 calories.

This is a short time frame. But if you're like me and you're just grazing all day, this can be substantial for the day. Especially if I think it's in line with my goals [and I think] I don't have to have my guard up about how much I eat.

Adriana Samper, associate professor of marketing

In the final study, the researchers tried to turn the effect off. They showed participants desserts on a restaurant’s web page, which contained a listing of ingredients as well as calories. Some participants also saw the food’s reference intake value, such as “40% of daily calorie intake, based on a 2,000-calorie diet” to help equalize 9- and round-ending calories. All participants were asked about their consumption intentions. The health-motivated participants who were given the reference intake information were not as tempted by the 9-ending calorie listings.

So how does the level effect hold up when making choices about healthy foods? Not that well. Early in the research, the researchers compared a donut to carrots and a hummus snack, both labeled with below-threshold calorie counts. While health-motivated participants preferred the 199-calorie donut to the 200-calorie one, the carrots and hummus calorie information did not create the level effect. “With indulgent foods, you have these competing motivations: It’s bad for me, but not that bad for me, and the lower-left digit makes you feel less guilty, so you are more likely to consume” Samper explains. “With healthy foods, you aren’t fighting any guilt, so you don’t have to process it in the same way for it to be low calorie.”

Deep diving into decision-making

Samper has long been interested in consumer intuitions and how they shape our behavior. In the past, she’s researched how price changes people’s perception of whether a drug or vaccine is needed. But she hadn’t specifically studied the level effect. When her co-authors asked Samper to be a part of the project, she was excited to explore this new decision-making domain. “Food is an interesting space because people have strong motivations to be healthy,” she says. “We can engage in less healthy behaviors without even realizing it. It’s another place where we might, as consumers, make mistakes in trying to achieve our goals.”

She says these lapses in judgment due to the level effect happen often when we’re trying to process information more quickly or when we want to save money — or calories.

It's so common with pricing, she says, that we assume something is on sale if the price ends in 9, a phenomenon called the image effect. With calories, because using below-threshold values is newer, Samper isn’t sure the image effect is in play in the same way. “But I have noticed that recently if I see ‘99 calories’ I think ‘diet,’ which could get stronger as more companies use this type of labeling,” she says.

Tasty takeaways

Samper says this research area has implications for marketers, policymakers, and consumers. “The main finding was that people when they are health-motivated, are going to see 9-ending calories as lower,” she says.

For marketers, especially those with healthier products, these below-threshold calorie amounts are working to target people who are more health-motivated. “It seems gimmicky,” Samper admits. “But it does seem like it attracts those types of consumers.”

For policymakers, one of the most important learnings is the importance of percent reference intake details. The researchers found that if they labeled indulgent foods with that additional information, it mitigated the level effect. That type of labeling can help all consumers make smarter, more health-conscious decisions. “When you have that context, you become more cognizant of the calories you’re eating and slow down your consumption overall,” she says.

A new FDA policy launched in January 2020 is requiring both the serving size and per serving calorie information on many foods and beverages to be displayed in a larger more prominent type size. That’s a step toward arming consumers with all the information they need to make better food choices.

What do these findings mean for you as you stare down that bag of candy or bottle of beer? Due to the level effect, you will probably feel less guilty about eating foods with 99-ending calories, so you’re likely to want to buy more and consume more.

“That’s a little bit scary,” Samper says, “because you can be committed to your health goals and that specific commitment — because you want to be healthy, you want to see calories as lower — can make you more likely to indulge.”

The other danger is that people don’t think they’re overconsuming because the level effect is telling them that the food isn’t particularly high in calories. If you consciously indulge, on the other hand, you might eat less later or go to the gym to work off the treat. But Samper warns, “If you don't think you're overconsuming, you’re less likely to be doing those checks and balances.”

Simple awareness around the trickiness of the level effect can help you be attuned to marketing techniques that could derail your health goals.

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