Why we really are distracted by shiny objects.

February 10, 2012 BY danariely

Choosing Brighter Instead of Tastier Candies May Be Good For You:

How Visual Properties of Choice Options Influence Our Decisions

by Mili Milosavljevic, Ph.D.

In 2009, Tropicana redesigned the packaging of its orange juice in an attempt “to reinforce the brand and product attributes [and] rejuvenate the category.”  The company said that “for the first time, Tropicana… will be branded ‘100% orange’, which will be featured as a bold, new graphic on all packaging… [A] proprietary fresh cap… will be another visual signal of the brand’s natural, health benefits.”  Less than 2 months after the redesign, dollar sales of Tropicana orange juice had dropped about 19% or $33 million, with competitors picking up Tropicana’s lost market share.  The company’s response was to immediately bring back the previous version of packaging and determine what went wrong.  Some of the surveyed consumers complained that they missed the old packaging and Tropicana was quick to attribute the flop to messing with the usual suspect: emotional bond that consumers had with the old packaging.  Other consumers, however, noted that the redesign had made it more difficult to spot Tropicana on a store shelf or to differentiate it from other brands.  This alternative explanation suggests that replacing the familiar, prominent, dark-green Tropicana brand name on the packaging, with a sleek, bright-green, 90-degree tilted version dwarfed by an enormous glass of orange juice that replaced the orange with a straw coming out of it caused some consumers to miss the brand and simply pick up another instead.

Is it plausible that simple visual features of choice options, such as a package’s color or brightness, influence consumers’ choices?  Mili Milosavljevic, together with a team of vision scientists and neuroscientists, recently conducted a series of eye-tracking studies in which consumers made real choices between snack food items whose brightness of packaging was systematically varied.  When consumers chose between items they prefer (such as a Snickers bar) and visually enhanced, i.e., brighter, but less preferred options (such as Sour Skittles), a significant portion of their choices was biased toward choosing the brighter, less liked, item. This visual saliency bias, or bias toward brighter-colored items, was even stronger when consumers made choices while being engaged in another cognitively demanding task, akin to talking on a cellphone while shopping in a grocery store.  Finally, the bias toward visually brighter items was especially strong when consumers did not have a strong preference for one item over another (i.e., choosing between Snickers and KitKat bars, which consumers stated they like almost equally).  The latter two variations of the experiment is highly representative of today’s competitive market place and consumers’ tendency to multitask.

So where does this visual saliency bias come from?  The explanation lies in the way that our brain processes information.  When making a simple choice, the brain has to process both visual information that allows us to perceive the choice options, and preference information that estimates how much we like these options.  The brain must reconcile all these signals (and more: memory, expectations, goals) in order to arrive at a decision.  So what this research shows is that sometimes the visual information wins over the preference information – a finding that again shows that choices are driven by many forces aside from actual preference.

So is this visual saliency bias good or bad?  More specifically, is it bad for consumers to rely on something as trivial as the brightness of packaging when making a decision?  Not necessarily.  The visual saliency bias is less likely to occur if you are buying a car or a house, or are engaged in other high-stakes decisions.  The bias is more likely to kick in when the decision is less consequential, less costly, you have less time or capacity to fully engage in it, or the options from which you are choosing are liked just the same.

Dr. Milosavljevic and her colleagues showed that when making such simple choices, consumers can spot and choose most of their preferred items in as little as a third of a second.  Granted, the visual saliency bias may, in some instances, lead us to make suboptimal choices, but that may be a small price to pay in order to go about our daily lives making rapid, mostly good, decisions.  After all, who wants to spend an entire afternoon in front of the store shelf choosing between Snickers and Sour Skittles?