Potato chip package study details distinctions in food marketing messages

Posted: March 6, 2012 by
Linda Casey


When Stanford University linguists Joshua Freedman and Dan Jurafsky studied packaging for the humble potato chip, they found that the package designs spoke volumes about marketing to different social classes. Package Design posed three questions about the study for Freedman to nosh on, and here’s what he had to say.

PD: Why did you choose potato chip package designs for a study about advertising and
social class?

Freedman: We wanted a food item that was readily available and consumed by a variety of consumers across different social classes. Potato chips are, in many ways, the ultimate classic American snack food, and each bag of chips has a promotional
product description on the bag. For a linguistic study, this description offered a perfect place to focus our analysis.

What did you learn?
We discovered that more expensive potato chips placed a greater emphasis on health qualities than did less expensive potato chips. For example, though none of the chips in our study contained trans fats, 100% of the more expensive chips noted this, while only one-third of the less expensive chips did so.
Also, expensive chips describe themselves by what they are not: “no trans fats,” “no cholesterol,” “never fried,” etc. We found, on average, 14 instances of negation on expensive chip packaging but only three on inexpensive chip packaging. This finding supports the theory that upper class tastes are heavily defined by the idea of distinction.
Third, we discovered that all chips seek “authenticity,” but that authenticity has two distinct forms. Expensive chips aim to be authentic by focusing on “naturalness.” Authenticity means real ingredients and hand-made processes for these brands. Inexpensive chips try to prove authenticity through an emphasis on history and location, with old-fashioned recipes and familiar locations.