Communicating Through the Senses: A Teaching Opportunity

caribou

The majority of my research falls under the domain of sensory marketing: examining how inputs to all five of our senses (haptics, audition, olfaction, taste, and vision) can ultimately impact our perceptions, judgments, and even behaviors. Marketers in the past mainly focused on appealing to consumers’ sense of vision, through mediums like print advertising and billboards. However, the average consumer is exposed to over 10,000 visual messages a day, and so purely visual content is unlikely to cut through this clutter and grasp consumer attention. Accordingly, marketers have been trying more and more to engage alternative consumer senses in an effort attract attention and establish longer-lasting connections with consumers.

For example, in blistery Minneapolis, Caribou Coffee converted bus shelters into giant mock toaster ovens, with real built-in heaters emitting warmth from the walls and ceiling. This was in an effort to promote the chain’s new warm breakfast offerings. Multi-sensory appeals like these are useful in two major ways: 1) they are successful in attracting attention; and 2) they are effective in conveying a message in a memorable way.

Like marketers, we educators are also attempting to reach an audience- our students. For a sensory researcher like myself, this begs the question: how can multi-sensory communication be integrated into classroom teaching? In most classrooms, teachers deliver the bulk of content verbally. Many teachers supplement this with occasional visuals via PowerPoint slides of varying quality. But this might represent the bare minimum in multi-sensory classroom engagement. A few weeks ago here on Cacophony, Michelle Fisher’s post, “Teaching with images. Learning through art,” provided great examples of how visual inputs can be more creatively employed to convey information in a meaningful, memorable way. The extra effort required to incorporate visual content is likely worthwhile, since research suggests that multi-sensory messages are more comprehensible and memorable than messages delivered through a single sensory mode.

But audition and vision are just two of our five senses. Are there ways to engage other student senses? This might be interesting to explore. For example, one of the most powerful human senses is scent, because it is both our quickest sense, and the sense most closely linked to our memory. While trying to stimulate students’ sense of smell, touch, or even taste seems unconventional to say the least, such attempts might pay off by creating richer, longer-lasting messages that students walk away with. Benjamin Franklin once said:

“Tell me and I’ll forget,
Show me and I might remember,
Involve me and I’ll understand.”

Perhaps, one route toward truly involving students in the classroom is to engage them through as many senses as possible.

Rebranding Marketing

Hunt, Shelby (2010), Foundations of Marketing Theory, M.E. Sharpe.

When new acquaintances hear that I am a doctoral student, they usually ask what field my PhD is in. This is, of course, a very natural follow-up question. But when I reply that I’m pursuing my PhD in Marketing, I usually get one of two responses:

1) Confusion/Surprise (“Wow, you can actually get a PhD in that?”)
2) Repressed repulsion (A wince, followed by a polite smile and change of subject)

These responses suggest that Marketing as a discipline is (ironically enough) in need of some major rebranding. The common misconception is that marketers (and accordingly, scholars of marketing) are scheming masterminds, out to deceive, swindle and manipulate poor consumers into buying things they don’t need (infomercials for the Snuggie come to mind). This impression likely stems from the fact that the term “marketing” is often used to describe an organizational function; and most for-profit organizations are focused on maximizing profits, not promoting consumer welfare.

It is no wonder confusion exists- there is little consensus, even among marketing scholars, of how marketing should be defined. But most would agree that scholarly research in marketing seeks to expand the total knowledge base of marketing by explaining, predicting, and understand marketing phenomena (Hunt 2010). This definition is deliberately broad because marketing research is a very wide-ranging area of study. Marketing scholars fall under many different categories (consumer behaviorists, empirical modellers, strategists, etc.). Contrary to what outsiders might expect, many of these researchers (including several at Baruch) are focused on promoting consumer well-being. For example, a growing subfield of consumer behavior research known as “Transformative Consumer Research” seeks to promote research that benefits consumer welfare and improves consumers’ quality of life. Scholars in this area study topics like obesity, financial well-being, and addictive consumption. Findings from such research can help inform public policy, and ultimately promote healthier lifestyles.

As an educator, I can’t help but feel that the classroom is an opportune place to introduce students to pro-social marketing research, and to inform them about how marketing can be used to benefit consumer welfare. And perhaps this is the key to rebranding marketing in the long term- creating future business leaders who have society’s best interest at heart.

 

Publicly Sponsored Hate Speech

I hadn’t intended to write another post about the virulent hatred of fat, fatness, and fat people that is currently shaping our culture. My previous post on the topic led to some interesting and intense conversation, but there are many other topics to discuss and many other dangerous political trends to analyze. Besides, this is a communications blog.

But when I came across this astonishing campaign image on the subway recently, I realized that it deserves its own post.

"Cut the Junk" NYC Campaign

“Cut the Junk” NYC Campaign

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Color in Packaging

It is a well-known fact that packaging communicates a great deal of information about a product. Research has indicated that this is particularly true for food packaging which has led regulation agencies efforts towards improving the way that product information is presented on food packages. Recent studies have suggested that nutrition labels and the abundant verbal information about food ingredients on the back of the package might not be the most effective way to inform consumers. Most people do not take the time to regularly read these labels and if and when they do, the majority of people do not understand them.

In Europe, attempts were made to improve the way information is presented on food packaging with the use of colors. Specifically, a traffic light color coding system was developed that would indicate with the colors green, yellow and red the extent of calories, nutrition value, sugar content, etc. This approach might be successful as it simplifies the way nutritional information is communicated, ultimately making it easier and faster for consumers to understand what they are buying. Although the wide application of this system is still challenged, it promises to have success as part of a broader campaign against obesity.

EU food label

Using color to communicate information sounds like the most logical and effective way; after all, we see it in nature and in modern society. Importantly, the lack of color also seems like a good way to communicate information. For instance, in some countries regulators have passed new cigarette pack requirements according to which cigarette packs will be stripped of all marketing information including color. Packs will be either white or in dull color in order to appear less attractive.

These are all great ideas that if consistently incorporated and effectively communicated to consumers, promise to be very effective.

Thinking of plain or white color (as in cigarette packs) made me think about other products where a lack of color can be effectively used. For instance, recent claims have emerged that sugar could be one very toxic and unhealthy ingredient in foods, and a major reason behind obesity. Many images have appeared online that illustrate the content of sugar in some not so healthy food products like sweet drinks. The visualization is quite powerful. If research keeps accumulating evidence that sugar is indeed a danger to our health then maybe it is important that sugar content information should be more effectively communicated on packaging. Perhaps food products that contain large amounts of sugar should be treated as highly risky products dangerous to health that require special packaging. Maybe the more sugar that a drink contains the whiter its package should be. It might sound extreme but just think about how long it took us to realize cigarettes are deadly and that their packaging needs to be regulated. Sugar might very well be the new cigarettes that are killing us. Too bad that white color is actually a “good color” in terms of the general associations it evokes.

Sugary Beverages

Personal Branding

One of the most viewed articles in the Wall Street Journal last week, Must-Have Job Skills in 2013, discusses the most valuable job skills to have next year. The article summarizes four major skills that employers will appreciate the most: 1.Clear communications, 2. Personal branding, 3. Flexibility, and 4. Productivity improvement. Most people will agree that these skills are important and probably so in any year not just 2013. Clear communications being number one in importance is not surprising to anyone; as we know, effective communications is key in any interaction or relationship, be it between employer and employee, between colleagues, friends, or partners. The fact that personal branding is mentioned as the second most important “skill” is rather interesting.

Employers apparently pay much attention to how employees present themselves online: on Twitter, LinkedIn and even Facebook. So companies’ tracking of employees’ behavior online is not limited to professional sites and networks but also stretches to personal ones as well. In other words, everything you post online and all information about you that is accessible online becomes part of your “personal brand”. But what’s really intriguing is that your “personal brand” is no longer personal, it’s now part of your professional profile as well. Not only that, but “workers also should make sure their personal brand is attractive and reflects well on employers”, advise workplace training experts.

Upon careful thinking, there is some logic to this: you cannot fully separate the person from the profession. In essence, you are what you do; therefore, consistency and sync between the personal and the professional parts of your persona should come naturally. In addition, once you are publicly connected to your company online (e.g., you state in your professional or personal social network profile that you work for that company), you become part of the face of the company (along with all others who work for it). So any information in your personal brand that is not consistent with your company’s brand could hurt its image and you will be to blame for it.

Of course, not everything about you that you post online is strictly relevant to your job, let alone to your company. But your personal brand is a gestalt of all the information about you. And when there is ample and detailed personal information accessible online, the information gets considered even when it might not be that relevant. Simply because it’s there and it’s available.

So what are employees supposed to do? Build their personal brands to be consistent with their company’s image? That might gradually “dilute” their personal brands every time they change jobs and have to adjust their online profile accordingly. It might also confuse their friends and family. Or should employees focus on spending time and effort on restricting their privacy settings as much as possible? But this task will be difficult given that often times fellow employees are also friends or even family. There is always a third option of not having a personal brand online at all. But again, that might be considered outdated and also hurt your job. Because as it turns out both companies and people like publicity.

A Glimpse of Themselves

Some years ago I learned of the existence of a “public editor” at The New York Times — someone charged with sifting through and consolidating the feedback and concerns of readers — an advocate or representative of sorts. I was delighted to imagine this direct line of access to the top of The Times tower, to someone actually desirous of productive feedback, and immediately conjured the concise, bullet-pointed letter I’d pen — one that would be received with deep gratitude (and likely produce an invitation to come on as a paid consultant). In straightforward language I’d point the editor to a variety of egregious oversights and mistakes he hadn’t yet noticed (including, but not limited to, The Times’ apparent understanding that the passive receipt and regurgitation of press releases from the agents of those who have recently produced corporate-sponsored art forms constitutes art and literary coverage). The fantasy withered, however, as I soon saw that a) The Times is fully cognizant of its inner logics and b) the office of the public editor blunts real critique by providing readers with an aggression-welcoming punching bag.

Defeated, I channeled my concerns into a private transcription of undeniable, mundane error, keeping a running record of grammatical mistakes and patterns. For instance (the comma seems to cause particular trouble):

  • Four of Mitt Romney’s sons get out the message, as well as, offer a glimpse of themselves.
  • In “A Singular Woman,” the author Janny Scott goes beyond what we know about Barack Obama’s mother — a “white woman from Kansas” — to portray a woman who took a more difficult path than her peers’.
  • Chrissie Miller of Sophomore, is still a social force, with a new store, 143.
  • Ms. Rowley poses with Leigh Lezark of the Misshapes, while Mr. Powers, chats with James Frey.
  • In that last montage, some months after East Dillon has done the inconceivable and won the State championship, they are shown as the East Coast people, Eric thought they could never be.
  • Wardrobe diplomacy: Tips on the perfect closet and, more importantly, how to share it your husband!
  • Chuck Close, wearing a colorful suit by the avant-garde fashion label, threeASFOUR.

This last line was published on the same day a thoughtful editorial on comma confusion appeared. Indeed, the newspaper excels in simultaneous grammar meta-commentary and error. An online column is dedicated to tracking the grammatical errors readers have found, and “grammar and usage” is an online “Times Topic,” introduced this way: “Why are people so obsessed with grammar, and so offended by real or imagined lapses? They argue over split infinitives and sentences that end in prepositions, almost to the point of blows…sticklers see proper grammar and usage as a baseline for a civilized society, or at least for a respectable publication. If writers don’t know the difference between “rack” and “wrack,” or between a gerund and a participle, why should we trust them on anything else?”

Once again they’ve beat me to it, anticipating my attacks by providing a column with which to contain them. But I remain undeterred. Perhaps it’s time to write to the public editor, explaining that grammatical outrage might be compensatory, might stem from sources other than grammar itself. In my case, it’s simply a stand-in for the fatigued irritation I feel each time I read about the varieties of fruit that fill Upper West Side blenders in the weekly “Sunday Routines” column.

 

 

FATNESS, BODIES, AND HEALTH

I’m not astonished by the hatred of fatness currently present in our culture, or by the extent to which it has intensified over the past few decades. Cultures go through phases and cycles, and there are always scapegoats and victims of shame and blame. What shocks me is how fully this hatred has been adopted into public discourse.

I’m not going to rehearse the critique of anti-fat discourse in any depth here. Suffice it to say that statistical correlations between fatness and illness have nothing to say about the causes of such illness or how about how to avoid it. It is impossible to isolate the health effects of fatness in a context of rampant dieting, since dieting itself seems to be very unhealthy. Even if fatness were shown to be a predictor of certain kinds of illness, losing weight wouldn’t necessarily be a solution. And even if it were, a predisposition to illness is the last thing in the world that ought to provoke anger or scorn.

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The Irony of Healthy Food

For the past few posts, I’ve been writing about the importance of healthy lifestyles, and particularly, healthy eating. Importantly, however, the definition of healthy isn’t always clear, and that this confusion often leads to negative effects. Nevertheless, with the advent of better access to media and communication sources,the public is becoming more and more educated, and (presumably) able to make better choices with regards to food.

In addition, there have been many efforts made by organizations like the government in helping push the healthy eating agenda. For example, across various cities and states in the U.S., a tax policy on items like soda has been proposed in large part to curb health issues like childhood obesity. In New York City, a new regulation, started in 2008, limits restaurants to using trans fat-free ingredients, and fines those who do not comply. And while such tax proposals on “bad” foods are becoming more and more commonplace in recent time, some legislatures have even gone as far as suggesting a “Fat Tax,” or in other words, a tax for simply being obese.

Beyond the political side of things, companies themselves appear to be taking on an initiative towards providing consumers with healthier food options. For example, fast food chains like Subway position themselves almost entirely as being a healthier option than the typical burger joints. Even restaurants like Dunkin Donuts, the epitome of unhealthy eating, have joined in on the fight and changed their recipes towards healthier alternatives. Moreover, a huge trend in the past few years has been the addition of altogether healthy menu options. One of the pioneering retailers to do this was McDonald’s, whose salads, fruit side dish, and even whole wheat bun options have led others to follow suit.

While the addition of healthier options (theoretically) represent the good intentions of fast food restaurants, there is uncertainty with whether these efforts are truly benefitting society. In fact, recent work in the academic literature suggests the opposite. In one recent paper by Wilcox, Vallen, Block, and Fitzsimons (2009), the researchers examined consumers’ choices when presented with either menus that contained unhealthy and healthy options (i.e., french fries, salad) or menus that only included unhealthy options (i.e., french fries, cheeseburgers). Quite surprisingly, findings suggest that when menu included healthy options, consumers were more likely to choose the most unhealthy option than when the menu included only unhealthy options. Further examination of this effect provided support for a vicarious goal fulfillment explanation–that is, when consumers saw the healthy options on the menu, they felt like they vicariously fulfilled their health goals, and thus were licensed to indulge by choosing the most fattening, unhealthy option instead.

In a similar vein, other research has found that consumers often perceive of all food items at so-called healthier restaurants as having fewer calories than those  found at restaurants that are not primarily positioned as being healthy. In work by Chandon and Wansink (2007), consumers were found to underestimate the total number of calories in foods from restaurants positioned as being healthy. Additionally, this health halo generalized onto the side dishes they chose: the healthier the restaurant was perceived to be (due to the availability of healthier menu options and a little bit of marketing), the more unhealthy side dish options consumers chose.

Thus, I leave you to ponder what the best plan of action is. If the efforts being made by the push towards healthy eating by the government and companies is backfiring, what is left to be done? Can educating consumers, and thus making them aware of these effects as highlighted above, help? Whatever the answer may be, it is crucial for us to figure out the answer. With  1 in every 3 Americans is now technically considered obese,  figuring it out now may greatly affect our society for generations to come.

 

The prize versus the wage

David Graeber’s phrase “the alienated right to do good,” captures for me the inequality of opportunity to choose meaningful, socially and ethically engaged work.[1] Two recent talks have made me think about this alienation in a new way. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Director of Scholarly Communication at MLA  gave a talk at BLSCI on March 29 called “Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy.” Given the change in academic publishing—companies accept fewer manuscripts these days, but academic jobs require more publications than before—Fitzpatrick suggests that scholars use the internet to circulate their ideas. Not only do blogging and other forms of web communication help connect a scholarly community, she argues, but they also draw attention to the scholar’s ideas, thus making a book more marketable.

This reminded me of a rueful little joke I told myself when I was on the job market this spring and odds were looking very long. I decided that if I did not find an academic job I’d tell my family that I had decided on a new career and was moving to LA to write screenplays. What I thought was funny about this, if it isn’t obvious, was that a teaching job was not something I expected to have as long odds, and require as many years of no-wage (research) and low-wage (adjunct) labor. And I didn’t think that choosing to work towards a career as a professor meant I had the same kind of ego and tenacity it takes to make it in Hollywood. Now I’m not so sure. Fitzpatrick’s outline of the new career path for academics predicts that this ratio will grow, and her prescription for academics is that we adapt and, I guess in turn, continue to support this work structure. In her speech on “Communicative Capitalism,” political scientist Jodi Dean claims that currently we’re working less for a wage and more for a prize—we work not to be paid but for the opportunity to compete, and the chance to win, pay. While I disagree with many of the points Dean makes in this talk, this particular point seemed to hit the mark.

In a recent conversation with a few colleagues, though, we all agreed to nix high salaries for full professors, decrease top salaries to 70 thousand or so, and pay graduate teachers about 30 grand to start. This would mean much less grad student debt. It has been remarked before that any incentive to change the university labor system dies once one reaches tenure. We’ve got our eyes on the prize. 

Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman” seemed worn and wan when I first read it—it was a play that seemed very relevant to my father, though. But, with the current Broadway revival, and Dean’s speech, I saw a new resonance in the line “I am not a dime a dozen. I am Willy Loman!” Has my choice of career with such long odds, that demands unpaid work, been the result of a privileged sense of what my opportunities should be? Am I doing this because I think I’m special, and deserve a special, rare career? In this case, do I “pay” for the privilege of this special job through unpaid labor? Or, is my job choice situated in a context in which the wish to “do good,” to use my labor not only to provide for myself, but also to be part of a collaborative, ethically engaged project alienated?

To put it more simply, it is harder to find this kind of work, and I have come to take that fact as a given. But, I wonder if academics’ sense of the privilege of this kind of work is part of what allows this exploitation to happen. If so, are we right? Are we paying for a privilege? Do long odds come with the nature of the reward? Or are we being exploited?


[1] David Graeber, “An Army of Altruists: on the alienated right to do good,” Harpers Magazine (January 2007): 31-38.

Food for Thought

Several months ago, I watched  Forks Over Knives, a movie about the possibility of reversing some of even the most serious diseases afflicting people in the United States. The main premise of the film, like a lot of new research coming out these days, is that animal-based products can lead to a variety of problems, including heart-related diseases, diabetes, and even cancers. Like most people who have watched the movie, I was astounded by these claims. While I knew that the typical, greasy cuisines found at most fast food joints were bad for your health, I never imagined that even the products I thought were okay (i.e., milk and fish) were considered detrimental. While the film made numerous statements about the dangers of consuming these foods, what was scarier was the mounds of research that was cited to back these claims. When I finished watching the film, it was not the legitimacy of these statements that I was really shocked by, but rather by the lack of communication this cause was receiving.

After thinking about this film some more, I began to realize that there was no mystery as to why this type of extreme healthy eating diet has gone unnoticed in our society. Having grown up in an Americanized European family, I quickly remembered how my parents used to take me to McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and KFC (formerly known as “Kentucky Fried Chicken”) for the convenience—typical 1980s style dining. No one was coming out with grandiose health claims or posting caloric information in these restaurants, so my parents (like many people at the time) had no idea that these foods could potentially be so bad for my health. With fierce marketing efforts targeted directly at children, and a lack of knowledge about the nutritional value of fast food, it was no wonder why the industry became as large as it did, and healthier food was ignored.

Nevertheless, although a general lack of knowledge about healthy eating could have been to blame in the 80s, it seems like an unlikely explanation in today’s day and age, with all the available health information out there. So, what was the reason why word of better, healthier diets wasn’t more prevalent? While I thought about this question, I recalled a marketing class I had in college. In this class, we had learned how the area of health was a very delicate topic in this country, and also about the grandiose financial incentives tied to the pharmaceutical industry. Importantly, we learned about the marketing of disease, and how the pharmaceutical industry uses a variety of techniques to push medicines and diagnoses onto people through doctors and commercials. Was Big Pharma to blame for the lack of communication regarding healthy eating? After all, eating healthy and following the particular non-animal-based diet as cited in Forks Over Knives is supposed to reverse many common diseases, so much so that people who follow this diet are able to get off their medications for good.

In thinking about this issue further still, I also began to think about the problem of changing people’s minds with regards to eating. Given that people are so used to specific foods and lifestyles, it is an extremely difficult task to try to change their behavior. As a researcher of health marketing myself, I know that mounds of effort have been made in attempt to alter maladaptive diets and habits, yet have not proven as effective as they could be. Every day, there is some new article about the staggering statistic on obesity, and how the problem is starting earlier and earlier in childhood. Yet despite all the news and publicity, these diseases ensue.

So how can we, as a society, better communicate the vast amounts of information about healthy eating better, and surpass any barriers/obstacles? My idea is that, like most important values and lessons in life, the solution can start in the classroom. Even though a strict, animal-less diet may be the golden standard to healthy eating, any healthy eating might help. While some may argue that educating young consumers may not be enough, I remind you about the power that children can have on adults’ and families’ decisions. Perhaps the solution does in fact start within the elementary school classroom.