Friday, February 27, 2009

Why do we have default choices when we are overwhelmed by options?

The Paradox of Choice argues an interesting point: the more options we have, the more frustrating and stressful it is to evaluate and choose the best option. So, many of us end up defaulting to our true and tried choices. If I go to the store to buy a bag of potato chips in a hurry, I may see baked chips, sea-salted chips, kettle-cooked chips, etc. I honestly don’t feel like reasoning through the options, especially when my roommate will end up eating half of some gourmet kettle cooked bag I paid for. I simply default to a bag of Lay’s ridged potato chips. But how did I choose that default? How do we determine our original choice, our safety, our backup, in the first place? Marketing and brand identity. More than taste, more than product quality, marketing and brand image, characteristics, or even feelings we associate it with, determine which products we will venture out to buy, and which we will default to when overwhelmed by choices. So by the time we reach the grocery store, barring some unforeseen circumstance, our choices have already been made for us by the producers, by the manufacturers, by the grocer and most importantly by the marketer.
I say most importantly because even if a brand new line of potato chips comes out, that tastes better than Lay’s, that’s healthier than Pringles, and is the same price, many brand loyal Americans wouldn’t even think to switch if someone didn’t persuade them to do so. In this case, marketing could be positive. Providing necessary insight into the situation and allowing consumers to make an informed, healthier decision. But more often than not, motives are not so benign.
And it starts before we even know it. McDonald’s ads have traditionally been directed at children, they use theme-park-esce mascots and backdrops to captivate and intrigue. Camel cigarettes used a cartoon Joe Camel to attract young and old to its product and even instructed store owners to place cigarette ads at eye-level with children. It is no secret that the tobacco industry has targeted children, and the food industry is just as guilty.
"Realistically, if our Company is to survive and prosper, over the long term, we must get our share of the youth market. In my opinion, this will require new brands tailored to the youth market."
Claude Teague, RJR, "Research Planning Memorandum on Some Thoughts About New Brands of Cigarettes for the Youth Market," February 2, 1973
Food companies use a complex blend of sciences to analyze consumer wants. In many instances, their primary concern is not to have you love the taste of the food they are selling or even respect their company’s morals, no, they want you to identify with them. Through print ads or commercials, through models, slogans, jingles, and the like. Pepsi is hip. Coke is classic.
If they can hook you, they’ve got you. Not just with addictive cigarettes. One would think coke was still addicting with the staggering brand loyalty observed among Americans. It would be interesting to investigate whether or not Pepsi drinkers prefer Mountain Dew (also Pepsi Company) or Sprite (Coca-cola) or whether or not Lay’s plain potato chip users would be more likely to try Lay’s Sour Cream and Onion chips or those made by Pringles. If you think it doesn’t matter, consider this: Even if McDonald’s drastically reduced the quality of its meat (assuming you don’t feel this has already come to pass), do you think they’d lose a significant portion of business to Burger King or even Wendy’s?
People are more likely to move within brands because we are attracted to foodstuffs for complex reasons. It is more than just taste, or packaging, it is an image, a persona we want to identify and associate with. Within this, lies the real monoculture referred to in Tangled Routes and the true paradox of choice. That there are apples and oranges and bananas to choose from, that there are 20 different Lay’s potato chips flavors, that there are 40 types of cereal at the grocery store, is all a fa├žade for real choice. The paradox is not in having too many choices, but realizing that these “choices” are not choices at all in the sense of the word, some definitions of which include: abundance, variety, diversity, or power to choose. I certainly do not find a trip to the grocery store empowering, when I chose Lay’s over Pringles I feel no sense of accomplishment. But I do feel normal. Sometimes when I choose Doritos I feel kind of wild. When I go for Mountain Dew I think about snowboarding. And when I go to McDonald’s I feel like a kid again. When I eat LeanCuisine I can feel my thighs melting away. Hmmmmm wonder why that is.


Barndt, Deborah. (2008). Tangles Routes: Women, Work, and Globalization on the Tomato Trail, 2nd Edition. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Scholsser, Eric. (2001). Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. New York: Harper Perennial.

How to Build Brand Friendship-

Schwartz, Barry. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: Harper Collins Publishers Inc.

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