Consumers everywhere are exposed to a constant preoccupation with health and nutrition. Packaged, processed food and beverage products are often criticized because they represent a departure from ‘simple, natural whole foods’ that are the archetype of healthy eating. At the same time, consumers are attracted to the convenience benefits, as well as the tastes and textures of today’s food and beverage products.
To resolve the conflicts between an aspiration to eat healthy while taking advantage of the vast range of highly desirable packaged food and beverage products, consumers create what may be called ‘permission structures.’ Permission structures are lines of reasoning about products, and about people, that reduce the potential for values conflict between packaged food consumption and a desire for healthy eating lifestyles.
Our research has led us to identify four categories of permission structures, each of which operates in a range of situations to support consumers’ decisions to use packaged foods and beverages:
- Nutrition-Based Permission: tied to the ingredients of the product itself
- Situational Permission: linked to consumer lifestyle constraints or requirements
- Emotional Permission: tied to psychological benefits of a product
- ‘Not Me’ Permission: involving denial of responsibility for the consumption decision
These permission structures may operate separately or in combination whenever a consumer chooses to consume a packaged food or beverage that could pose a values conflict for the consumer ‘ including situations where moms and dads make purchases, mindful of their responsibilities to be ‘good parents.’
Nutrition-based permission structure is created when the consumer focuses on the individual highly symbolic ingredient, and shapes an attitude toward a product based on this ingredient. In psychological terms the consumer ‘takes the part for the whole,’ and reacts to the product overall on the basis of the ingredient.
- ‘Good’ ingredients often attain positive status because they are linked to the ‘simple, natural, whole’ food archetype of nutrition such as:
- ‘It’s OK because it has low/no _______ [salt, high fructose corn syrup, calories].’
- ‘It’s OK because it has/is made from _______ [organic fruit, whole grains].’
Situational permission structures are the way consumers tell themselves ‘I’m doing the best I can.’ In this case, meeting the basic need of sustenance ‘ vs. going hungry or staying thirsty ‘ takes priority over the quality of the sustenance.
Two types are common:
- Rush Permission: ‘I won’t have time to eat otherwise.’
- Conflict-Avoidance Permission: ‘My child/teen/husband will at least eat something.’
Emotional permission structures are created whenever the act of eating or drinking moves outside of the functional goal of sustenance. When the emotional benefits of sensory pleasure take precedence over the act of eating or drinking, the rules of nutrition are temporarily suspended.
These are often seen in:
- Reward Permission: ‘You’ve done _______, so you can have a _______.’
- Indulgence Permission: ‘Oh what the heck’ live a little.’
‘Not me’ permission is created when the circumstances of the purchase or consumption allow the adult decision-maker to deny responsibility for the consumption decision ‘ creating a situation where the values system is not in operation. Two types are noted:
- Not For Me: ‘I wouldn’t buy these except that my children love them.’
- Radar Eating: Perhaps the most psychologically intriguing permission structure is typically created when a snack is in bite-sized form. This snack is often accessed in a container, which has more than one portion. The container is opened and the consumer eats pieces from the container while engaged in another activity (e.g., watching television). The consumer proceeds to eat most or all of the container and is then ‘surprised’ to find that he/she has done so. In order to be subject to ‘radar eating’ permission, a snack typically requires eating characteristics that make consumption truly automatic:
- Crunch (signals time for another piece when sound disappears)
- Good mouth clearance of flavor (prevents satiation)
- ‘I can’t believe I ate the whole bag!’
Understanding the psychological permission structures can help marketers appreciate the decisions consumers make to consume food and beverage products. This improved understanding can prove invaluable to marketers who seek to sell their products based upon a deeper understanding of how the consumer makes choices.
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