A new study finds that consumers seem to prefer it when unhealthy, or indulgent, foods are labeled with a well-known hero as opposed to a villain, but they find healthy foods much more compelling when marketed with a villain.

“If someone wants an ice cream bar and it is packaged with a hero on the label, the kind and benevolent character makes the indulgent product seem less vice,” said Professor Tamara Masters of Brigham Young University.

“But a product that is already healthy, like water, would benefit more from villain labeling because it makes the water seem more edgy and exciting.”

The findings are published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

In one experiment, half the participants saw an image of a Fiji bottle of water and half saw an ice cream bar. The description of the water bottle was either “Villainous Spring Water — unforgiving, cunning, and dangerous” or “Heroic Spring Water — patient, courageous, and with integrity.”

The ice cream bar also showed one of the two descriptions. The results show that the participants were willing to pay more for the bottled water when it was offered with a villainous label than a heroic label. The were also willing to pay more for the ice cream bar shown with the hero label.

The research team also tested this hypothesis in the real world by setting up a sampling table for cheese curds in a grocery store. They alternated the signs describing the cheese curds throughout the day to show either an image of Luke Skywalker or one of Darth Vader from the “Star Wars” movies as well as one of the following phrases: “Healthy and Nutritious” or “Tasty and Decadent.”

The shoppers sampled the cheese curds and then wrote how much they’d be willing to pay for a package of 10 curds. The findings reveal that consumers were willing to pay an average of $3.45 when the curds were described as healthy and nutritious with a picture of Darth Vader, but they would pay only $2.17 with the same description accompanied by an image of Luke Skywalker.

However, when the curds were described as tasty and decadent, consumers were willing to pay more when the picture showed Luke Skywalker.

The team also studied grocery store sales data to see if consumers followed this pattern with their actual purchases.

The researchers tracked sales of an indulgent food product, Betty Crocker fruit snacks, that were packaged with either a heroic image of Scooby Doo or a villain from Star Wars. They found that consumers favored the hero labeling with the vice product, with 289 Scooby Doo sales compared to 156 Star Wars sales.

In light of the current obesity epidemic, these findings could inform policy makers who are eager to discourage unhealthy food choices and encourage nutritious eating. Marketing healthy foods with villains could make them appear more exciting, for example, while placing villain labels on indulgent foods could lead to decreased interest.

“We see hero and villain labeling everywhere we go, and people don’t realize how they use these labels to justify their buying decisions,” Masters said.

“People may want to be healthy and spend less, but they still want something that is exciting, and the right labeling can make this possible.”

Source: Society for Consumer Psychology