Want to make cheap wine taste good? Stick an expensive price tag on it

Thursday, 30 April, 2015

How do you convince your guests that the cheap bottle of plonk you’re pouring them tastes great? Tell them it cost more than it actually did. Preconceived beliefs may create a placebo effect so strong that the actual chemistry of the brain changes, blinding consumers to the actual taste, new research has shown.

“Studies have shown that people enjoy identical products such as wine or chocolate more if they have a higher price tag,” wrote study authors Hilke Plassmann (INSEAD) and Bernd Weber (University of Bonn).

“However, almost no research has examined the neural and psychological processes required for such marketing placebo effects to occur.”

Participants were told they would be consuming five different wines, with values ranging from $5 to $90, while their brains were scanned using an MRI. In reality, only three different wines were offered - with only two different prices.

Another experiment saw participants drink milkshakes that were labelled to generate either positive or negative expectations - in this case, they were labelled as ‘organic’ (positive) or ‘light’ (negative). Participants consumed identical milkshakes but were told they were either organic or regular, or light or regular.

The participants’ measurable brain activity and perception of taste were significantly affected by the price and taste prejudices.

The authors found that participants who were strong reward-seekers or who were low in physical self-awareness were more susceptible than other participants to having their experience shaped by prejudices about the product.

“Understanding the underlying mechanisms of this placebo effect provides marketers with powerful tools. Marketing actions can change the very biological processes underlying a purchasing decision, making the effect very powerful indeed,” the authors concluded.

The research was published in the Journal of Marketing Research.

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