The Cost of “No” on Potato Chips

What can snack food marketing tell us about political campaigns?

Jacqueline Moen

With the political season going full tilt and food fights coming to a head over eating dogs and questionable cookies, there’s another place you might find signs of the nation’s red-state blue-state political divide: the advertising on potato chips bags.

In a study published last year in Gastronomica, student Josh Freedman and linguist Dan Jurafsky of Stanford examined the language found on 12 different brands of potato chips. They discovered that six less expensive brands of chips had fewer words on the bags and that those words emphasized the food’s authenticity through tradition and hominess, making claims like this: “Family-made, in the shadow of the Cascades, since 1921.” (In much the same way politicians aren’t prone to usin’ highfalutin language around down-home audiences.)

More expensive potato chips—the ones you might expect to find at health food stores—tended to distinguish themselves with longer words. Their descriptions focused more on health and naturalness, emphasizing how they were different: “No artificial flavors, no MSG, no trans fats, no kidding.” Indeed, for each additional “no,” “not,” “never,” “don’t,” or “won’t” that appeared on the bag, the price of potato chips climbed an average of four cents an ounce.

In a post about the research (in which he notes readers should take the study “with a grain of salt”), Jurafsky writes: “These models of natural versus traditional authenticity are part of our national dialogue, two of the many ways of framing that make up our ongoing conversation about who we are.”

Perhaps the results are not all that surprising. This is how marketing a President or a potato chip works—you find a target audience and you try to sell them something, using their language, even when your product might not be all that different from its competitors. “No” can tap into yes, indeed.

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