Supermarkets employ many tricks to get us to buy more and more (unhealthy) products. Do we find this a problem, or do we secretly enjoy it?

We talked to Will Jansen, author of the book The Supermarket Lie, and philosopher Marc de Kesel about this in the Studium Generale Denkcafé on the night of Wednesday May 14th.

Jansen criticizes the way in which supermarkets seduce the heedless consumer, and lie to them to make money off our health. Supermarkets do their very best to convince us to snatch that extra bag of chips off the shelves: some 60 percent of the supermarket revenue consists of (mostly unhealthy) impulse-based purchases. Philosopher De Kesel, contrarily, thinks that we ourselves actually like to be misled: ‘It is just like an erotic game: you know you’re being seduced, but you want it to continue.’

Growing carts and the whining zone

Blowing artificial bread odors into the store, enlarging shopping carts, putting A-brands on eye-level: Jansen recounts the various ways in which supermarkets convince their customers to spend more money. Baskets on wheels prevent you from hurrying to the cashier because your basket was cutting into your arm. The infamous ‘whining zone’ near the checkout, with chocolate bars and packs of chewing gum, was, as the name suggests, designed especially for whining kids who are tired of waiting. A smart move: the whining zone is responsible for some five percent of revenue.

Of course, students are also exposed to the seduction of supermarket marketing. But is that such a big problem? A student in the audience doesn’t think so: ‘I am an impulse buyer. I buy what I want, and if I get a desire for something because of a commercial or a trick, I have no problem with that.’

Fruitless fruit yogurt

Being conscious of the marketing tricks around you is half the job, according to Jansen. Have you ever wondered why you enter the supermarket near the fruit and vegetables? According to him, that is in order to give the customers the impression that they have already been acting healthily, so they will buy more unhealthy products in the rest of the store. He also warns for empty claims of health, like those regarding fruit yogurt in which there’s nearly no fruit, and those regarding low-fat products. In closing, he points out that you had better not purchase pre-cut or treated products: ‘Cut your own green beans. That is healthier, tastier, and you will reduce the risk of, for example, salmonella.

Clumsy seduction

Marc de Kesel supports Jansen’s plea for more honesty about food, but thinks that we as consumers play a part in this as well, because we just like to be seduced. Yet he says that he himself doesn’t fall for the supermarket seduction: ‘I am bothered by the aggression and clumsiness of the seduction in supermarkets. I want to be seduced in a subtle way.’

If it were up to Jansen, we would from now on only find grey carton boxes in supermarkets with a label on which it would exactly say what it contains: ‘That is how a box of tasty-looking hamburgers changes into what it really is: a box of mechanically separated meat mixed with blood plasma and starch.’ De Kesel thinks that not only supermarkets are not particularly willing to achieve this, but neither are consumers. Because in the end, we would prefer the illusion of a tasty hamburger than a grey box of slaughter residue. IS