The Mind Traps of Pet Food Marketing

The Mind Traps of Pet Food Marketing

Remember that scene in The Princess Bride? When the guy with the lisp keeps saying, "INCONCEIVABLE!" all the time, and the other guy says, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." Remember that?

Well, you might be making some inconceivable mistakes of your own when it comes to pet food. There are an awful lot of health buzzwords that make their way to the packaging of pet food that imply health, but are more marketing than meaning.

Think of terms like "antioxidant," "healthy," "natural," "grain-free," "whole grain" or "gluten-free," for example. At best, these terms meet a minimum regulatory definition, as in, okay, yes, technically, carrots have "antioxidants" in them, but maybe this formula has less than 1% of actual carrot inside. At worst, they are empty words--sometimes variations of words like "natural" and "beneficial"--to lure customers into a false sense of health. A study at the University of Houston looked into the reasons we fall prey to marketing like this on packaged foods; specifically, the degree to which we consumers link marketing terms on food packaging with good health. Those words we see splashed on packaging? They may not mean what we think they mean.

Here's what the researchers found:

Consumers tend to view food products with health-related euphemisms as healthier than those without them, regardless of what's actually included on the nutrition information. Stick a word like "naturally" on the front and we assume all sorts of benefits without a second thought.

Health-related words psychologically "prime" consumers to evaluate what they're looking at with an influenced bias. For example, the word "doctor" not only brings to mind a doctor, but makes related words accessible too. Words like "nurse," "stethoscope," or "medicine." These create a mental framework that skews us positively toward the product, whether or not it deserves that bias. Inconceivable, right?

The researchers found that when participants were shown the front of food packaging that included a health-related word, they would rate the items as healthier than the same package with the word removed. The ingredient lists and nutritional information remained the same on both.

The takeaway, of course, is to pay no attention to anything on commercial pet food packaging but the regulated nutrition information label and ingredient list on the back, far from marketing and the foibles of our primed minds. That's where the truth lies.

References 1, 2 , 3

Gabby Slome

Gabby Slome

NYC native. Certified canine nutritionist. Equestrian. World traveler. Columbia Business School grad. Healthy eater. Mom to the best mutt in the world, (well according to me), Pancho.


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