Ever felt like you’ve been conned by a crisp packet? At first, it feels full of promise, but once opened, you hear that dreaded gasp of air escaping, feel a sagging in your hands, and look inside to discover it contains only a disappointing handful of crisps. Or perhaps you went out and bought some mascara or a spray deodorant only to discover that it was only half full? Misleading packaging has become a huge issue in the UK, with thousands of consumers unwittingly succumbing to clever packaging designs that disguise the real size or content of the product. From filling up packets with air to using cardboard sleeves on ready meals, packaging can hide all manner of sins and con us into thinking we’re getting good value for money.
A particularly sneaky ploy used on some forms of packaging is the emphasis on products as ‘light’, ‘lite’ or ‘reduced’, which are numerous when walking along the supermarket shelves. Rather than actually informing the customer of the product’s fat or sugar content, for example, these labels simply work to promote the product, a sneaky tactic exploiting consumer desires to be ‘healthier’. It may be surprising to hear that, in order to be labelled any of these, the qualification is simply that products need to have at least 30% less of one key nutrient compared with the standard version. It has become apparent among consumers that some products which seem healthy are perhaps not as good for you as they are advertised. One such issue is that in order to keep the product tasting good, many low-fat products have hidden high sugar or trans-fats contents which can result in a similar calorie count to the original product. Promoting a product with ‘30% per cent less fat’ may sound more appealing, but it is still fundamentally deceptive.
Similarly, Cadbury’s chocolate has come under scrutiny for its advertising of their Creme Eggs, whose chocolate content has been replaced with a ‘standard cocoa mix chocolate’ rather than the classic Dairy Milk associated with the brand. A Cadbury’s spokesperson defended the change, commenting that ‘the Creme Egg had never been called Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Creme Egg. We have never played on the fact that Dairy Milk was used.’ However, it still feels deceptive given that their marketing and use of the Cadbury’s logo plays upon the customer’s associations of Cadbury’s with good quality chocolate.
Such packaging tactics have been used for a long time, but it has only recently come to light how the content of goods inside continue to shrink. Retailers and manufacturers have been manipulating customers by shrinking products for a long time, motivated by a desire to maximise their profit margins. For instance, there was furor amongst Fingers fans when Cadbury decided to cut down the size of their boxes in 2015 by two sticks of the chocolate covered biscuits whilst keeping the price the same. The consumer group Which? has recently pointed out how hundreds of supermarket items have reduced in size while their price has remained the same or even increased. Andrex was one culprit, cutting down the number of sheets on their standard loo rolls from 240 to 221 sheets, but maintaining the same price. Similarly, the chocolate digestives lovers of this world will be disappointed to hear that the McVitie’s packets have reduced by more than 10%, but have in fact risen in price. These had sold in Tesco for £1.59 before the packet size shrank, but increased to £1.69 afterwards. Brands defended their position by arguing that it was up to supermarkets to set prices. However, these brands would not disclose if they had charged the stores a lower wholesale price, effectively making their argument irrelevant.
While these findings may seem shocking, perhaps the decision to reduce the size of high fat and sugar items is no bad thing in light of the rising obesity crisis in the UK, and in fact may help combat the issue in combination with policies like Britain’s sugar tax. Nevertheless, there should be far more transparency in marketing practices to ensure that customers are not being deceived by misleading packaging sizes.