Le Big Mac

There were several accounts on the Web last week about New York City’s new law on posting calorie counts in restaurant chains. A study tracked food choices at four fast-food chains—McDonalds, Wendy’s Burger King and Kentucky Friend Chicken—where customers were informed or the calorie content of food items.

The outcome of the study should not be surprising to anyone familiar with the long line of previous field studies of the effects on information on modifying behavior. Research as far back as the energy crisis of the 70s and 80s demonstrated over and over again that posting requests to save energy or informing people of their actual consumption with and without cost feedback did not turn them into energy conservers. Still we continue to rely on information techniques in trying to regulate or change behavior

Evidence from the recent study in New York found that about half the customers noticed the posted calories associated with particular items of food. About a quarter (28%) of those who noticed claimed the information had influenced what they ordered while almost 90% said it had led them to make less caloric choices

But when the investigators analyzed the receipts (during a four week test period), they found that slightly more calories were ordered than the subjects in the control condition that measured customer choices (during a two week baseline period) before the law went into effect—a common control condition in field studies.

The research was carried out in what were said to be “poor neighborhoods” where there are high rates of obesity. “One advocate of calorie posting suggested that low-income people were more interested in price than in calories.” I laughed when I read this knowing full well that while those more financially endowed are probably less concerned about price, they are just as likely as anyone else to ignore the information and let their taste buds or food preferences govern their choices.

Since information approaches are not costly and can be easily implemented, the more central issue is how to make them more effective. Simply posting information or passing out a leaflet doesn’t guarantee by any means that it will be translated into action. Several suggestions have been made on how to overcome this limitation.

• Vivid and highly concrete information should be employed. Instead of posting caloric values, show a symbol of a clogged artery.

• Take account of the motivation of the target population. If you are working in an area where price is important, offer an incentive, say a free burger for every nine ordered, as many coffee shops do for coffee purchases.

• Emphasize the trustworthiness of the message. Pair the information with respectable physician, hospital of government agency rather than McDonald’s or Burger King

• Make the information as personal as possible. Instead of posting the caloric information, arrange to have the manager hand out a colorful card with the same information to each patron with a few words of encouragement.

• Tailor the message to the target population of clients. Again, is price is crucial to the group, make sure to emphasize the incentives for choosing “healthy” items that will lead less costly future purchases, to say nothing future medical expenses.

Noon. Hunger the only thing
singing in my belly.
I walk through the blossoming cherry trees
on the library mall,
past the young couples coupling,
by the crazy fanatic
screaming doom and salvation
at a sensation-hungry crowd,
to the Lake Street McDonald's.
It is crowded, the lines long and sluggish.
I wait in the greasy air.
All around me people are eating—
the sizzle of conversation,
the salty odor of sweat,
the warm flesh pressing out of
hip huggers and halter tops...

The rest of the poem appears at http://poemhunter.blogspot.com/2007/05/you-cant-write-poem-about-mcdonalds.html