Enticing words on bags of potato chips have a lot to say about social class, researchers find

Dec 01, 2011 By Sarah Jane Keller
For more expensive chips, authenticity is generated through exotic or handmade processes and ingredients that are described as natural, the researchers say. Credit: Dan Stober

(PhysOrg.com) -- Like politicians who adopt regional accents to appeal to local audiences, the manufacturers of potato chips vary the wording on their bags to convey their products' authenticity in different ways to different buyers.

Stanford researchers have analyzed the marketing language on bags of potato chips and found that whether you crunch an ordinary chip or the priciest-exotic-root-vegetable chip, consumers of all social classes value the product that they think is most authentic.

" is not solely reserved for expensive taste," said Josh Freedman, who graduated from Stanford in June with a degree in public policy. "It's important for all consumers; it's just manifested in different ways."

The study, appearing in the Dec. 6 issue of Gastronomica, uses potato chips to analyze class identity in because "you can't use caviar, you can't use pork rinds, you have to use something everybody eats and that's potato chips," said Dan Jurafsky, a professor of .

Freedman began the project by marching into a and photographing the language on potato chip bags. He attracted the stares of employees who didn't know he was working on his final project for Jurafsky's freshman seminar on food linguistics.

Showing authenticity

According to Freedman, their analysis shows that fans of economical brands can be reached with words indicating the chips are from "the same recipe that your grandmother used to make."

"Authenticity for consumers of inexpensive chips is rooted in tradition and hominess," said Freedman. Jurafsky added that the wording on inexpensive chips might tout well-known locations in America, or play upon the traditions of the company and its individual founder.

Authenticity is important to chip consumers of all social classes, said researcher Josh Freeman, but it's just manifested in different ways. Credit: Dan Stober

Text on less expensive potato chip bags might mention "an old family recipe," a time-honored tradition" or a tip of the hat to "the chips that built our company."

For expensive potato chips, on the other hand, authenticity is generated through exotic or handmade processes and ingredients that are described as natural.  The ingredients list may include "sea salt" or brag that that every batch was "hand-raked."

"It's the difference between identity drawn from family values and America and the kind drawn from naturalness and not being artificial," said Jurafsky.

Freedman and Jurafsky also found that advertisers attempting to draw consumers to expensive chips use rare words, more text and more complicated grammar, along with more mentions of health. It's consistent with the tendency for individuals with higher incomes to be well-educated and health-conscious.

Some common words found on inexpensive chip bags: fresh, light, basic and extra. Words for pricier chips: flair, savory and culinary.

Class distinctions

Freedman and Jurafsky also found language differences that echoed the ideas introduced by economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen at the turn of the 19th century. Veblen, and later sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu, thought that the wealthy, or those who could only hope to appear affluent, needed some way to be distinctive from everyone else.

While Veblen's outrageous behavior likely curtailed his Stanford career to only three years, his ideas about social class distinction persist, even on potato chip bags.

Freedman and Jurafsky found that expensive chips mention not only what they are, but also what they are not. The bags might call the chips unique or the finest and they are—unlike other chips—not fried, not greasy, not fluorescent orange.

"Why would it be that expensive chips have all these negations? It's because they're trying to be different from something else," said Jurafsky.

Now that Freedman has completed the project, he can no longer look at restaurant menus without thinking about their careful wording. "It made me more aware of how we use language and how pervasive certain linguistic elements are," he said.

But the project hasn't changed Freedman's snacking habits. "I still don't eat that many ," he said.

Explore further: Renesas announces SRAM using leading-edge 16 nm FinFET for automotive information systems

More information: Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Winter 2012), pp. 46-54. DOI: 10.1525/gfc.2012.11.4.46

Related Stories

Lays classic chips recalled in north Texas

Dec 11, 2007

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced a recall of 2,460 1.5-ounce bags of Lay's Classic Potato Chips in northern Texas because of a labeling error.

UW-Madison scientists create low-acrylamide potato lines

Jun 10, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- What do Americans love more than French fries and potato chips? Not much-but perhaps we love them more than we ought to. Fat and calories aside, both foods contain high levels of a compound called acrylamide, ...

Fat substitutes linked to weight gain

Jun 20, 2011

Synthetic fat substitutes used in low-calorie potato chips and other foods could backfire and contribute to weight gain and obesity, according to a study published by the American Psychological Association.

Recommended for you

Fuel cells to connect our smartphones to the outside world

36 minutes ago

The potential of hydrogen and fuel cell applications goes way beyond the development of green cars. The FCPOWEREDRBS team is determined to prove this with a Fuel Cell technology to power off-grid telecom stations. They believe ...

China condemns 'cyber terrorism' in wake of Sony attack

3 hours ago

China's foreign minister condemned all forms of "cyber terrorism" in talks with his American counterpart, a statement said Monday, as the US accused Beijing's ally North Korea with being behind a cyber attack on Sony Pictures.

User comments : 5

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

_ilbud
2.3 / 5 (3) Dec 01, 2011
So it's a study of marketing and the targeted demographics as reflected by the taglines used. This isn't physics and it isn't science it's an ingrown marketing nonsensefest produced by people too stupid to understand what they're supposed to be doing.
mrlewish
not rated yet Dec 01, 2011
Isn't this sort of like studying television and coming to the unique and world shaking conclusion that advertiser buy ads in shows that the likely consumer of their product watches.
Prok
5 / 5 (1) Dec 01, 2011
Didn't realize potato chips had so much to do with "Semi-conductors"
hyongx
5 / 5 (1) Dec 01, 2011
Didn't realize potato chips had so much to do with "Semi-conductors"


I normally prefer my Pepper-doped semiconductor potato chips to oNion-doped semiconductor potato chips.
Although Pepper-oNion junction potato chips are the best.
Vendicar_Decarian
not rated yet Dec 01, 2011
As a thinking person, I have no brand loyalty.

Neither do I use a label to do anything but identify the contents of a package.

I find the concept of doing so is completely alien and irrational.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.