Can cheap wine taste great? Brain imaging and marketing placebo effects

April 29, 2015

When consumers taste cheap wine and rate it highly because they believe it is expensive, is it because prejudice has blinded them to the actual taste, or has prejudice actually changed their brain function, causing them to experience the cheap wine in the same physical way as the expensive wine? Research in the Journal of Marketing Research has shown that preconceived beliefs may create a placebo effect so strong that the actual chemistry of the brain changes.

"Studies have shown that people enjoy identical products such as wine or chocolate more if they have a higher price tag," write authors Hilke Plassmann (INSEAD) and Bernd Weber (University of Bonn). "However, almost no research has examined the neural and psychological processes required for such marketing placebo effects to occur."

Participants in one of the studies were told they would consume five wines ($90, $45, $35, $10, $5) while their brains were scanned using an MRI. In reality, subjects consumed only three different wines with two different prices. Another experiment used labels to generate positive ("organic") or negative ("light") expectations of the pleasantness of a milkshake. Some consumed identical milkshakes but thought they would be either organic or regular; others consumed identical milkshakes but thought they would be either light or regular.

Participants showed significant effect of price and taste prejudices, both in how they rated the taste as well as in their measurable brain activity. The MRI readings related in part to specific areas of the brain that differ from person to person. These differences are also associated with known differences in personality traits. The authors were able to further determine that people who were strong reward-seekers or who were low in physical self-awareness were also more susceptible to having their experience shaped by prejudices about the product.

"Understanding the underlying mechanisms of this provides marketers with powerful tools. Marketing actions can change the very biological processes underlying a purchasing decision, making the effect very powerful indeed," the authors conclude.

Explore further: What's in your wine? New study reveals how production methods affect color and taste of pinot noir

More information: Hilke Plassmann and Bernd Weber, "Individual Differences in Marketing Placebo Effects: Evidence from Brain Imaging and Behavioral Experiments." Forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing Research.

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baudrunner
not rated yet Apr 29, 2015
I have never judged a wine on cost. For example, a 1.5 liter bottle of a fine Cabernet Sauvignon - San Pedro Gato Negro, has a shelf price in British Columbia of $13.89, and this wine has the highest rating in its class. That is a great deal, especially when you remember that in Canada, liquor is taxed ridiculously high. Markups amount to 117 per cent of the actual product cost. You don't need to spend a lot to get a lot.

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