Songs by Ed Sheeran, Van Morrison, Janet Jackson and German heavy metal band The Scorpions have been deployed to test how musical ambience affects people’s menu selections in cafes and supermarkets.
A study conducted in Stockholm, Sweden, and led by Dipayan Biswas of the University of South Florida Muma College of Business in the US, finds that louder music results in a distinct preference for cheese burgers over salads.
To make their findings Biswas and colleagues compiled soundtracks of popular songs and played them in a café and supermarket over several days. The music was played either at 50 decibels (roughly the noise level of a quiet conversation) or 70 decibels (about as noisy as a vacuum cleaner) and customer food choices were duly logged.
The available items were classified as either “healthy” – such as salads, vegetable wraps or granola with yoghurt – or “unhealthy” – including burgers, chips, fudge cookies and pork sandwiches with cheese. Tea, coffee and (strangely) instant mashed potatoes were classified as neutral.
The results showed that louder music prompted a greater proportion of unhealthy purchases. Exposed to the 50-decibel soundtrack, 32% of customer choices were classified as healthy, compared to 25% for people who made selections while the music was blaring.
In a paper published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, the researchers suggest the difference arises because quiet music induces relaxation, while louder sound prompts feelings of excitement, and these two states condition food choices.
The results suggest that ambient sound levels can be manipulated by retailers and restaurateurs to influence purchases. They also suggest that if you’re thinking of setting up a salad bar at a Megadeth concert you’re probably on a hiding to nowhere.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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