When Laura Scudder set out to create a better potato chip package in 1926, she had her female employees iron wax paper linings inside paper bags. The airtight bags transformed chips, removing them from barrels and tins and placing them on store shelves pretty much indefinitely. The packaging signaled the ascendancy of the lowly spud as one of the country’s most popular vegetables and a familiar symbol of convenience. The bag did one other thing: it crinkled.
That sound hasn't be lost on food marketers. And the potato chip's own thin, crispy, salty slice of starch also packs a big crunch. Back in 1953, the ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach created the memorable "Noise Abatement League Pledge" commercial, touting Scudder's as "the noisiest chips in the world."
While today's trademarked sights—golden arches, swooshes, and Apples—far eclipse even the most recognizable signature sounds emanating from the mouths of MGM’s lions or the exhaust pipes of Harley Davidsons, sounds play a critical role in branding foods. Listen to the snap, crackle, and pop of a Rice Krispies bowl, the round click of the Snapple top, and the phonetic branding of Kit-Kats, Tutti Frutti, and Coca-Cola.
One researcher who has taken the sound of potato chips seriously—so seriously that he’s introduced them into the lab for scientific scrutiny—is Charles Spence, a neuroscientist at Oxford University. In 2004, he conducted a study on auditory cues and potato chips, where, he says, "We had people biting into 180 Pringles which they could swallow or spit out, depending on how hungry they were." As participants chewed each chip, the researchers picked up the biting sound with a directional microphone. Then, Spence says, "We manipulated it, making it louder or quieter, or boosting just certain frequency sounds."
When the researchers amplified the crunching sound, test subjects rated the chips as crispier. When Spence muted the crunch, or took out the high frequency sounds, the volunteers scored the chip as less crisp. In a more conventional setting, like the local 7-Eleven or a backyard barbecue, crinkling up a bag of chips may set us up to think the chips themselves will be nice and crispy. “I started speaking to some of the packaging engineers and found that there’s no good reason in terms of product preservation for the noisy packets,” Spence told me. “As far as I can tell, it must just be some intuitive marketing on the part of man or woman who thought, ‘Well, it’s a noisy food, it’s got to have the right expectations for the packaging.’”
What’s even more surprising is how pervasive these auditory associations are. Dan Jurafsky, a Stanford linguist who blogs on The Language of Food, recently performed a “breakfast experiment” on 81 ice cream flavors and 592 cracker brands. He found that the ice cream names tended to employ back vowels—sounds formed in the back of our mouths that generally refer to big, fat, heavy things. Front vowels, on the other hand, tend to be used in words that refer to small, thin, light foods, like crackers.
Say them out loud: rocky road, chocolate, cookie dough, coconut—heavy on low-frequency o's. Now listen to Cheese Nips, Cheez-Its, Wheat Thins, Ritz Bits, Triscuit, Cheese Crisps—you can hear all those little bitty e's and i's.
These things matter. Sound symbolism appears to be more universal than the kinds of learned cultural associations we pair with colors or odors. One linguistic theory, John Ohala's "Frequency Code," suggests that we associate lower pitches with aggression and hostility, while high-pitched frequencies tend to sound submissive, appeasing, or friendly. And these sound associations may explain the origins of one of the most positive symbols of all—the smile.
"Retracting the corners of the mouth shrinks the size of the front cavity in the mouth, just like the vowels ɪ [ē] or i," Jurafsky writes. "In fact, the similarity in mouth position between smiling and the vowel i explains why we say 'cheese' when we take pictures; it is the smiling vowel."
In other words, making potato chips appealing goes well beyond the right combination of salt and oil. From the atmospheric crinkling of the bag to the crunch inside your mouth, all these sounds influence our perception of food at the affective level. Even saying the word "chip" forces a smile.
It’s easy to see these tools could be used to manipulate and market food deceptively, say, "Snap into an (itty-bitty sounding) Slim Jim!" But it's also worth thinking about how subtle auditory cues might be employed to encourage healthier behaviors—literally, to make healthier food sound better. If baby carrots were rebranded as "bits" or vegetable stands took a cue from Good Humor’s chirpy ice cream jingles, who knows? We might hear about some surprising results.
Top image: Film still via "Laura Scudder's Noise Abatement League Pledge," 1953. Bottom illustration courtesy of Dan Jurafsky.