Watch Your Mouth: The Sounds of Snacking Crunch Time: The Use of Sound in Marketing Foods Watch Your Mouth: The Sounds of Snacking Crunch Time: The Use of Sound in Marketing Foods
Lifestyle

Watch Your Mouth: The Sounds of Snacking Crunch Time: The Use of Sound in Marketing Foods

by Peter Smith

August 27, 2011

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.

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Watch Your Mouth: The Sounds of Snacking Crunch Time: The Use of Sound in Marketing Foods