Framing Our Food: Companies Are Stealth Shrinking Our Food Packaging & Calling It Good for Us

Because I wrote a post recently about framing, I think it was on my mind, so when I came across this article yesterday from the New York Times about how companies are shrinking the sizes of product packages (so that they can raise prices without actually raising prices), several of the examples popped out at me as great (but unfortunate) illustrations of framing.

Here's the context: food prices are increasing, so instead of raising prices of packaged foods (citizens don't respond well to raising prices), companies have, as the article says, "tried to camouflage price increases by selling their products in tiny and tinier packages." And people have started to notice...and get a little cranky about it. This strategy isn't new. But the way that companies are framing these changes, in order to counteract and preempt consumer backlash, is becoming increasingly creative. As the article says, "...this time, the smaller versions are 'greener' (packages good for the environment) or more 'portable' (little carry bags for the takeout lifestyle) or 'healthier' (fewer calories)."

Here are a couple of prime examples:
  • Kraft is introducing "Fresh Stacks" packages for a couple of its cracker products. The packages have "about 15 percent fewer crackers than the standard boxes," for the same price. What's the benefit of this new packaging? "Kraft says that because the Fresh Stacks include more sleeves of crackers, they are more portable and 'the packaging format offers the benefit of added freshness,' said Basil T. Maglaris, a Kraft spokesman, in an e-mail." (I love the use of "packaging format.")

  • Certain bags of chips now hold 20 percent fewer chips than they did in 2009. The reason, according to a company spokesman? "...those extra chips were just a 'limited time' offer."

  • Proctor & Gamble has expanded its "Future Friendly" products, "which it promotes as using at least 15% less energy, water or packaging than the standard ones." (But, of course, that's in large part because the product is smaller.)

I don't think many will dispute the logic that, if food prices increase, so will prices for packaged foods. But there's something many people consider dishonest in maintaining the shelf price while shrinking the packaging and framing it as something other than a price increase. It's clever, but unkind.

Framing is an important social construction to learn and understand, so that we're aware of how issues and opinions (and products) are being framed for us -- and so that we can use honest and accurate framing ourselves. It's also a great topic for exploring with students, to improve their media literacy and critical thinking skills.

~ Marsha

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