05/05/2013 11:15 EDT | Updated 07/05/2013 05:12 EDT

What I Learned This Week: How to Modify Your Perception

When is a food not a food?

To legions of concerned and vocal do-gooders, its when "Big Agri" steps in and toys with Mother Nature to produce Genetically Modified Organisms, a.k.a. GMOs.

But to people in the marketing biz, it's when "Big Brother" steps in and toys with definitions and behaviour change to produce Perspectively Modified Organisms, a.k.a. (well, as of this sentence) PMOs.

Now this may sound somewhat ominous, but in the end, depending on the behaviour being adjusted, PMOs can please both the boardroom and do-gooders alike.

The modern PMO trend started in 2004, when Kraft (more specifically, its Nabisco division) responded to the vilification of its less-than-healthy products by shifting attention away from the foodstuff itself and onto the repackaging of it with the introduction of "100-Calorie Packs." Instead of gorging on handfuls Chips Ahoy! cookies or Ritz Crackers with peanut butter, consumers could now daintily pick through wallet-sized, predetermined portions of the same.

That was one small step for a man (or woman), but a giant leap for snack-food marketers, as they changed consumer perspective from chomping "snacks" to expending a small portion of their daily caloric intake instead; a win-win that simultaneously reduced public guilt and increased corporate bottom lines (the idea was a huge win, and because of the massive margins it delivered, was quickly adapted by other companies).

The latest such Perspective Modification has not yet been put into everyday practice...but should be.

And, I suspect, will be. Soon.

Right now, in an effort at consumer education for best health practices, many restaurants are providing calorie count info on their menus. Despite some mind-numbing figures (I remember a colleague almost falling off his chair upon learning that the "healthy" Cobb salad he would regularly wolf down at Ted's Montana Grill in New York was a 1,232-calorie fat-bomb), the end result is that people still aren't ordering fewer fact, some order an extra glass of wine to help them forget just how many they are consuming.

However, a study released two weeks ago by researchers at Texas Christian University suggests that what would be way more powerful and persuasive than mere calorie data would be listing the exercise needed in order to burn off the food eaten.

In a nutshell, the study took 300 young adults, aged 18 to 30, and separated them into three groups. While their food selection was the same (a standard American fare of burgers, fries, chicken sandwiches, salads, etc.), their menus were different:

  • One group's had calorie labels and food listings
  • One group's was food listings only
  • And one group's had labels of minutes of brisk walking required to burn off the calories in the food items (i.e. two hours of brisk walking to burn off a cheeseburger)

Suddenly, to one group, food wasn't food anymore. And the results were...well, what you'd expect: those given the "exercise" menus consumed way fewer calories than the people with or without the calorie count. This shouldn't come as a major shock, because no matter how many calories you add up, people just don't understand the notion of them. To most, a calorie is ephemeral intangible; what people DO understand is hard, sweat-inducing exercise...which, to many, is a fate worse than death.

I'm an exercise fanatic and just this morning, I did a lung-busting 30 minute power-ride on an networked stationary bike. For all my huffing, puffing and thigh-burning, I disposed of 360 calories, which is about a slice of an all-dressed pan pizza from Domino's, or a five-ounce petite filet from Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. That's not an equation tipped in my favour. When food becomes work, I'll think twice about what goes in my mouth.

Bang! Perception Modified.

It's not just about food, either. Last week, I had a meeting with two friends of mine who run a foundation that provides art to hospitals and other institutions of healing or convalescence. They asked me how they could raise more money for their operation.

It's a hard sell three ways:

  • Medical people face bigger problems and are severely time and budgetarily challenged
  • Art people may be off-put by the venue
  • The general public doesn't understand or necessarily care about art


My advice was to PMO their raison d'etre. Like changing snacks into calorie counts, I suggested they change art into medicine by referring to what they deliver as "Visual Meds" or "Visual Tranquilizers."

No guarantee of a win, but at least it's a way towards a new start of a new way to think.

So what was this week's big lesson? In essence...

How things are seen is way more important than what things actually are.

And the best way to change people is to change their perspectives on how they see things.

Anyway, after all this writing, I'm starved. I think I'll go eat a TRX workout and wash it down with two-thirds of my hockey game tonight.