Mine Eyes Smell Onions

It’s interesting how easily we can be deceived, isn’t it? For ‘tis the sport to have the enginer hoist with his own petard… as Hamlet says. It’s hard not to believe what you see; it’s even harder to convince yourself that you could be deceived. We are, after all, if not omniscient, then at least wary of what seems awry. ‘One may smile and smile, and be a villain’ –Hamlet again.

Sometimes, however, we can be caught on the windy side of care, and find ourselves trapped in a sticky web of words that suggest one thing while in fact meaning another. And although we may be leery of misinformation in many venues, our suspicions can be diluted in times of need -especially in situations where expectation and hope outweigh our vigilance: restaurants, and their attendant ambience spring to mind.

Me, I always look at price first, and then the item, but I don’t expect this of others –especially if their expectation is that I am footing the bill. But, in my autumn years, and since I am rarely accompanied on these austere occasions anymore, I suppose I have felt unduly impervious to trickery. It’s one thing to go through a door silently salivating and hankering for a steak, and another to go through the same door with twenty dollars in your pocket, hoping for a deal. You have to be careful of the door, and whether or not you see white table cloths inside –they are worrying signs.

Anyway, I’ve always figured you have to plan ahead –or at least from the road. Gothic font on a wooden sign that’s tarted up to look as if it was etched by hand in a monastery never bodes well. And heavy, leather-bound menus are always warning signals, although by the time they arrive, the waiter will try to keep you from leaving, so you have to be careful where you sit as well. I always sit by the window in McDonalds, but I guess that’s different.

So, always on the lookout for how the 1% live, I found myself drawn to an article on menus in the BBC Future section. I thought maybe I could amuse myself at their naïveté: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20171120-the-secret-tricks-hidden-inside-restaurant-menus  I was surprised however; I would never have suspected there was actually a science of menus, nor that I had somehow missed the food porn on the walls of Tim Horton’s. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Surely, those of us who have experienced the advertising of the recent American elections that spilled over the border, can spot propaganda, and manipulation. We are not credulous children anymore… are we?

Well, in fairness, menu engineering is probably far more sophisticated than election ads could ever be. For example, ‘Heavier menus have been shown to suggest to the customer that they are in a more upscale establishment where they might expect high levels of service.’ I got one of those once and when I tugged on it, I knocked the water glass off the table. Sometimes engineering is wasted on people like me, no matter the research. But I do remember that it was printed in some lah-di-dah font that I found excruciatingly difficult to read. ‘A study conducted by researchers in Switzerland found that a wine labelled with a difficult-to-read script was liked more by drinkers than the same wine carrying a simpler typeface.’ I usually order Diet Coke anyway.

And then, of course, there’s the language itself –assuming you can read it- that can be designed to fool you. ‘After all, a “grass-fed Aberdeen Angus fillet with thick-cut rosemary fries” sounds much more appetising than a simple “steak and chips”, does it not?’ And, ‘“Naming the farmer who grew the vegetables or the breed of a pig can help to add authenticity to a product,” says Spence [a professor in experimental psychology and multisensory perception at the University of Oxford]. “Consumers take that as a sign of quality, even if it has been made up”.’

But there are things that take menus into the realm of the creepy: ‘A study from the University of Cologne in Germany last year showed that by cleverly naming dishes with words that mimic the mouth movements when eating, restaurants could increase the palatability of the food. They found words that move from the front to the back of the mouth were more effective – such as the made up word “bodok”. The effect seems to even work when reading silently, perhaps because the brain still stimulates the motor movements required to produce speech when reading. This masticatory effect, the authors suggest, gets our saliva glands working.’ That flirts with the Orwellian, don’t you think?

Some things, fortunately, were more obvious. ‘Dan Jurafsky, a professor of computational linguistics at Stanford University, performed a study that analysed the words and prices of 650,000 dishes on 6,500 menus. He found that if longer words were used to describe a dish, it tended to cost more. For every letter longer the average word length was, the price of the dish it was describing went up by 18 cents.’

And then, of course, the real estate slogan: location, location, location. ‘By placing the most expensive item at the top of the menu, it makes those that come after it seem far more reasonably priced.’ I’d never thought about that –I must check the pizza takeout menu I keep by the phone.

But I mean, is this stuff serious science? If they can fool us so easily on menus by telling the truth in unexpected ways, or making up words to control us, aren’t they just copying what we do with our kids? “Do you want to get out of the bath now, or when I count to ten?” Same thing, eh? Pretend there’s a choice but game the results.

I remember a sign I saw inside a bus –one of those advertising posters that lines the space above the seats. It was purposely blurred, and I had to tilt my head and strain to make out the message. The colours were soft and appealing however, so even though it required some concentration to make it out, it was soothing, to the eyes. “Having trouble reading this?” I finally figured out it was asking. Then, just below the smudgy writing, a website seemed to surface from the fog, distinct and clearly printed. I don’t know how they did it, but it was there all along, presumably ignored until my brain had deciphered what was in the cloud above. And what I found even more clever, was the mystery that the printing of the non-descriptive website did nothing to resolve: it didn’t disclose the purpose of the sign. Now that they had you curious, you’d have to look it up on your smartphone…

I was about to copy down the website, and perhaps look at it when I got home, but my stop suddenly appeared outside the window, so I left the bus unsated and with the uneasy feeling that I had been very cunningly massaged.

I can only hope the health food industry doesn’t hire them. I hate kale.


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