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Lonely People Are More Likely to Buy Food with Faces on the Packaging

A new study from the University of Oregon suggests that consumers who feel lonely are attracted to products showing human faces.
Phoebe Hurst
London, GB
Photo via Flickr user Rosmarie Voegtli.

Regardless of how strong your squad or active your WhatsApp group chats, no one is immune to occasionally being gripped by the fear of dying alone. Maybe it's a Sunday night and your housemates are all cuddled up with their significant others, leaving you with just the cheese plant for company. Or perhaps you're at home watching Millionaire Matchmaker repeats while everyone on your Instagram feed is updating their Stories with videos of that gig you didn't get tickets to. That's enough to send anyone spiralling into Bridget Jones-esque nightmares of being eaten by Alsatians.


If you do find yourself in a forever alone funk, you might want to avoid going shopping. According to a new study from the University of Oregon (UO) published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, lonely people are more likely to buy products that show human faces on their labels and packaging.

In a post on UO's website about the study, co-author and marketing professor Bettina Cornwell gave the example of being away from her family in France and buying crisps with a smiling face on the bag. She recalled thinking: "'Hold on, Bettina. You don't even like chips.' Then I asked myself: 'What was so compelling about that particular bag of chips? Why did I almost purchase something I actually dislike?'"

According to the study, the answer lies in the fundamental human need to belong and form relationships. When we don't have these kinds of social connections, we try to make up for it in other ways—like re-downloading Tinder or forcing your cat sleep in your bed. Or, it seems, buying stuff with a friendly face on the label.

Cornwell explained: "Visuals can fill a void for consumers experiencing a lack of social connection. When people see faces in branding materials, their likeability for that brand goes up."

To come to this conclusion, Cornwell and her fellow researchers created a set of 18 labels depicting both non-face images and those that clearly showed human faces. They also came up with fictitious brand names, slogans, and mock advertisements. Next, participants were asked to answer questions about themselves, as well as the fictitious brands and their images.


The results showed a link between high rates of loneliness and the tendency to imagine a face in a non-face image (UO consumer psychology professor and another of the study's authors, Ulrich Orth, said that loneliness makes you more likely to exhibit this kind of "wishful seeing"), plus how much the participants liked a brand.

When researchers then asked participants to rank 45 different wine bottle labels, these findings were mirrored. Consumers were more likely to favour brands that used faces on their labels.

Of course, the UO study's findings aren't entirely new. Product developers have long used faces in packaging and advertising campaigns to try and connect with consumers on a human level. However Orth said that their study is one of the first to focus on how this can impact a brand's likability.

He explained: "Previous research linked our need for social connection with consumer behaviour and judgment, but very little was understood about the role that visuals play in social connection and brand likability. Our study builds on prior research by demonstrating that seeing a face in a brand visual increases a consumer's liking of the brand, especially if they feel lonely."

Or y'know, it could be down to the fact that sometimes, a big bag of Doritos can be just as good as human interaction.