Can Sound Make the Healthy Choice the Easy Choice?

Twist, pop, Ahhhhhhhh.

When craving a sweet and refreshing Snapple, all that stands in your way is a simple twist of the top and a most satisfying pop. While most bottles are encumbered by plastic around their lids, Snapple has done away with the pesky packaging their competitors find necessary. Why can they do this? It’s because their iconic pop instantly communicates freshness, inciting a Pavlovian response of satisfaction over the imminent hydration.

Sound plays a powerful and pervasive role in our interpretation of freshness, temperature and taste. All of which factor into the individual choices we make about our food and drink. To explore the role of sound in our lives and its potential role in supporting a culture of health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation participated in a Man Made Music HIVE Session™ — a three hour think tank for creative ideation sharing and sonic exploration. Throughout our wide-ranging discussion that examined areas such as sleep, mental wellness, childhood fitness, and alarm fatigue – one area of intrigue was the role of sound in the choices we make around food.

Founder of Man Made Music, Joel Beckerman, explored this concept in his book The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy, which begins with a classic example of the role of sound and how we perceive taste. The Chili’s restaurant franchise is famous for their fajitas, and rightfully so. But did you know that at any given moment, Chili’s is cooking up far more fajitas orders in the kitchen than required? That’s because each time the kitchen door swings open and the sound of sizzling meat escapes into the restaurant floor, patrons take notice — and orders for the spicy dish soar. Beckerman also touches on the implications of sound in how a food product is packaged. In 2010, Frito-Lay debuted a 100% biodegradable bag for SunChips, which ended up being an epic flop. The material of the bag caused it to be so loud it was featured on CBS cutting through the shrieks of trains on a New York City subway platform. A Facebook group called “Sorry But I Can’t Hear You Over This SunChips Bag” sprang up with over forty-four thousand followers. SunChips sales dropped every month until Frito-Lay scrapped the design. The sound alone had driven customers away from a once beloved product.

How could we use our knowledge about the influence of sound on perception to help make the healthy choice the easy choice for young children? How could we use sound to alter perception of taste or of an experience to facilitate healthy eating habits? After brainstorming, four key areas of opportunity rose to the forefront:

1. Sonify the Everyday to Bring Delight

If sound can act as a positive reinforcement tool for children, use it to create moments of delight in everyday interactions. Vending machines could be altered to give encouraging sonic cues when children made healthier selections. Musical water fountains could encourage and remind students to drink water, gamifying what might otherwise be a forgetful part of the day.

2. Sound Affects Gaze

A study that aired recently on NPR discussed the involvement of sound in directing focus and attention. While it is often shown that people will fill their plates with the first thing they see, it is sound that directs even those cursory glances. Imagine if a school cafeteria leveraged this tool to highlight different dishes for students. By strategically considering not only where food items are placed, but highlighting the healthiest options with interesting and engaging sound, kids could be compelled to fill their plates up with nutritious veggies first, before moving onto less desirable options.

3. Consider the Restaurant Model

Restaurants play close attention to the music they play in their establishments, understanding the strong connection that forms between music and any dining experience. Playing music that is complementary to the restaurant environment has been proven to increase linger time and subsequently purchases. However, schools and public spaces don’t consider music in the same way. What is we applied this same logic to a cafeteria? Or to a classroom during snack time? Parents could also implement this at home, crafting strong positive bonds between music and mealtimes that could have lasting implications for a child’s eating habits.

4. Start a Packaging Revolution

More often than not, the unhealthiest options have the flashiest packaging. How can we start a packaging revolution using sound that would make healthier choices more appealing to eat and drink? Can healthier brands leverage preexisting positive associations between sound and freshness, such as the crunch of an apple, to preemptively engage children before the child has even taken a sip or a bite.

Sound and music are powerful stimulus that connect with the brain instantaneously. Sonic cues have great potential to create lasting associations and positive connections. What are your ideas for how the power of sound could help make the healthy choice the easy choice? Feel free to share your thoughts below.