Towards an applied mythology

Mythbusting - consumers, packaging and the potential for change

(A slightly longer and more technical piece than of late: probably needs 20 minutes rather than 5…It presents itself as an essay about myths and packaging; but ends up, I think, offering a more general proposition for how new myths – of the kind a transformation to a more sustainable world will require – might operate…)

Consumer attitudes towards packaging have evolved considerably over the past few years.  Once upon a time we paid the stuff little or no attention; then we started to get cross that there was so much of it; recently we’ve become very vexed about plastic, David Attenborough having shown us how much harm the stuff does to things that live in the sea.

In general I’m not a great believer in this thing called ‘consumer sovereignty’ (as anyone who’s read my book Bad Habits will be aware).  But it does at least seem that consumer pressure about packaging might well have some effect.

Hang on though.  What if – say – we reduced the amount of packaging (looks good for the environment) but more stuff (such as food) was damaged in transit (bad for the environment)?  What if – oh dear – consumers are labouring under a whole load of misapprehensions about packaging?  What if – oh double dear – politicians know even less about packaging and are terrified of consumers and keep telling the packaging industry to improve their environmental performance without ever really considering the bigger picture?

Once upon a time (it was 2011, I think) I was asked, wearing my Brook Lyndhurst hat, about the ‘myths’ that affect the packaging industry; and what potential there was for some ‘myth-busting’, particularly with regard to food packaging.  This is what I said:

Myths – origins & function

The Oxford English Dictionary provides the primary definition of myth as:

“A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.”

The second definition given, however, is increasingly how the term is used:

“A widespread but untrue or erroneous story or belief; a widely held misconception; a misrepresentation of the truth.”

Whilst it is certainly not the case that myths about packaging involve ‘supernatural beings’ or ‘religious belief or ritual’, it is interesting to consider that such myths may ‘provide an explanation’ for ‘a natural phenomenon’.  That is to say: how packaging works, or why it is the way it is, or what effects it has in the world (both good and bad) may constitute, for the majority of consumers, something of a ‘natural phenomenon’.  It is not something about which many are concerned on a regular basis; and it is not something over which they have any particular control.  It is merely a feature of the world, for which an ‘explanation’ may (only) occasionally be required.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica’s entry for myth, whilst continuing the distinction between the two notions drawn out by the OED, nevertheless illustrates the connection between these two meanings when it describes myth as:

“a symbolic narrative, usually of unknown origin and at least partly traditional, that ostensibly relates actual events and that is especially associated with religious belief...  Myths are specific accounts of gods or superhuman beings involved in extraordinary events or circumstances in a time that is unspecified but which is understood as existing apart from ordinary human experience… Every myth presents itself as an authoritative, factual account, no matter how much the narrated events are at variance with natural law or ordinary experience…While the outline of myths from a past period or from a society other than one's own can usually be seen quite clearly, to recognize the myths that are dominant in one's own time and society is always difficult. This is hardly surprising, because a myth has its authority not by proving itself but by presenting itself. In this sense the authority of a myth indeed “goes without saying,” and the myth can be outlined in detail only when its authority is no longer unquestioned but has been rejected or overcome in some manner by another, more comprehensive myth.  The word myth derives from the Greek mythos, which has a range of meanings from “word,” through “saying” and “story,” to “fiction”; the unquestioned validity of mythos can be contrasted with logos, the word whose validity or truth can be argued and demonstrated. Because myths narrate fantastic events with no attempt at proof, it is sometimes assumed that they are simply stories with no factual basis, and the word has become a synonym for falsehood or, at best, misconception.”   [Emphases added]

For the typical consumer, attending to the myriad pressures of modern life [the image below, freely adapted from findings from Brook Lyndhurst’s various researches into the matter, gives an indication of what is on the mind of the typical shopper in a supermarket as they make their product choices[1]], there is little time or requirement to deploy logos to comprehend the packaging that is a ubiquitous feature of their shopping lives.  Easier, by far, to rely upon a much less reflected upon ‘story’ or ‘narrative’ – a mythos.

Also important, when considering the notion of a ‘narrative’, is the idea that narratives need to be internally consistent.  It is generally acknowledged, in the fields of psychology, social psychology, literature and philosophy, that human beings rely upon a narrative in two crucial ways: firstly, a narrative provides a basis for a sense of self (an individual is a ‘centre of narrative gravity’, in Daniel Dennett’s evocative phrase[2]); and, secondly, having a shared narrative is a crucial component of the means by which an individual belongs to some sort of group (a nation state, a religion, etc)[3].  For both the preservation of a viable sense of self, and as a means of continuing to belong to a group, narratives need to be consistent: new information or story elements that do not fit with the prevailing narrative are generally rejected, simply because they are inconsistent[4]; whilst those elements that reinforce a narrative are more generally accepted and incorporated within the wider narrative.

At the various stages of the shopping/consumption experience – in the shop; whilst transporting goods; whilst unpacking and storing products; whilst using products; and whilst disposing of residue – packaging plays a variety of different functions.  It sends signals to a prospective purchaser about why it should be selected; it contains messages about what is inside, what it is made from, how to prepare and consume it; it protects the contents during transit; it gives instructions on whether or not it can be recycled, and how and where it may be disposed of.

Various Brook Lyndhurst studies[5] have confirmed, both through literature review and through a variety of primary research exercises, that consumers generally (a) pay little conscious attention to what is on a packet, and (b) attend only to those elements of what is on a packet that are relevant at a particular time.  Thus, for example, it is primarily brand and price that are relevant at the point of choosing for purchase; while ‘how to recycle’ messages are only salient when a product is being unwrapped (either for storage or consumption).

There is little, in this ‘customer journey’, to remind the typical consumer that the packaging’s primary function – which is, after all, to protect the contents during the journey from producer to consumer – has been fulfilled.  Indeed, it is a commonplace that it is the failure of packaging that is most likely to capture a consumer’s attention.  The typical consumer is unlikely to remark “Goodness, the packaging for this product has worked on ten thousand previous occasions, so I shall contextualise this episode in a rational fashion and forgive the retailer/manufacturer the fact that the contents have been damaged on this occasion”.  Instead, it is the single occasion on which the packaging fails that captures the attention, and thus becomes part of the ‘narrative’ that a consumer has about packaging.

Similarly in terms of packaging’s environmental impacts.  Although many consumers are familiar with the meaning of the symbols that indicate a piece of packaging can be recycled, there are far fewer that can explain, with either confidence or accuracy, what it is that actually happens to a piece of cardboard, paper or plastic that is sent for recycling.  Furthermore, there is little information immediately available on packaging (and, even if there were, it is unlikely that it would in many settings prove salient) that explains what might happen when the packaging is recycled.

The wider environmental consequences of packaging – in terms of, for example, the energy inputs required to manufacture the packaging; the net environmental benefits of products saved from damage compared to the environment costs of producing the packaging; the relative benefits and disbenefits of different materials; and so forth – are even further from typical consumer experience.  They are therefore (a) still less salient and (b) ripe for being conceptualised in similar ways to packaging failure.  That is to say, in the absence of regular, meaningful, salient information or evidence to the contrary, limited exceptions can provide the basis for an entire ‘story’.

This is, as we saw above, how ‘myths’ work.  As the historian Karen Armstrong put it:

“A myth…is an event that – in some sense – happened once, but which also happens all the time.”[6]

Each time the (typical) consumer unpacks their weekly shopping, the most visible sign of their labours is not the food products, now tucked away in cupboards, fridges and freezers; but the packaging, in its manifold cardboard and plastic guises.  What is salient, at this point, is that it is packaging that is being thrown away or recycled; it is this fact that is ‘present to mind’; and it is this fact (or, perhaps more accurately, this experience) that is evoked whenever a consumer hears (from the media, from a friend or acquaintance) that packaging is bad for the environment, or that plastic bags kill turtles, or whatever.

Irrespective of its precise origin – and, as we have seen, it is in the nature of myths that there is no precise origin – the narrative around packaging appears to be a broadly negative one.  And whilst it is unlikely that this impression lies close to the heart of any particular individual or societal narrative, it nevertheless plays a useful role: it provides an ‘explanation’ for a day-to-day experience (a ‘natural phenomenon’) that helps individuals cope with feelings or events they find mysterious.

Myths – as decision making tools

"A myth, therefore, is true because it is effective, not because it gives us factual information.”
‘A Short History of Myth’, Karen Armstrong, 2005

The ‘effectiveness’ of myths about packaging is that they help consumers to ‘cope’ with the world around them.  More precisely, myths help consumers to make decisions without having to think too hard.  Packaging is not, for the majority of consumers, an especially important consideration in the scheme of things: but social norms increasingly include the notion that throwing stuff away is ‘bad’ and recycling is ‘good’ (i.e. the narrative of the society to which the majority of UK consumers belongs has evolved in recent years to include these ideas).  Having to throw away packaging is a reminder that an ‘injunctive norm’ is being transgressed (not least because packaging waste is very visible relative to e.g. food waste); while recycling some packaging (e.g. cardboard) is both a reminder that the individual is conforming to a norm, but also that the individual is failing to conform (because not all packaging can be recycled[7]).

In conditions where a consumer is busy (e.g. when out shopping) or a behaviour provokes (the risk of) psychological discomfort, a myth can therefore assist by providing some sort of shortcut, a device for not having to think about something.

Developments in behavioural economics in the past couple of decades have thrown considerable light on the more general mechanisms by which humans handle conditions of (excessive) complexity or psychological discomfort: and two key notions to have emerged from behavioural economics – that of ‘heuristics’ and that of ‘frames’ – provide a more general setting within which to consider myths; and, potentially, to offer a route by which to consider how myths can be tackled.

Heuristics are rules or mental shortcuts used to make decisions when there is too much information, or too little time, or when a situation is particularly complex or uncertain.  The ground-breaking, and ultimately Nobel-prize winning work on the role of heuristics was undertaken by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky[8].  (Kahneman was a collaborator with, and had a significant influence on, Richard Thaler, co-author of ‘Nudge’; and his recent book “Thinking: Fast and Slow” provides a broad, accessible and entertaining introduction to his work.)  Rather than imagining humans as rational economic agents making perfect use of all available information – as mainstream economics has for a century or more - Kahneman & Tversky postulate the notion of ‘bounded rationality’ – a rationality that operates within the limits of particular circumstances – where heuristics play a central role.

In more practical terms, this translates into the supermarket aisle as a shopper ‘bounded’ by the various pressures of time and money and available mental capacity who is unable (and unwilling) to consider every conceivable choice of yogurt, every conceivable manner of expressing ‘value for money’, every possible packaging solution; and who, instead, short cuts via ‘my favourite brand’ or ‘the one I usually have’. This is a choice heuristic; and it is, the growing body of evidence from behavioural economics shows, extremely widespread.  It is generally effective as a device for navigating the world; but, also and importantly, capable of producing systematic errors in decision-making.

Reference to a myth, even if it is not recognised as such by a particular individual, has the character of reliance upon a heuristic: it is a mechanism for reaching a quick and easy view or decision, without having to think through all the complexity.

The notion of ‘frames’ was also a big part of Kahneman and Tversky’s contribution, and refers to the way in which options can be presented in, for example, positive or negative ways.  Experimental evidence (a body of which has been growing rapidly in size in recent years) clearly shows that individuals can and will make very different decisions when faced with exactly the same information, depending on how it is framed.  Individuals are markedly ‘loss averse’, for example, and will make choices in which avoiding losses are given much more weight than the prospect of acquiring a similarly sized gain.

At a deeper level, the cognitive linguist George Lakoff[9] has developed the notion of ‘deep frames’: these are close to the idea of the meaning that underpins a narrative.  He argues that there is a broad analytical sequence in which behaviours depend on attitudes; attitudes depend on values; and values depend on a deep frame. Understanding a deep frame, runs the argument, can help to understand – and, by extension, to change – behaviours, and to do so on a stable basis.  (That is, behaviour change that occurs as a result of a change in a deep frame is likely to be much more embedded and thus enduring than a change based, for example, on an external ‘nudge’.)

Myths have the potential to operate as ‘frames’ in both these senses: on the one hand, a myth about packaging can frame a consumer’s decision or view about packaging in a highly localised sense (is the packaging presented as a means of helping the environment?); but it may also be embedded in a larger-scale world-view (about the relative importance of the environment, for example).

The challenges of changing minds

These methods for re-considering myths – as heuristics and/or frames - may be important because of the routes they may offer to tackling myths.
Myths in a classic sense are likely to be highly resistant to change: they are invariably based on an incident or occasion that is either lost to memory or never actually happened; and they provide an explanation for a mysterious or challenging feature of the world.  Importantly, they can persist for long periods of time until a convincing alternative presents itself.  That is to say: except over very long periods of time (as in the case, for example, of the Enlightenment, when logos began its long march into the realm of mythos – a process that is some centuries old, and still underway!) myths tend not to be replaced by a logical or rational ‘story’, but by new myths.  Furthermore, the process by which new myths replace old myths is ill-understood, and appears to be – at best – something over which it is difficult to exert any control.

In the case of packaging, it seems unlikely that a strategy for tackling one set of myths should be to replace them with a new set of myths.

By conceptualising myths as heuristics or frames, however, the door to change is open in two respects:
  • firstly, the problem itself becomes more manageable: re-framing how packaging is viewed (particularly in its localised sense i.e. as it applies to a particular product) is in large part a communications exercise, for example;
  • secondly, the experimental evidence base developed by behavioural economics (and behavioural science more generally) over the past couple of decades – much of which is already in use in both commercial marketing and, increasingly, public policy – provides a powerful resource upon which to rely in, for example, devising, testing and deploying new heuristic devices.

One further consideration is the relationship between individual change and broader social change.  As mentioned above, the narratives within which ideas about packaging sit operate for both the individual and wider society; and there is a relationship between the two. An individual’s narrative in part embeds or incorporates wider social narratives (if your narrative is too different from the society around you, you do not, or cannot, properly ‘belong’); and a wider social narrative is built up from, and must reflect, the myriad individual narratives of the people that comprise that society or group.

Bringing about change is thus a process that must involve action at both levels; and must do so in a way that offers consistency.  An initiative focused on individuals (via, for example, messages and/or mechanisms at the point of purchase) that does not also attend to the wider level could leave individuals grappling with an emerging mis-match between their personal narrative and the broader narrative (the social norms) they see around them; and vice versa.

Considerations for a change programme

If that all makes sense (and/or hangs together) then the features of a change programme would appear to be:

·         Simultaneous macro and micro efforts – a communications programme that consisted solely of national broadcast, or solely of package-level information, would be highly unlikely to be effective: it would actually serve to highlight the dissonance between personal and social narratives.  Instead, a programme that simultaneously presented a new perspective on packaging, via national broadcast and on-pack information, would be much more likely to be successful.

Given inevitable resource constraints; and given, furthermore, the high degree of differentiation with which consumers treat different kinds of product[10]; it is reasonable to suppose that a communications programme could, in the first instance, be focused on a single (or a small number of) packaging/product types.  An initiative could be run as a pilot, with the results informing future products/packaging types.

Specific messages would clearly need to be developed for such an initiative, and decisions taken over which product/packaging type upon which to focus; but it is likely that such an initiative would, in the first instance, need to focus on a very specific feature of packaging e.g. ‘This [new] packaging means that virtually no eggs are broken between farm and fork, saving you money and reducing wasted carbon emissions of nnn thousand tonnes’.  Multiple messages are unlikely, in the early stages of change, to be effective, since they will simply overstretch the narrative.

·         Offering new heuristics – there is scope to develop new short cuts for consumers.  These could be in the form of new logos or symbols; or new meanings for established brands; or new notions of ‘value for money’ (by, for example, clarifying the link between effective packaging and the cost of products).  New heuristics could be developed and implemented as standalone features, or in conjunction with broader campaigns, above.

·         Localised re-framing devices – particularly in-store there is scope for re-framing (in its localised sense) how packaging is experienced and interpreted.  It would be possible, for example, to illustrate an improvement by presenting imagery of the ‘old’ packaging alongside the new; or to signal a loss avoided (products that have not been damaged) as a result of the new packaging.  Such re-framing would not need to make a direct claim (indeed, given the operation of frames, such a move would probably be counter-productive – Kahneman’s work, in particular, has shown how much of the operation of framing is unconscious); rather, it would simply re-present a choice in a new way.

·         Macro re-framing – potentially as part of a larger-scale communications effort, it is possible to imagine attempting to re-frame packaging at the macro-level (i.e. in the Lakoff sense).  This would clearly be a big undertaking, but it is likely that, cumulatively, any and all other initiatives would be building towards this kind of outcome.  A key consideration is the connection between the existing narrative structures and the new status that one might wish to have for packaging.  Thus, for example, re-conceptualising packaging as “being like infrastructure” – that is, part of the systems we have to have to enable everything else to work – could be a way forward.  More progressively, packaging could be positioned as connected to the emerging ethic of ‘care’ – care for the planet, care for your family, care for each other etc.  Packaging is how we care for the products as they move from A to B.

It is highly unlikely that any changes will be quick.  Packaging has been acquiring its negative connotations for at least two, and possibly four or five decades, and those connotations appear deeply embedded within both personal and social narratives around consumption, consumerism and waste.  Nevertheless, by treating beliefs about packaging less as ‘myths’ and more as ordinary features of human decision-making, the opportunity would appear to exist for a fresh approach and for some progress.

[1] Image © David Fell, created using WordleTM
[2] “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”, Daniel Dennett, 1995
[3] See ‘Crowds and Power’, Elias Canetti, 1960
[4] See “The language of sustainability”, David Fell for Institute for Environmental Science, 2009 and here
[5] Especially “Consumer insight: Date labels and storage guidance”, Brook Lyndhurst for WRAP, 2010, available here
[6] “A Short History of Myth”, Karen Armstrong, 2005
[7] Because, in large part, few if any consumers live in locations where all packaging materials are routinely collected for recycling.
[8] See, in particular, “Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics & Biases”, Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky and Paul Slovic, eds., 1982
[10] See “Date labels and storage guidance”, ibid.


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