From condoms to diet pills to douche, new research has confirmed what we’ve long known: it is embarrassing to buy certain items at the drug store. But with the properly designed packaging, placement, and even deals, some of that embarrassment can be mitigated, according to a new study published in the Journal of Retailing.
Researchers from Mississippi State University placed subjects into a virtual reality drug store and tasked them with buying hemorrhoid cream. (Fun!) Then, while they were going about their assigned task, a couple virtual people walked by. The plan was to induce feelings of embarrassment, and even in VR, it worked.
The researchers wanted to study the choices people made under this strange, socially induced shame. So subjects were asked to choose between two hemorrhoid creams. One came in a red tube, and the other came in a blue box. Red is, of course, a color known for its conspicuousness, and in general, a box’s contents are far more ambiguous than a tube. Simply because of these differences in packaging, shoppers chose the blue box, at a ratio of 2:1, over the red tube. The takeaway? If you’re designing the packaging for an embarrassing product, make it as subtle as possible, because in this case, success is specifically not catching the shopper’s eye.
“Companies should take this into consideration when determining how best to differentiate on the shelf through product packaging for embarrassing products,” the authors write. “Specifically, for embarrassing products firms should not brand their products with overt, flashy packaging, but should instead opt for subtle product packaging cues.”
While that was the only study done in VR, the MSU team pushed the topic further via surveys. In follow-up studies, they learned that shoppers who wanted anonymity while buying embarrassing products vastly preferred normal placement on the shelf, versus the promotional “end caps” on the edges of the aisles. And placement on an end cap only exacerbated the problems with flamboyant packaging. Bad packaging with bad placement had an additive, negative effect.
However, there was one silver lining: By offering discounts like coupons and bonus buys, researchers were able to get shoppers to overcome their own anxieties in chase of a deal. “The power of a promotion will overshadow the embarrassment and purchase intentions will not be negatively affected,” researchers write. “This has important implications for retailers selling embarrassing products in that they can use promotions to overcome the negative impacts of embarrassment and the threat of stigma.”
Interestingly enough, there is a counter-movement to the minimally packaged, bury-your-private-parts-away approach that the researchers recommend. For instance, we’ve seen some tampon companies go all out with their own clever packaging to not hide from stigma, but call that stigma into question entirely. Long term, that genre-bucking approach certainly seems more ideal, doesn’t it? Why should society deny the fundamental needs of the human body instead of admitting and accepting them?
But in terms of contemporary research, any brand that’s selling something for your crotch, butt, or waistline would do best to redesign its packaging for absolute minimalism, place the product quietly on the shelf, and consider offering some coupons, too. Because when it comes to products we’re almost too embarrassed to buy, branding is anything but business as usual.