The New York Times has a fascinating story today, by Stephanie Clifford and Catherine Rampell, about the way manufacturers are attempting to hide the rising cost of food from consumers by putting less product into the packages.
A consumer trying to whip up a big pasta dinner noticed that three boxes no longer provided enough to feed her family, and discovered each box now contains only 13.25 ounces of pasta, instead of 16. Further investigation discovered two or three fewer ounces of food in various cans of vegetables, while other products were sold in smaller packages for the same price. Bags of Doritos, Tostitos, and Fritos are 20 percent lighter than they were in 2009, a fact Frito-Lay gamely defends by saying the bigger bags of the Bush era were a “limited-time offer.” A lot of limited-time offers seem to have expired in 2009.
It’s grimly amusing to note that much of this downsizing was sold to consumers as “greener” or “healthier” alternatives. Masochism created by liberal guilt is a resource the marketing boys are quite happy to exploit. They’re confident people will be willing to pay more when told they’re fighting obesity or saving the Earth.
The Times quotes John Gourville, a Harvard marketing professor, explaining that “consumers are generally more sensitive to changes in prices than to changes in quantity… companies try to do it in such a way that you don’t notice, maybe keeping the height and width the same, but changing the depth so the silhouette of the package on the shelf looks the same. Or sometimes they add more air to the chips bag or a scoop in the bottom of the peanut butter jar so it looks the same size.”
As the Times authors note, manufacturers are running out of ways to hide these price increases: “With prices for energy and for raw materials like corn, cotton and sugar creeping up and expected to surge later this year, companies are barely bothering to cover up the shrinking packs.”
Big Government survives by spreading its costs into a thin powder and sprinkling it through every aspect of our lives. In this case, food companies have a strong incentive to aid this process, since they don’t want to openly raise prices and enrage consumers. As with the way EPA regulations quietly wiped out effective dishwashing detergent, the quality of our lives is being steadily eroded, in countless little ways. It’s a good thing our betters have been putting so much effort into campaigns like “Earth Hour” and Michelle Obama’s obesity crusade, which have the happy “side effect” of teaching us to be happy with less.