Packaging: The art of giving you less than you think

The Quaker Oats people are giving their logo a makeover. “Larry” the Quaker is a little less heavy and a little more youthful. The marketers have figured they’ll sell more boxes of their cereals if they create a subtle impression of vigor.

To mere mortals, this may seem like a minor move, but marketers are much smarter than the pigeons — us — who buy their products.

Packaging experts understand that our lying eyes will make them money.

Of late, taller and thinner is the key to this. My colleague, Julia Schrenkler, and I noticed this recently on our daily popcorn run. The popcorn box is as tall as it used to be, but now it’s thinner in order to disguise the fact that for the same money, you’re getting less. McDonald’s did the same thing with soft drink cups.

If you’ve bought cereal lately, you’ve probably noticed you get a pretty tall box filled half-full of cereal.

In the last few months, I’ve been conducting an experiment with shaving cream. Gillette, for example, makes Comfort Advantage shaving cream and markets it in a very tall can, where it competes on the shelves with a few, cheaper short-and fat cans.

I noticed, however, that the cans seem to stop actually dispensing product fairly quickly, so I put it to the test.

Here’s a full can


As you can see, it weighs 11.6 ounces.

This can — I’ve experimented with four so far — is empty, or at least it stopped dispensing shaving cream a week ago.


The can weighs 4.3 ounces. I used, then, 7.3 ounces. In truth, the normal person would’ve thrown this away a week ago, but I stood for the 5 or 10 minutes it took for the remaining shaving cream to drip out after the pressure in the can disappeared. I’m cheap that way.

But let’s go with the 7.3 ounces, and note what the company’s packaging says you’re buying: 8.4 ounces. So you’ve paid for 8.4 ounces of shaving cream, you actually get 7.3 ounces. Simply brilliant, and that’s how creative packaging can increase a margin by 13.1%.

  • It’s a little like how the shampoo industry doubled their sales with one word: “repeat.” Anything labled “new,” “improved,” or “50% more” is also suspect.

    Other gimmicks I hate: when they tell me at the checkout how much I’ve “saved.” I didn’t save anything. I spent less then I could have, supposedly.

    I also hate the credit card companies offering cash back or travel miles. I’d settle for no “rewards” in exchange for lower interest rates.

    But I don’t think this is a stoppable phenomenon. Shoppers just need to be a little more suspicious of the fine print.

  • Jim Shapiro

    “Packaging experts understand that our lying eyes will make them money.”

    I understand the CAVEAT EMPTOR thing.

    But I’m an over-educated, cynical old guy.

    An attempt to deceive is also a lie, whether or not our All’s Fair in Love and War and Business culture has codified it as illegal.

  • BenCh

    We did experiments in math class in middle school looking at this. We were told we were the makers of soda cans and thus had to make cans that could hold the 355 ml, but shapes could be anything. It is very interesting to see the shapes that come out.

    Also, I have seen videos of the beer cups at stadiums who have the same volume (but different heights) but are priced as medium and large.

  • Jeff, the frugal yankee

    Forgo the shaving cream all together, Bob. I stopped using it decades ago. Sure the shave isn’t QUITE as close, but I still look good (if I do say so myself!). You can put a little soap or hair conditioner on your face if you need to get extra close.

  • Joanna

    What frosts me is that now I they want me to put TWO dollars in the candy machine at work if I want to buy a Snickers because they’ve repackaged it as “two” bars, even though the amount of candy is not much more than one old regular bar. Finally got me to drop the habit.

    Get yourself one of those super-cool shaving brushes, whip up your own lather, and then you won’t have to throw cans in the garbage/recycling bins either.