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February 7, 2002 Chocolate and the hedonist backlash: Jordan Le Bel



Jordan Le Bel

Jordan Le Bel with part of his extensive collection of food and chocolate books, going back to 1742. Le Bel has a monthly segment on TVA’s morning show, Salut Bonjour. On Tuesday,Feb. 12, at 8:35 a.m., he will discuss chocolate and chocolate production. (Warning: explicit scenes of chocolate.)

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Sylvain Comeau

The health craze may still be going strong, but Marketing Professor Jordan Le Bel says that the backlash started over a decade ago: the revenge of the pleasure seekers.

“For the past 10 or 15 years, pleasure has been a strategic tool for marketers. They take it very seriously,” Le Bel said. “Also, recent events have swung the pendulum back to pleasure. Since Sept. 11, there has been an increase in the sale of comfort food around the world. In times of crisis, people revert to safe, comforting values, and that includes food.”

The larger trend was forecast by lifestyle guru Faith Popcorn in the famous Popcorn Report, released in the early 1990s, in which she predicted a backlash against constant health scares and warnings.

“She has been proven right,” Le Bel said. “Ten years later, pleasure is everywhere. The words pleasure and experience are buzzwords in marketing. On the British Airways Web site, it says, “Experience our first class,” and they give you a virtual tour of it to try to convince you that it’s worth spending the extra money.”

Le Bel joined Concordia last fall after completing his PhD at McGill. He is a former chef and lifelong epicurean who owns a large collection of cookbooks dating back to 1742, and he has taught restaurant management in Norway. His research is in the area of hedonic consumption; he studies consumer behaviour and food marketing, particularly the marketing of sinful indulgences like chocolate.

“I’m a big fan of combining practice and theory, which is easy when you are doing something you enjoy. I love chocolate, for example. When I was doing my master’s, I started reading books on food, and I realized that you can do serious work on the subject. So I decided to start studying the marketing of pleasure and how it influences consumer behaviour.”

Le Bel feels that no matter how much people worry about healthy diets and waistlines, there will always be a prominent place for comfort food.

“Many studies have shown that human beings are hardwired from birth to seek pleasure and avoid pain. That is an assumption of evolutionary psychology. That makes perfect sense from a survival standpoint; you probably won’t survive very long if you seek pain all the time.”

So it appears that pleasure is a human need rather than a frivolous indulgence, or even a vice. Marketers appeal to that need by making appeals that largely bypass the intellect.

“If you are buying winter tires, you look at factors like price and functionality. Any purchase motivated by pleasure is really ruled by emotion, whether it’s food or a vacation, and marketers must determine what is it about the experience that gets to you.”

Such appeals are even starting to permeate the marketing of products which were, until recently, sold based on their usefulness.

“Even products which are traditionally thought of as functional, like a car, are being sold this way nowadays. Car marketing is moving away from mileage per gallon and safety ratings. The images that are communicated now are how cool you will look in that car, the plushness of the seats, the great sound system, etc. That’s much more pleasure oriented than getting from point A to point B without going to the garage. The principles of pleasure marketing are being applied everywhere.”

New studies cooking

Marketers would probably have had to invent holidays like Valentine’s Day if they did not already exist.

“Modern production methods mean that chocolate manufacturers can produce a lot more volume than in the past; one-quarter of their sales are at Valentine’s, Christmas, Easter and Mother’s Day. Some people think that a box of chocolates shaped like a heart is tacky, but that’s what sells.”

Le Bel is launching a new study in March in which lucky volunteers will be fed chocolate and questioned about their reactions and attitudes.

“What I will be looking at is the influence of knowledge and expertise on pleasure. There is an intuitive belief that a food or wine connoisseur has more pleasure than others because of their knowledge. I want to check if that is true.”

In another project, starting next week with Natalie Cooke of McGill, Le Bel will be gathering food-related anecdotes. Information will be available at johnmolson.concordia.ca/lebel.

Le Bel will present a paper at a June conference in Amsterdam, “The Cultural Meaning of Food in the 21st Century.” He will also speak with McGill literature professor Natalie Cooke in Concordia’s DeSève Cinema on March 26, at 11:45 a.m. The title of their talk is “The Construction and Marketing of Pleasure: Sweet Sensations in Foodbooks and Advertising.”

Attendees will receive a chocolate treat.