/ Health, Shopping

Are you persuaded by packaging?

When we asked whether you get taken in by advertising, some of you told us you avoid ads all together. But there’s another type of marketing that’s more difficult to swerve – the sort you find on the products themselves: persuasive packaging.

Toiletries are a perfect example. If you go to a farmers’ market to buy apples, it’s simple – you compare them and pick the ones that look the freshest or biggest or juiciest. But what if those same apples were inside boxes covered with different celebrities’ faces and words like ‘rapid diffusion micro peptides’?

With toiletries, you can’t really compare apples with apples and that’s why manufacturers capitalise on their packaging to sell their product to you. After all, the packaging is there anyway – it protects the product and makes it easier to transport – so it makes perfect sense to utilise it.

The truth is, you’ve almost certainly been affected by marketing when buying toiletries. If you weren’t, manufacturers wouldn’t invest in making their products look different to one another.

Why it works

Part of the reason packaging design works is, quite simply, ease. Making in-depth, informed decisions about every product we’re faced with in the supermarket would take a lot of time and energy.

If you’re making a larger investment – perhaps a car, dishwasher or television – you’re likely to invest that time and energy, and luckily Which? is here to help.

But when it comes to lower-risk decisions, many of us fall back on heuristics – intellectual short cuts. Studies suggest it can take less than a 10th of a second for shoppers to make a judgment about the appeal of a product they’ve glanced at.

The tactics of persuasive packaging

When we spoke to marketing and psychology experts on how marketers appeal to this way of thinking, many of the tactics they told us about are incredibly simple.

Toiletries are packaged in colours we associate with certain qualities – blue for cleanliness, for example. Faces are slapped on packets as we’re naturally drawn to look at them, which in turn will draw our attention to the packaging or shelf branding. And using scientific-sounding buzzwords can make us believe a product is effective, even when we have no idea what those words mean.

Separating products by gender works, too – seeing a shaving foam for women or shampoo for men can help us avoid having to spend too long finding a product that suits. Of course, the downside of this – and all of these tactics – is there may be another product that works just as well and costs less.

So, have you ever bought toiletries and thought the product didn’t live up to its packaging? Do you own any right now that are endorsed by celebrities or covered in buzzwords? Or have you found a way to see past the marketing?


The biggest rip-off (from this man’s point of view) is bottles of scent. The packaging is what often sells it because the contents are almost irrelevant – smells “produced” under “celebrity” names or endorsement that to my engineering mind mean absolutely nothing – not to them probably either except more money. But it’s the thought that counts, the “token”,and the more expensive the more you are likely to be appreciated. I don’t suppose presenting a plain bottle of Lidl “Nice Smell” would go down a bundle.

We buy basic Colgate toothpaste, Herbal Essences shampoo and conditioner in blue bottles, usually on offer”, works fine, Nivea shaving gel – low price and still got normal skin, Dove soap – moderate price, M&S loo rolls, often 2 packs for a good price (no Labrador puppies needed to sell that), and what does that leave? I am cynical about fancy packaging, weasel words, overpricing. If others feel presentation, high price, silly ingredients are important to them then so be it.

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We have a mixture of branded and own-label everyday toiletry products like shower gel, tissues, toothpaste, mouthwash, handwash, shaving foam, and bathroom cleaning products. There’s no great brand loyalty and will pick the best value on the day so long as it isn’t awful, and if there’s a good offer on a different product to the usual we’ll give it a try. Shampoo is more personal and specific, as are loo rolls, deodorant, hand-cream and some other items. My main objective with the packaging is instant recognition by colour and shape – what else is on the bottle or pack escapes my attention – and I dislike it when retailers’ own-label products mimic the packaging of the preferred product. A quick look around the bathrooms shows that most scents and fragrances have names one would have found fifty years ago; I wouldn’t wear a grooming product that I would associate with sweaty football boots, for example [sorry Mr Beckham].

I think most of these products are overpriced and ‘branding’ and market segmentation are the major causes of that. There must be a hundred different toothpastes available in stores, with Colgate alone having about twenty I should think. I am disappointed that Nivea have seen fit to dilute their shower gel recently – I don’t keep a check on its price but I bet it hasn’t been reduced; despite its higher price it used to be good value for money.

I am with John Ward.
Family of four adults here. We tend to use the same branded shampoo and shower gel and buy them when they are 3 for 2 or similar. As long as bath foam is moisturising we buy the cheapest, bath soap ditto, for hand soap I have started buying white ‘value’ soap, it doesn’t smell and it works (no-one has noticed and no-one has complained). For shaving we all use men’s moisturising gel, usually the own brand. I am an ‘older’ lady and I have found a moisturiser which suits me so I stick with that, again buying it when on special offer. Toothpaste and anti-perspirant/deodorant are ‘special offer’ purchases. My perfume is the same as Marilyn Monroe’s, my daughter does like to experiment (understandably) and the men tend not to use cologne, though there is a “50 year old” one knocking around for special occasions.

I am interested in packaging if there is the possibility that the container could be useful for storage. Looking round the garage and utility room, I have amassed a large collection of biscuit boxes of different shapes and sizes. Though I have never smoked, I have a large collection of tobacco and cigar tins.

Toiletries are uninteresting to me and I tend to buy when they are on offer, comparing unit prices. There are some that I avoid because they have a strong smell. It is often cheaper to buy 400 or 500ml bottles of shampoo or shower gel, but I then I refill a smaller bottle to minimise risk of injuring my toes in the shower if I was to drop the bottle!

I came back from holiday a couple of weeks ago to find that the cap of the shampoo bottle had come off in my toilet bag. Fortunately the bag has a plastic lining but I will be studying the packaging of small shampoo bottles in the supermarket to find one with a good old fashioned screw cap.

The ingredients of toothpaste are scrutinised for chemicals that I’m not happy with, notably triclosan. I prefer toothpaste in pump dispensers for home use, but a small tube is more convenient for travelling.

Living in a hard water area, I avoid hand soap, which produces a scum. Instead I use hand-wash in a pump dispenser, avoiding anything with anti-bacterial ingredients.

Looking at my stocks of toiletries, there is little indication of brand loyalty. I even have three brands of spare loo rolls in stock.

Wavechange, a good tip for taking liquids on holiday, is putting them inside food bags then tying a knot in the bag to keep them air/liquid tight.

Also don’t fill the bottles if flying because of pressurisation in the cabin atmosphere or massive temperature changes in hold luggage.

Thanks folks. None of the shampoos I have found have a good old fashioned screw cap. It’s either a flip-up cap (the sort that let me down) or one where you push down on one edge to open a valve – in which case you have to be sure that it is closed before packing.

Now that we have rules about taking liquids on aircraft, I have relied on what hotels provide plus a few spare sachets of shampoo and shower gel. I presume that these don’t have to be shown.

Cellotape also comes in handy for those types of caps especially for the outward journey.

As I have experienced too many reactions to various highly perfumed toiletries in the past I tend to look for products without too much perfume such as Simple, but having checked their shower gel this morning I noticed it contains sodium laurel sulphate, which is known to cause skin irritation in some people, so I won’t be buying anymore. My deodorant is supposed to be aluminium and paraben free, but I seem to recall Which? Magazine disputing this as while ago. I still use Dr Bronners Castile liquid soap with tea tree oil, diluted with water and lemon grass essential oil to shampoo my hair finishing with l tablespoon of cider vinigar in a pint of water for a final rinse. I use AloeDent toothpaste which contains Aloe Vera and is supposed to be chemical free and E45 moisturiser for my hands and body. I use Simple perfume free moisturiser on my face and use their wet wipes to remove make up at the end of the day.

So packaging is not something that bothers me too much, but the advert on TV that conveys to consumers that “you’re only worth it” if you buy their product has to be one of, if not the most powerful of subconscious messages, and in my humble opinion has a greater influence on a consumers decision than all of the fancy packaging when contemplating buying toiletries and cosmetics.

I would like to buy toiletries with little or no perfume too, Beryl.

‘Simple’ shower gel contains sodium lauryl ether sulphate which is slightly different to sodium laurel sulphate, but both are detergents and therefore potential irritants.

I expect that all shower gels and shampoos contain detergents, which enables them to dissolve grease. As with washing up liquid, careful rinsing is important to avoid skin irritation.

Many thanks Wavechange. The shower gel container states – ‘Simple’ – Sensitive Skin Experts – Kind To Skin – Nourishing Shower Cream. In light of your advice I will finish this one and make sure I rinse well in the hope I don’t get a reaction.

I have recently found it necessary to discard some liquid hand wash because the strength of the perfume was making me feel really unwell and have now switched to ‘Simple’ non perfumed which I find much more tolerable.

I did some research as to why some people suffer perfume intolerance and you may be interested to read the following website: sciencedaily.com – Why Do Smells Make Some People Sick?

Thanks Beryl. I already use ‘Simple’ handwash because it is one of the few remaining products that don’t contain antibacterial chemicals that are environmentally harmful.

We have discussed the problem that some of us experience with perfumed products before. Short-term exposure is not a problem for me but being in a room with some types of scented candle for an hour can leave me gasping for breath. Probably the most appealing description to put on packaging is UNPERFUMED.

One thing that the article does not mention is that those who react to perfumes often find the smell very powerful.

One of the biggest problems I have with packaging is the very small printed ingredients. I often have to use a magnifying glass to read them, but invariably this takes place after I have made my purchase. As Wavechange rightly makes the point unperfumed products should be marked in capital letters to warn hypersensitive people before buying.

I have always had a very strong sense of smell but it is only in the last few years have I experienced any obvious adverse reactions…….at least I now know why I always get an itchy nose when visiting a supermarket! It must be the scented candles as most toiletries and cosmetics are well and truly sealed within their containers.

I assume your breathing problem occurs after a scented candle is ignited Wavechange, or you will spend less than one hour and keep well away from scented candles in supermarkets!

If the store sells reading glasses, I have often ‘borrowed’ a pair while I am in the store.

I use Organic Surge these days. Although perfumed, I have found one that has a pleasant smell rather than a strong scent.

The idea that the reason for so much choice perhaps does not highlight the ability to crowd out any new toiletries by the entrenched majors. In the last decade there was major collusion in France on toiletries, and also in Australia. The idea that there are many brands competing is perhaps not totally true.

In May Germany’s cartel office fined several supermarket chains, including Lidl and Metro, €90.5m for fixing the prices of beer, sweets and coffee in cahoots with manufacturers. [Economist]

Another recent item on collusion reported this year. I often wonder why a consumer org. does not mention it

Like most people who were once young, impressionable and with a reasonable amount of pocket money, I think honestly that I probably used to be fooled by packaging , but not any more.

Re toiletries I have a very sensitive skin and use what my GP recommended, ie Dermol to wash and E45 to moisturise (no attractive packaging there), and I prefer to use products (deodorants, shampoos etc) that are organic, not tested on animals, and free of certain chemicals, so I get the cheapest I can find.

Re other products’ packaging, I look for minimum amount of packaging for environmental reasons, so attractive but excessive or unrecyclable packaging will have the opposite effect of what’s intended.

If I’m buying someone a present I may look for a more attractive packaging, but still within the environmental parameters above.

My budget keeps me in check as well…

And, hey, I’ve followed Which Conversation for a while, so I’m trained to spot gimmicks from a mile off! (I know, pride comes before a fall, marketers can probably see me coming…)

Having read your article regarding over-the-counter health products and medicines, I have come to the conclusion that the regulator (the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency), for these products, is completely ineffective . According to your expert opinion the majority of these products do not do what they say on the tin. Why then, are they allowed, by the regulator, to keep falsely advertising them as doing something they don’t? Is this just another case of regulators turning a blind eye in the interests of big business?

This blatant deception is surely a good case for one of your campaigns on behalf of the consumer!

J Thompson says:
25 August 2017

Re ear drops. My ENT consultant told me just to use sodium bicarbonate eardrops for removing ear wax. I bought these (Care +) at Home Bargains at around £1 for 10mls. Boots own make much dearer.