What does the heart symbol mean on food and beverage packaging?
Need to know:
Many brands will use a heart shape on food or beverage packaging, which often leads consumers to believe that the product is heart-healthy.
Health claims on packaging must meet regulatory guidelines, but the heart symbol has multiple meanings.
Marketers may use the heart symbol to make questionable health claims about their products, while skirting public policy.
What do you think of when you see a heart symbol? You might think of love, romance or friendship, but if you see a heart shape on food or beverage packaging, you may be led to believe the product is heart-healthy, which may or may not be the case.
Prof. Tim Dewhirst and PhD student Rumaila Abbas, both in the Department of Marketing and Consumer Studies, are studying the implied messages behind food and beverage packaging that contains the heart symbol to better understand why it’s being used and how it’s interpreted by consumers.
“With consumer awareness rising and different brands using marketing strategies to appeal to this increase in consumer awareness, the heart symbol in particular is one that stands out on the shelves,” says Abbas. “It’s something that you see being used very frequently without getting a lot of attention.”
She cites examples of brands that use the heart symbol on their packaging, such as Cheerios, which features a heart-shaped bowl of cereal on its box; POM Wonderful pomegranate juice, which uses the heart symbol in its name; and Becel margarine, whose name appears within a heart symbol.
The heart symbol has multiple meanings, making it “polysemic,” says Abbas. “A lot of symbols have embedded meanings, but this one strategically caters to meanings such as health and life, as well as love, romance and friendship, so it can be used in multiple forms.”
The heart symbol is a perfect example of polysemy in advertising because of its multiple meanings, adds Dewhirst, but any health claims made on food and beverage packaging must meet regulatory guidelines. Using the heart symbol allows marketers to imply health benefits while skirting public policy, he says. If challenged about their health claims, marketers could argue that their use of the heart symbol simply implies love or passion for their product.
Abbas chose to focus her PhD research on the strategic use of the heart symbol because of its prevalence in food and beverage packaging, and her previous experience in the food and beverage industry.
Previous research on polysemy in advertising didn’t explore “how it can strategically be used to circumvent policy, or to make claims that would — if explicitly said — be very controversial, but because there are multiple interpretations, it becomes a bit of an escape clause if there is some scrutiny that happens as a result of marketing communications,” says Dewhirst.
Marketers may use the heart symbol to make questionable health claims about their products, which may give consumers the wrong impression.
“The heart symbol in particular has gotten enough attention to meet part of Canadian and US health guidelines, where it is expected that when the heart symbol is used, there are certain details that are provided with its use,” says Abbas."
Many of the products the researchers are studying contain the heart symbol without any additional information to support their implied health benefits.
Although the information may not be withheld with the intention of misleading consumers, there may be other reasons why it doesn’t appear on food and beverage packaging.
Dewhirst says marketers may be trying to “cherry-pick” positive attributes about their products while minimizing negative aspects.
“We see this in a number of cases of food and beverage advertising where they put all the emphasis on what might be one good trait, and that in itself is not misleading, but there’s a lot of omitted information that might give a bigger picture that this is not such a healthy product after all,” he says.