Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Cheez-Whiz and the power of persuasion

Last night Hell's Kitchen, a reality television show about aspiring professional chefs, gave a fascinating glimpse into the power of storytelling. The host of the show, a Michelin-starred British chef named Gordon Ramsay, asked his contestants to taste-test some beautifully presented food he had prepared.

First you should know that he has been screaming at them for weeks whenever they make a mistake and the food doesn't meet his high standards. Therefore, you have a group of people who are desperately trying to land a job and impress someone by pleasing him with their response. The peer pressure of an aspirational group like this is incredibly powerful.

In the cruel world of reality TV, the special dishes are actually made of spray cheese (fondue), hotdogs (pate), catfish (caviar), and TV dinners (kabobs). But they are exquisitely presented with garnishes, prepared "just for them personally by Chef Ramsay." He tells them he wants to test their palates, and has them try all the dishes and comment on them.

It seemed like some of the student chefs were unsure about the dishes. One made some subtle faces and soft lip-smacks that indicated an unpleasant mouthfeel of the Cheez-whiz fondue and the TV dinner kebabs.

But none of them spoke up, and they all came up with glowing things to say about each dish, commenting that, "I usually don't like caviar but this isn't fishy at all." And then, of course, were humiliated to learn the truth, as they were verbally roasted for having palates "like the backside of a cow."

This trick was a powerful example of several processses that Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book, Blink. The food was positioned as being cooked by Chef Ramsay, therefore it had to be excellent. They were primed by the presentation, the garnishes, the dishes, and his smiling presence. And so the sensation transference took place: "This looks like four-star food, therefore it must taste like four-star food."

If a TV show can turn poor food into great food, think how effective you can be in turning great products, services, or objects into great experiences by using positioning, priming, and the power of context.


  1. Anonymous10:14 AM

    Steph - This is really fascinating. I admit to watching this chef show from time to time, but I missed this particular episode. Now - how to apply this nifty concept to our site?

    Ellen G.

  2. Anonymous12:40 PM

    Yeah Stephanie, but this trick only works once. If the company doesn't deliver the goods to go with all the marketing, people won't come back. Fine if you want a 1-time sale, bad if you want life-long customers.
    mitch allen