Coke’s Failed White Can, and How Packaging Actually Affects the Taste of Food

The experiments of Charles Spence

Charles Spence probably isn't a familiar name to anyone outside the field of multisensory integration, but his experiments with food—most notably, Pringles—have made a huge impact not just in his field but in commercial food packaging as well.

The Pringles experiment—fueled by Spence's hypothesis that the perceived taste of the chips might be altered by the sound of their crunch—involved research subjects rating taste and freshness based on the crunch. The sound of each crunch was looped through a microphone into a pair of headphones worn by each subject, but Spence was also manipulating those sounds through an amplifier and an equalizer. He found that, indeed, participants' tastes were altered by how fresh or stale the chips sounded.

Further experiments have explored the extent to which taste is affected not just by smell, but by our other senses, and consumer product brands are taking notice.

After Spence's declaration that the sound of a product's packaging "can subliminally affect our perception of the product," Axe redesigned its spray deodorant cans with louder, more masculine-sounding nozzles that appeal to young men. Conversely, Spence has a limited-edition white Coke can in his office as an example of failed packaging experiments. Designed as part of a fund-raising effort for endangered polar bears, the can was discontinued when people complained, falsely, that Coke had changed its formula and it didn't taste as good.

Discoveries like these don't exactly shake up advertising, but they do refine it in a major way. Moving forward, things like color palettes, packaging and product shapes, and even product names will be decided not just by what's cheap and convenient to produce, but also by this weird, neuroscientific back door into how our senses affect one another. What'll be really interesting is how our brains might adapt to the inevitable oversaturation of this phenomenon in 20 years or so.

Check out The New Yorker's profile of Spence for more fascinating brand anecdotes.