[Pricing Nugget #016] The Vicious Circle of Vice Products

Imagine you are selling delicious (vice) products such as potato chips.

What pack size should you offer?

Small packs with 50 grams or larger packs with 200 grams each?

We will find out today…

Now, imagine yourself in the grocery aisle where these tempting treats await you. Which pack size would you pick? The larger one or, the smaller one?

How would your choice change if you had stood in front of your floor-to-ceiling mirror at home after watching a documentary about obesity before shopping for groceries?

Customers pay for more self-control.

Researchers found that people buy smaller packs of tempting (vice) products. Vice products are like potato chips. Virtue products are more like lettuce :-).

People are aware of these temptations and their lack of self-control. They minimize the risk of giving too much in by buying smaller pack sizes.

Customers are even willing to pay more for smaller pack sizes and forgo quantity discounts just to "buy" a bit more self-control.

Technically, price elasticity is lower for vice products (e.g., regular potato chips) compared to virtue counterparts (e.g., fat-reduced/light potato chips).

This is like Ulysses, who made his crew tie him to the mast of his ship to resist the sirens.

What is the difference between buying smaller packs and binding to a mast?

The mast worked.

Other studies confirmed that people choose smaller pack sizes of potato chips to handle better self-regulatory concerns about eating control.

The researchers discovered that small pack sizes "fly under the radar" so that consumers do not track their consumption.

In an experiment, self-control issues were made salient to participants by having them answer questions about their satisfaction with their body shape and having them measure their weight, hips, and waist while standing on scales in front of a large mirror.

The researchers made the participants rate TV spot in an unrelated task. During this fake task, a bowl of potato chips was exposed to these participants: one group sat next to two bags of 200 grams, and another group sat next to nine bags of 45 grams each. If we expect smaller pack sizes to control over-eating effectively, it did not work out, unfortunately.

Participants in the "smaller pack size" situation were much more likely to open a bag than in the big pack scenario and to eat much more.

What does it mean for you as a retailer and for you as a customer? 

Retailers should raise prices for smaller pack sizes of vice products. They can be sure these products will be bought and bought again, and again, and again.

And as a customer, if you want to lose weight, buy bigger packs of potato chips 🙂


Wertenbroch, K. (1998). Consumption Self-Control by Rationing Purchase Quantities of Virtue and Vice. Marketing Science, 17(4), 317-337.

Coelho do Vale, R., Pieters, R., & Zeelenberg, M. (2008). Flying Under the Radar: Perverse Package Size Effects on Consumption Self-Regulation. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(3), 380-390.