An scholarly article in a leading economics journal recently considered “the problem of a restaurateur who has to decide whether to provide customers with a written menu, a picture-based menu, or a desert tray.”
Scientific experiments provide relevant evidence. Laboratory tests indicate that a picture of an item does not prompt a higher valuation for the item than does a textual description. However, if the item is accessible to the subject (the subject could grasp the item, if allowed), willingness-to-pay is 40% to 60% higher. The effect does not depend on the the smell of the (food) item, and the effect does not occur if the item is presented behind a plexiglass barrier. The immediate accessibility of an item to a subject seems to prompt an unconscious process, which the authors call a Pavlovian process, that increases the value of the item to the subject in those circumstances.
Hence the scholars conclude:
The results in this paper suggest that dessert sales should go up significantly if the restaurant uses the dessert tray as opposed to the other two options. Furthermore, the results of the plexiglass experiment suggest that a transparent glass dome should not cover the dessert tray, as is the practice in some establishments.
These result also indicate limits of sense in mediated communication. Real, accessible presence seems to evoke a distinctive response.
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Benjamin Bushong, Lindsay M. King, Colin F. Camerer, and Antonio Rangel, Pavlovian Processes in Consumer Choice: The Physical Presence of a Good Increases Willingness-to-pay, American Economic Review 100 (September 2010): 1–18. The quoted text above is from p. 13.