Fast Food Menus Have Been Tricking You In This Not-Cool Way

fast food menu soda trick

As much as we like to think that we’re pretty smart consumers, there are some psychological tricks lurking in everyday life that can influence our behavior without our knowledge. A study from the U.K. has identified one of them — and it has to do with which soda you’ll order from a fast food menu.

Researchers from universities in Manchester and Warwick conducted a study to find out if the order in which sodas are listed on a menu affects how likely someone is to choose one over another. Previous research has shown that if people are satisfied with the very first item on a menu, they’ll automatically pick that one without weighing up other options. This means that that number one spot is the best location for products you want to sell the most of. Another reason for this is that we tend to have built-in ideas about how desirable something is based on where it’s positioned: we think that menus list their most popular items first — which they often do — so we’re more likely to choose that one.

The researchers settled on McDonald’s as a testing ground for these theories. Specifically, they honed in on the automated kiosks we’ve seen popping up more and more.

To test out their theories about how we select sodas, the researchers performed what they call a “nudge” — a small change that most users may not even notice, which can nevertheless affect behavior.

How cunning! Before the experiment, the first option on the McDonald’s soda menu was a medium Coke (their bestseller) while a medium Coke Zero was third. The researchers moved Coke Zero to the number one spot, and pushed regular Coke to last place.

Before you ask, yes, people are ready to swear that there is a difference between the two that goes beyond the sugar content.

This is just another example of the ongoing war between regular Coke and its newer, sugar-free version.

People are constantly pitting the two against each other:

Not to mention the middle child, Diet Coke.

The Coke family has a complicated history.

Anyway, the researchers suggested that this menu change — shifting Coke Zero first and regular Coke last — would lead to an increase in sales of Coke Zero, and a drop in sales of regular Coke.

And lo and behold, they were right! According to analysis of the study by Forbes, over the 12 weeks after the menu was changed, the stores saw an overall eight percent decrease in sales of regular Coke, and a 30 percent increase in sales of Coke Zero, compared to the 12 weeks before the change.

Apart from making us all feel like guinea pigs in a thought experiment, this study could help restaurants decide how to structure their menus so that healthier food is prioritized.

However, some people are skeptical about just how much healthier Coke Zero is…

Enter the Twitter philosophers:

Are we just fooling ourselves here?

Some people have fallen for tricks before…

Another good way to encourage people to try something new: drop the price.

Far from changing people’s habits, this sometimes just enrages them.

Meanwhile, the true rebels are ordering Cokes in a way the researchers never predicted.

It’s logic-defying genius (or carbonated madness.)

Whether you’re a regular Coke regular or think Coke Zero is the hero, next time you’re checking out a menu, keep an eye on which product gets that number one spot — and see if it impacts your dining companions’ decisions.

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