We’ve all done it. Standing in the queue at the supermarket, you have a sneaky peek at the contents of your neighbour’s trolley.
Fifteen bottles of Buckfast and 32 cans of spaghetti hoops with sausages? Really?
You look down smugly at your veg-packed haul, quickly hide the packets of crisps and chocolate bars under a bumper box of porridge oats and smirk.
I also like doing the reverse in Waitrose – seeing how many insane “essential” products a well-heeled shopper can cram into his or her basket.
Essential green olives? Check. Essential hummus? Of course. How could you manage without it?
A survey recently released by the people behind the Product of the Year awards revealed that a quarter of us admit to being trolley snobs – but not just in the health stakes.
The report found that people not only judge the contents of fellow shoppers’ trolleys if they are full of unhealthy products, but also turn their noses up at weekly shops which are full of cheap products rather than their branded equivalents.
It is indisputable that what we buy reflects hugely on who we are – in the eyes of others, as well as from the perspective of companies who are hungry for as much data as possible to build up “personal profiles” of their most loyal customers.
Tesco and its rivals have proved that with the Clubcard and equivalent spy techniques. They know what you buy, whether you are likely to be a customer who has young children, a gluten allergy or a sweet tooth.
They understand what products are part of your weekly shop and which are occasional treats.
I would love to try to screw the Clubcard, picking up random items it wouldn’t expect me to. A pack of denture cream would confuse them no end.
“But a year ago she was buying nappies like they were going out of fashion!” Tesco analysis firm Dunnhumby’s computer would scream. “Have her teeth really deteriorated to those of an old woman before she’s even hit middle age?”
But while the type of products we buy undoubtedly reveals certain aspects of our general lifestyle, I’m not sure what it is about brands which make us assume they offer better quality.
The phenomenon is no more obvious than in the BBC programme Eat Well for Less when shoppers who seem happy to spend the cost of a small house every week on their supermarket haul are outraged at the idea that cheaper supermarket brands might taste just as good – if not better.
The best one for me was the family featured in the Christmas special who would only eat a product which has long been a subject of some consternation for me: Aunt Bessie’s roast potatoes.
I hadn’t heard of Aunt Bessie until relatively recently, when suddenly they seemed to be everywhere. Go to someone’s house for Sunday lunch - everything is homemade “oh, except the Aunt Bessie’s Yorkshire puds of course”.
Of course. Why make a Yorkshire pud with a small amount of flour, egg and milk when you can spend the same amount of time opening a packet and preparing the fake ones?
Call me a cynic, but I wonder if this sudden leap into the nation’s consciousness has something to do with a £6 million investment the brand made last year to have its sponsorship slapped all over I’m a Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here!
Presenter Gregg Wallace and crew gently suggested that the family chop up a potato, drizzle it with oil and stick in the oven for a bit. If it made them feel more in their comfort zone, he said, they could even partially roast them and then stick them in the freezer in advance - then cook them again when they are needed. Insanity. But it convinced the brand-obsessed family.
“It tastes just as good as the Aunt Bessie’s!” proclaimed the surprised dad, stunned that a fresh potato cooked on the same day that it was going to be eaten had more flavour than something that has been partially cooked, chilled to minus 15, left sitting around for a few weeks coated in oil, thawed and heated back up.
Yet, according to the Product of the Year survey, Aunt Bessie’s, with its convenience potatoes (they take 30 minutes to roast in the oven, compared to a scratch recipe published by Jamie Oliver which suggests roasting raw potatoes for an incredible 45 minutes – you can see why people opt for the more expensive, readymade version) is one of Britain’s top trusted brands.
The others are pretty standard: Cadbury; Heinz; Marmite and Coca-Cola take the top spots, while Kellogg’s; PG Tips; Tetley; McVitie’s and Nestlé also feature.
In short, the British public is a pretty gullible lot. According to this survey, the big-name products, with their massive marketing power, their ability to beam their branding into your consciousness, via advertising on everything from bus stops to TV screens – are the ones we trust. Surprise surprise.
And how they choose to market these brands are just as telling.
A third of people quizzed by Product of the Year said they would trust a product more if it is endorsed by a medical expert. You know, those ads where an actor stands around in a white coat, quoting stats about how this toothpaste could change your life.
Does nobody think about whether these claims are real? Or how trustworthy this particular, usually anonymous medical professional is?
Indeed, in 2012, Colgate-Palmolive, which makes the eponymous toothpaste, was rapped on the knuckles by the Advertising Standards Authority and told to remove the advert from broadcast. The ASA was responding to complaints that an ad which showed a nurse visiting the dentist and extolling the virtues of a toothpaste gave the impression that the product was being endorsed by a healthcare profession.
It certainly wasn’t claimed Colgate, insisting that the actor, who was depicted working in a nurse’s uniform in a busy hospital environment, was merely a “representation of a nurse”. Not intended to suggest endorsement of the product at all.
What was it for then? Entertainment? Indeed, nothing I find more Oscar-worthy than wasting five minutes of my life watching someone pretending to be a nurse and then getting her teeth checked.
On one front, however, we do show savvy. The survey showed that a tiny 2 per cent of people find a product more trustworthy if a celebrity endorses it.
Bet Aunt Bessie’s are kicking themselves.