A researcher from the University of Southern California published a new paper that explores if appealing food might seem healthier to consumers.
The study forthcoming in the Publication of Marketing is titled “Pretty Healthy Food: How and When Aesthetics Improve Perceived Healthiness” and is authored by Linda Hagen.
Consumers see nearly 7,000 food and restaurant advertisements per year, with the huge majority touting fast food. In marketing materials, food is extensively styled to look particularly pretty. Believe the beautiful pizza you might see on a billboard — a perfect circle of crust with flawlessly allocated pepperoni and melted cheese. Advertisers clearly aim to make the food more appetizing. But do pretty aesthetics have other, potentially problematic, effects on your impressions of food?
On one hand, beautiful aesthetics are closely associated with pleasure and indulgence. Having a look at beautiful art and people activates the mind’s reward centre and observing beauty is inherently gratifying. This link with pleasure might make pretty food seem unhealthy because people have a tendency to view pleasure and usefulness as mutually exclusive. As an example, many of us have the general instinct that food is either tasty or healthy, but not both.
Alternatively, a particular kind of aesthetics called “classical” aesthetics is characterized by the ideal patterns found in nature. As an example, a key classical aesthetic feature is symmetry, which could also be extremely common in nature. Another prominent classical aesthetic feature involves order and systematic patterns, which, again, are ubiquitous in nature. It kind of feels conceivable that sporting more of these nature-like visual features might make food depictions feel more natural. Seeming more natural, in turn, may make the food seem healthier because people have a tendency to believe natural things (e.g., biological food or natural remedies) to be healthier than unnatural things (e.g., highly processed food or synthetic chemicals). So, by advantage of reflecting nature, the same food may seem healthier when it is pretty (in comparison to when it is ugly).
In a series of experiments, the researcher tested whether the same food is perceived as healthier when it looks pretty by following classical aesthetics principles (i.e., symmetry, order, and systematic patterns) in comparison to when it does not. For instance, in one experiment, participants evaluated avocado toast. Everyone read identical ingredient and price information, but people were randomly assigned to see either a pretty avocado toast or an ugly avocado toast (the pictures had prior to now been, on average, rated as differentially pretty). Despite identical information approximately the food, respondents rated the avocado toast as overall healthier (e.g., healthier, more nutritious, fewer calories) and more natural (e.g., purer, less processed) whether they saw the pretty version in comparison to the ugly version. As suspected, the difference in naturalness judgments drove the difference in healthiness judgments. Judgments of other aspects, like freshness or size, were unaffected. Experiments with different foods and prettiness manipulations returned the same sample of results, suggesting that the effect is unlikely idiosyncratic to sure pictures.
Importantly, these healthiness judgments impact consumer behaviour. In a field experiment, people were willing to pay significantly more money for a pretty bell pepper than an ugly one, and a substantial portion of this boost in reservation prices used to be attributable to an analogous boost in healthiness judgments. In another study, even when people had financial incentives to appropriately identify which of two foods contained fewer calories, they were much more likely to declare a target food to be the lower calorie option when it used to be pretty than when it used to be ugly–even though this choice missing them money.
There are some key qualifications. First, the pretty=healthy effect is limited to classical aesthetics. “Expressive” aesthetics do not entail nature-like patterns, but instead please through imaginative execution of creative ideas, such as food cut into fun shapes or arranged to depict a scene. Second, the pretty=healthy bias will also be muted by displaying a disclaimer next to the food reminding people that the food used to be artificially modified.
This effect of classical aesthetic principles has implications for marketers and public health advocates, albeit different ones. Hagen explains that “Classical aesthetics is also a costless and subtle new way to communicate naturalness and healthfulness–attributes that consumers increasingly more demand in food products. At the same time, pretty food presentation may with a bit of luck distort nutrition estimates and negatively affect dietary decisions. Provided these findings, policy-makers may wish to believe modification disclaimers as an intervention or toughen regulations around providing objective nutrition information with food images.”
(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.)
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