Given the choice between a container of fruity yogurt and a tray of fried chicken, most women will gravitate toward the former and most men toward the latter, thanks in part to the way clever marketing strategies dictate our unconscious food preferences. What’s more, marketing food toward one gender or the other can influence how men and women perceive a food’s taste.
Such are the findings of a small study, published in the latest issue of the journal Science Psychology, on gender and food marketing. So influenced are men and women by the gender stereotyping of advertising companies that women are more likely to choose nutritious, diet-conscious foods when primed to do so, while men move toward less healthy options (for instance, processed and fried foods) when given ‘masculine’ cues.
Researchers led by Luke Zhu, a University of Manitoba business professor, conducted the study in two parts: the first to establish a link between gender-oriented advertising and food preference, and then an experiment to observe how gender-oriented advertising affects men and women’s perceptions of food’s taste.
During the first phase, researchers gave a randomized group of 93 people word puzzles intended to prompt feminine or masculine stereotypes, and then asked them to choose between food options like baked or fried chicken. Both women and men who were given feminine word puzzles predominantly chose the healthier food, while both sexes who were given masculine puzzles more often chose the unhealthy food.
In the second phase of the study, researchers gave each participant an identical blueberry muffin, packaged in multiple ways: feminine, masculine, and mixed-gender. (The feminine packaging was labeled “healthy” with an image of a ballerina; the masculine version was labeled “mega” with an image of men playing football; the mixed versions paired the “healthy” label with men playing football or the “mega” label with a ballerina.)
Those who received muffins in mixed-gender packaging reported poorer taste than those who received packaging with solely masculine or feminine signals—even though all the muffins were the same.
That people’s perceptions of food are so entrenched in gender stereotypes leaves them confused and turned off by mixed-gender alternatives, Zhu tells Quartz. “There is such an implicit association between gender and healthy eating now. And if [food companies] violate that association, it backfires,” he says. Taken to an extreme, gendered food marketing could lead men to, say, unconsciously choose sports-themed nachos over daintily-packaged, healthier options, and encourage women to binge on sugary pink yogurt because they assume it’s healthy.
Zhu advises that more research of larger, diverse groups could uncover ways for companies and health advocates to correct these deeply entrenched stereotypes, and help pre-programmed consumers move past them.