Seeing an image of another person eating an unhealthy food can influence your own taste

Sep 06, 2013, 10:07 ET from American Marketing Association

CHICAGO, Sept. 6, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Consumers are constantly bombarded by images of unhealthy foods. Can seeing such an image of another person eating the food actually enhance the taste experience for the consumer? 


Food images beckon to consumers from seemingly everywhere, from advertising, to menus and packaging, and now even social media. Marketing Professor Morgan Poor of the University of San Diego noticed that while many of these images portrayed the food alone (food images), others portrayed a person consuming the food (consummatory images). For Poor and colleagues Adam Duhachek and Shanker Krishnan from Indiana University, this begged the question can simply seeing a picture of another person eating a food influence a consumer's own taste perceptions? Poor explains, "Imagine a scenario in which a consumer walks into a bakery and sees an image of a person savoring a cupcake displayed on the wall behind the counter. We wondered whether seeing this image leads the consumer to enjoy her own cupcake more or less than if the image had shown just the cupcake alone."       

The researchers explored this question through a series of experiments, in which participants were shown either food images or consummatory images and then tasted and evaluated a sample of the featured food. The researchers found that for unhealthy foods (e.g., potato chips, cookies), consummatory images led to increased taste perceptions. However, for healthy foods (e.g., almonds, apples), the type of image did not matter. The reason consummatory images influenced the taste of unhealthy foods, but not healthy foods the researchers explained is because only the former is associated with a conflict between the desire to eat something unhealthy and the desire to achieve and maintain good health. That is, seeing an image of someone else eating an unhealthy food serves as social proof that doing so is acceptable, which reduces the conflict and improves the experienced taste. The analysis appears in the November 2013 issue of the American Marketing Association's Journal of Marketing.

"Our results suggest that marketers of indulgent foods need to be mindful of the type of images they use given the inherent conflict their products evoke," Poor explains.

Consumers are motivated to justify their indulgences, so much so that even just seeing an image of someone else eating an unhealthy food is enough to reduce conflict and increase taste perceptions.

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SOURCE American Marketing Association