Gender is king in food marketing, study finds

U of M study reveals gender cues impact enjoyment, perception of flavour

If it’s a healthy snack you’re looking for, chances are it will taste better coming out of a package depicting women dancing ballet rather than men playing football – or at least you will perceive it that way.

A three-part study led by University of Manitoba professor Luke Zhu and recently published in the journal Social Psychology, entitled “Macho Nachos: The Implicit Effects of Gendered Food Packaging on Preferences of Healthy and Unhealthy Foods,” has shed some new light onto the role gender stereotypes play in food selection and how easily people’s preferences are swayed.

Drawing on the generally held cliche that women seek a more balanced diet than men, the study found healthier food presented in a feminine fashion is more appealing, commands a higher price, and is deemed to be more flavourful than the same product packaged with a masculine bent.

“These very subtle cues of masculinity or femininity actually had a profound impact on how people evaluate those foods and how people judge their preference for different types of foods,” said Zhu, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour in the Asper school of business, who holds a PhD in organizational behaviour.

On a broader scale, Zhu said the study outlines how gender influences have a tangible impact on daily life.

“In our life there’s so many cues,” he said.

“You can walk down the street and there’s so many advertisements, different colours and different fonts – some being feminine, the other ones being masculine, bold – and all these things can have a subtle effect on our decision making.”

“A lot of decisions we make without deliberation,” he explained. “And if we’re aware of these little subtle cues, we may make better decisions.”

In one test, Zhu and his three research partners – Victoria Brescoll and George Newman, both professors in the Yale School of Management, and Eric Uhlmann, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at the INSEAD Business School in Singapore – presented 140 participants with blueberry muffins described either as low-fat or full-fat and displayed them in a masculine, feminine or neutral context, yielding six different offerings.

The study found participants preferred the low-fat muffins packaged in a box featuring ballerinas rather than a box sporting a football background. In the same vein, full-fat muffins were more desirable packaged in the sports box.

While Zhu said seeing people divide health and junk food into feminine and masculine camps is consistent with previous studies, it was interesting to learn how a subtle suggestion either way proved to shape the participants’ opinions, right down to the flavour of the food.

“It’s definitely surprising because if it’s exactly the same muffin, that shows that our evaluation, like a tasting evaluation, isn’t as objective as we think and isn’t always about the food itself,” he said.

“It’s also about how the food is presented.”

In another sample, the researchers found priming participants with masculine or feminine cues led them to prefer either junk or healthy food.

According to Zhu, that goes to explain why a high-energy, masculine-charged event like a soccer match or hockey game is better paired with a basket of greasy nachos than a light salad.

“Sometimes, what we choose to eat really is just an impulsive, rather than a logical decision,” he said.

The third stage of the study revealed how blatant appeals toward either gender, such as the slogan “The muffin for Real Men,” have a reverse effect and actually turn-off would-be buyers.

The implication from a marketing perspective, said Zhu, is to be aware of packaging and presentation.

“If one of your features is to promote healthy eating habits and your food is actually healthy, then your packaging needs to be consistent with [femininity],” he said.

“On the other hand, if your food is high in energy, you know, gives people instant energy with a few health implications, then in that case the packaging better be bold and cue people’s masculinity.”