When food has a face, people prefer not to eat it

Do you imagine a gingerbread person has personality, like the Gingerbread Man in Shrek? Maybe you nibble the legs a little first, delaying the prospect of biting its head off?

When food is given human-like features, people do not like to eat it, research from the University of Innsbruck, Austria has found. The study is published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

While consumers like to purchase humanised food products like gingerbread men, they prefer not to eat them. Yet ‘cold-hearted’ people who lack empathy or remorse are the exception, the study found.  

“By humanising a food product, we grant it the capacity to feel (pain),” says the paper’s author, Roland Schroll an assistant professor in the Faculty of Business and Management. 

“Consequently, consumers don’t like to eat such a product because eating it seems immoral.”

Anthropomorphism – attributing human characteristics – has long been a popular marketing strategy for food products (think talking M&Ms, or the Australian company that puts smiley faces on pies).

Read more: The Cosmos Big Food Quiz

The paper reports on five different studies testing people’s responses to food depicted as human. 

Three involved advertising featuring both anthropomorphised and regular apples. After seeing the ad featuring an apple with a face, consumers reported lower desire to eat an apple, and said they would enjoy eating an apple less. The exception was people who self-identified as being ‘cold-hearted’. 

Apple 2 1
The anthropomorphised apple ad / Credit: Roland Schroll University of Innsbruck, Austria

In another, participants were offered M&Ms customised both with, and without human face features. The study showed people took fewer of the lollies with a face.

The fifth study asked participants to imagine shopping for a Christmas party and offered a choice between a gingerbread biscuit shaped like a man or a tree. It revealed people were more likely to buy the person-shaped biscuit. However, when participants were invited to eat one of the biscuits, most would rather eat one shaped like a tree than a person.

The study suggests that companies or organisations seeking to anthropomorphise food in their marketing or communication should consider whether their goal is to promote consumption or purchase. It issues a warning for those wanting to encourage food consumption: exercise caution with respect to humanising food products.

Control (left) and anthropomorphised (right) M&Ms / Credit: Roland Schroll University of Innsbruck, Austria

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