The messages seem clear: Ladies love low-calorie yogurt, and men demand the meats.
These tired gender stereotypes are as old as commerce -- and that’s probably not coincidental. New research, published this week in the journal Social Psychology, reinforces what creative agencies have long exploited: Cultural cues can shape our food choices. If a product doesn’t arrive in its expected gendered packaging, we may be less likely to buy or savor it.
“Not only do people tend to eat what others in their culture eat,” the researchers wrote, “but what people eat communicates something about the kind of person they are.”
Co-author Luke Zhu, an assistant business professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada, said a growing body of evidence suggests that diners, consciously or not, associate healthy food with "femininity" and unhealthy food with "masculinity."
His team decided to investigate the phenomenon after a former White House chef gave an interview about his meal preparation process. Before President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, a reporter asked Walter Scheib how he might cater to both Obama and George W. Bush, or “men with different tastes.”
‘‘I think the key word there is 'men',” the chef responded. “There isn’t blue state food and red state food. Food at the White House has a tendency to delineate along gender lines as opposed to political lines… Both presidents that I worked with, if we had opened up a BBQ pit or rib joint, they’d be just as happy.”
Researchers wanted to understand just how strongly these kind of assumptions affect our daily eating habits.
They asked 93 adults which foods they considered manly and ladylike: baked chicken versus fried chicken, diet potato chips versus regular potato chips, baked fish versus fried fish. Respondents consistently labeled the healthier options as “feminine” and the greasier fare as “masculine.”
They also served identical muffins in six different types of packaging. One arrived in a “feminine” exterior, with the word “health” and an image of a ballerina. One, for the men, came with the word “mega” and an illustration of football players. One was meant to appear gender neutral with a pastoral scene and no splashy adjectives. Others mixed up all these qualifiers, pairing “mega” with, say, a ballerina.
People responded most favorably when social constructs remained intact.
“Participants rated the product as more attractive, reported stronger purchase intentions and were willing to pay more money for it,” the researchers wrote. “Participants rated the product as actually tasting better when the healthiness and the ‘gender’ matched.”
The takeaway, Zhu said: Consumers should be aware that gender norms may affect our grocery choices.
Ordering salad doesn’t have to be an act of identity rebellion. It might actually save the arteries of people who strongly identify as burly.
“Based on our data, they’re more likely to be inclined toward unhealthy food,” Zhu said. “There’s very serious health implications.”