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Gendered packaging really does influence how we buy food

The next time you sink your teeth into a juicy burger or a steak roll, think about what image comes to mind. Is it a picture of a rugged man with bulging muscles and a nonchalant attitude? Or do you associate this food with a slender woman with perfect hair and brilliant white teeth?

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A new study titled “Macho nachos: The implicit effects of gendered food packaging on preferences for healthy and unhealthy foods” was conducted by the University of Manitoba and published in the Social Psychology journal, and it has revealed some very interesting things about the way consumers think — and what they want from their food packaging.

Food is marketed differently to different sexes, and we have come to expect that healthier food products are associated with femininity, while unhealthy foods have a more masculine appeal. This study examined exactly how the cultural stereotypes about gender influence our food choices and possibly even the way we think it tastes.

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The study conducted a series of experiments using 93 adult participants, Time magazine reports. The first experiment, conducted by lead researcher Luke Zhu, asked the participants which foods they thought were masculine and feminine (for example, baked chicken versus fried chicken or baked potatoes versus french fries). The results found a link between food and gender perception, with unhealthy foods deemed masculine and healthier options considered feminine.

The second experiment extended these effects to food packaging. When the packaging and the healthiness of the food had clear gender packaging (feminine for healthy food and masculine for unhealthy), “both male and female participants rated the product as more attractive, said that they would be more likely to purchase it, and even rated it as tasting better compared to when the product was stereotype incongruent,” the study states.

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Lastly, the third study wanted to prove that “packaging that explicitly appealed to gender stereotypes (‘The muffin for real men’) reversed the schema congruity effect, but only among participants who scored high in psychological reactance.”

According to Time, researchers used mini blueberry muffins packaged in a way that was considered either feminine, with an image of a ballerina and the slogan “healthy” emblazoned on it, or masculine, with the slogan “mega” and the image of men playing football.

The study also used packages that had the “healthy” slogan and the image of men playing football, and vice versa. But this packaging proved less popular. What this means is that people respond better to clear signals about gender marketing and do not like when the packaging sends mixed messages, like healthy food in masculine packaging or junk food in feminine packaging.

This study really makes you think about your purchasing decisions, and as much as we want to believe we make our decisions freely, it turns out marketers have an even bigger impact on our food than we originally thought.

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