Friday, June 3, 2016

Sexy Veggie or Mean Meat?

People eat too much and get fat, livestock warms up the planet, and forests and soils are being destroyed. These are some of the many reasons we should strive towards a more sustainable agricultural and food industry (Walker, Rhubart-Berg, McKenzie, Kelling, & Lawrence, 2005). Two things that can be done to become healthier and simultaneously help the planet: 1) Eat less meat, 2) Eat more fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables contain less fats and calories, and require lower amounts of energy, water, and land to grow (Pimentel & Pimentel, 2003). 

Organizations promoting or discouraging the consumption of meat and vegetables rely on the use of nutrition education information or advertisements. Funnily enough, these campaigns often use pictures of animals or plants with human traits such as eyes, mouths, clothes, or personalities. The official term used to describe the act of assigning human characteristics to non-human entities is anthropomorphization

One Show Only by Terry Border (2013)

Anthropomorphization is something humans spontaneously engage in, starting at a very early age (Heider & Simmel, 1944). Marketers use it to make their products more eye-catching, attractive, and emotional (Duffy, 2014), which triggers a positive reaction in the viewers and makes them feel the object is worthy of moral care and consideration. Do these marketing strategies work to promote healthier diets? Can anthropomorphization be used to discourage meat consumption and increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables?

Meat eaters do not like to be reminded that the food they put in their mouth was once a breathing and moving animal. Believing that an animal has a mind of its own is associated with being against animal use (Allen et al., 2002). Nevertheless, anthropomorphization is much more often used in meat than plant advertisements: in the US, there are 19,075 animal trademarks versus 2,190 plant ones (Duffy, 2014). Perhaps not so strange considering that plants are generally marketed to a lesser extent and animals posses more human-like features to start with. In order to promote meat consumption, many marketers anthropomorphize animals by showing them conscious and willing of being eaten. These “suicide foods” or “anthropomorphic cannibalists" suggest that animals approve of eating meat and, even more drastically, would want to eat it (or themselves) as well. Such images are perceived as funny, leading to positive attitudes towards the product. 

Famous Daves and Happy Chicken Grill

In order to promote organic food more sensible tactics are used. In the example below, the chickens are portrayed as rational human beings having a conversation. The appeal used in this campaign is rational, providing its viewers with information. 

Organic Trade Boad (2014)

Meat anthropomorphization is also used in campaigns aimed at reducing meat consumption. When food anthropomorphization is too consciously perceived, or too realistic (i.e. too human), it can scare people off (Duffy, 2014). Those groups or individuals aimed at opposing meat consumption, such as the animal rights organization PETA, rely on these scare tactics in their campaigns. They directly compare the animal meat that we consume with human meat. Fear appeals tend to be effective at changing behaviors although less so for repeated behaviors such as dieting than one-time-only behaviors (Tannenbaum, 2013). 

PETA - packaged meat (2010) and human meat

Anthropomorphization to promote fruits and vegetables

Anthropomorphization is also used to promote healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables. Duffy (2014) describes how these advertisements primarily use full-bodied (non-sliced) plants whose position is matched with the physicality of the human body, sometimes with the addition of eyes and mouths, or costumes and props (e.g. sunglasses). Due to the variety in vegetable types, they can be used to signal different personality themes, such as healthiness and vitality, softness and infancy, femininity, muscles and masculinity, or sexiness. 

Advertisements using plant anthropomorphization often focus on children, portraying the vegetables as life characters. For instance, Super Sprowtz is a web series aimed at teaching children how to cook healthy recipes that will give them superpowers and make them smart. 

Super Sprowtz (2015)
In collaboration with Cornell University, Super Sprowtz intervened in 10 elementary schools across New York City by adding banners to the salad bar and/or combining this with television segments showing nutrition education provided by the vegetable characters. They found that in schools using both the banner and the television segments, vegetable consumption went up from 60 to 185 daily servings, and the percentage of children consuming vegetables went up from 10.2% to 34.6% (Hanks, Just, & Brumberg, 2015). 

Plant advertisements not only target kids. As an attempt to diminish vegetable waste the French supermarket chain Intermarché started a campaign to promote the consumption of “ugly” fruits and vegetables. These vegetables, which usually would not reach supermarket stands because of their aesthetics (20%-40% of fruits and vegetables in the UK are rejected) were assigned humanlike descriptions and sold with a 30% discount. Describing them with words related to humanness makes us empathize with an ugly carrot rather than discard it because it does not look tasty. 

Ugly Fruits and Vegetables (2014)

Other campaigns use talking vegetable characters to promote becoming a “Belgetarian”, or to encourage healthy eating by emphasizing its healthiness or sexiness. Perhaps in order to target a male audience, who have less positive attitudes towards fruits and vegetables (Emanuel, McCully, Gallagher, & Updegraff, 2012), Denmark launched an awareness campaign showing pieces of fruits and vegetables in sexual positions alongside the slogan “Get 6 per day, and remember variation”. 

Bonduelle Wellness Centre (2010), 6 om dagen (2013) and Word Belgetariër (2016)
Can anthropomorphism bring about diet change?

Both meat and fruit and vegetable advertisements use anthropomorphism as a means of making their products appealing and fun (or unappealing and scary). Whereas there is little evidence reporting on the effectiveness of the marketing campaigns mentioned, the campaigns promoting healthy food are all relatively new. Increasingly so, campaigns promoting healthy foods or discouraging the consumption of inorganic foods, are on the rise. This is a promising advance in changing the current obesogenic and destructive food environment we are surrounded by. 

Lightlife veggie burger (2013)


Allen, M., Hunstone, M., Waerstad, J., Foy, E., Hobbins, T., Wikner, B., & Wirrel, J. (2002). Human-to-animal similarity and participant mood infl uence punishment recommendations for animal abusers. Society &Animals, 10, 267-284.

Duffy, B. (2014). The Plant People Phenomenon model of anthropomorphism. Brand Mascots: And Other Marketing Animals, 219-239. Abingdon: Routledge.

Heider, F. and Simmel, M. 1944. An experimental study of apparent behavior. The American Journal of Psychology, 57, 243–259.

Emanuel, A. S., McCully, S. N., Gallagher, K. M., & Updegraff, J. A. (2012). Theory of Planned Behavior explains gender difference in fruit and vegetable consumption. Appetite, 59, 693-697.

Hanks, A. S., Just, D., & Brumberg, A. (2015). Marketing Vegetables: Leveraging Branded Media to Increase Vegetable Uptake in Elementary Schools. SSRN 2701890. Retrieved June 2, 2016 from

Tannenbaum, M. (2013). Do scare tactics work? A meta-analytic test of fear appeal theories.

Walker, P., Rhubart-Berg, P., McKenzie, S., Kelling, K., & Lawrence, R. S. (2005). Public health implications of meat production and consumption. Public health nutrition, 8, 348-356.