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Ideology Can Skew Our Views on the Healthiness of Food

New research finds that marketing messages that are inconsistent with our values can lead us to view a food product as less healthy.
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Whether eating a particular food is healthy for you or not may depend in part on your genetic make-up, but it has nothing to do with your political party.

Yet whether you perceive a food as healthy may depend on how it is marketed to you—and whether that message aligns with your ideology.

New research suggests that the divergent moral values underlying our polarized politics can influence our judgments even in a presumably non-partisan arena such as diet. The study finds that both liberals and conservatives perceive a food product as less healthy if the advertising pitch fails to align with their values.

"Food companies have been increasingly voicing their political opinion," writes Benjamin Boeuf of the IESEG School of Management in Paris. This research suggests that politics is a questionable marketing strategy, as political statements can make a product less appealing to a large number of consumers, without significantly enhancing its appeal among those who agree with the political message.

It's been clear for a while now that our political views influence our consumer choices. A 2013 study found that liberals, who tend to look for new, exciting projects, tend to shop at Trader Joe's, while conservatives, who are more likely to prefer the tried and true, prefer stores like Walmart that offer trusted brand names. A 2018 study reported that conservatives prefer products that convey dominance, while liberals like those that signal distinctiveness.

The latest research, in the journal Social Science and Medicine, describes two studies. The first included 699 adult Americans recruited online, all of whom indicated their political ideology on a one ("very liberal") to seven ("very conservative") scale.

All of them read a short, fictitious promotional message, purportedly from the fast food restaurant Nathan's. One-third of them read an appeal that reflects what Moral Foundations Theory calls the "binding" values that appeal to conservatives. It included the line, "We are very proud to be part of the American culture, and to serve our hot dog to our fellow citizens."

Another third read a different appeal that focused on the social justice values that speak to liberals. It included the line, "We are engaged in the reduction of societal injustice by supporting and financing various local charities and community groups." The final third read still another appeal that was not framed in political terms.

After reading these prompts, participants expressed their level of agreement with three health-related statements: that eating Nathan's hot dogs significantly increased one's risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

The result: Liberals believed the health risk of eating those hot dogs was higher if they had read the conservative-oriented appeal, and conservatives felt the same when exposed to the liberal appeal.

Interestingly, reading an appeal that aligned with one's values did not lead people to increase their perception of the product's safety. "It is reassuring to consider that political appeals cannot reduce risk perceptions of unhealthy food," Boeuf writes.

A second, similar study, featuring 702 Americans, replicated the findings of the first, and provided a strong clue as to the reasons behind these results. "Messages that are congruent with an individual's beliefs can influence persuasion through conceptual fluency, [which can produce a] 'feels right' experience," Beouf explains. When a message aligns with your values, it is "easy to process, and its meaning more easily grasped," he notes. This ease increases the message's persuasive power.

While these findings have obvious implications for public-health officials, who would be wise to avoid pitches that appeal to only people of one ideological persuasion, it raises intriguing questions about our vaguely sourced but deeply held beliefs about the healthiness of certain food products.

If you're certain that Chick-fil-A, a chain known to contribute to conservative causes, serves particularly unhealthy meals, you might want to check the facts. There's a good chance your feelings about the food are based more in politics than science.