Graphic illustrations by Jeffrey C. Chase September 13, 2021
Study reveals diet-related advertisements should not be one-size-fits-all
Meryl Gardner, a marketing professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, studies how people make choices. She is interested in how people combine what they know, think and feel to make decisions that affect their wellbeing or the wellbeing of others, including why people would choose to eat unhealthy food over healthy food.
“We tell people how to eat healthy. We teach and lecture them, too. Yet so many of us find eating healthy a perpetual struggle,” said Gardner.
This led Gardner and colleagues Yi Xie, assistant professor of marketing at Xiamen University, and Naomi Mandel, professor of marketing at Arizona State University, to wonder whether people’s beliefs influence their approach to dieting. To explore this idea, the research team studied individuals who have now or at some point in their lives put themselves on a plan to eat healthier.
Not all dieters are the same
The research team proposed that dieters would vary along a continuum anchored by two main types, which they call balancers and abstainers. Then they developed a diet-balancing scale to evaluate study participants’ beliefs about which is a more effective dieting strategy, eating everything in moderation (i.e., balancing one’s diet) or avoiding specific things, for instance sugar or carbohydrates. The researchers theorized that individuals with a higher diet-balancing score would be more likely to strategically indulge during dieting, balancing their diet overall, while those with lower diet-balancing scores would be more restrictive in their habits and more likely abstain from eating certain foods to achieve their diet goals.
When they assessed the actual eating behavior of dieters in each category, the researchers found legitimate differences between people who prefer to balance and those who tend to abstain from certain foods. For example, the team asked study participants to think about a time when they overindulged, then offered the participants food.
“When faced with M&Ms in our study, participants who preferred to balance ate less candy after recalling an indulgent food experience than after recalling a time they avoided overindulging,” said Gardner. “This gave us more confidence that our scale is really differentiating people, and we can see that reflected in the real world.”
The results for participants prone to avoiding certain foods were mixed. The research team expected people who tend to abstain from eating certain foods would have trouble ‘getting back on the wagon’ after indulging and just keep eating the candy. However, the group that preferred abstinence behaviors did not significantly increase their candy consumption after recalling an indulgent experience.
Taking it one step further, the researchers tested whether dieters’ attitudes toward messaging in fictitious yogurt ads would mirror their individual dieting approach based on the diet-balancing scale. It turned out that “balancers” showed more positive attitudes toward healthy food advertisements that confirmed their beliefs about balancing their diet over messages that suggested avoiding certain foods was the way to go. Abstainers, however, were indifferent to both types of taglines.
So, why does this question matter now?
“Not everyone has spent the pandemic pursuing their best self or learning a new language. For many of us, the pandemic has been a time of stress” said Gardner. “Sales of cigarettes are up, alcohol consumption is up, the number of liver transplants is up. I’m thinking about the regular person that put on the quarantine 15 [pounds] and is considering the best way forward to deal with this.”
The research team’s findings suggest that diet-related advertisements and government policies should not be one-size-fits-all, but rather tailored to different types of dieters. Thinking about all individuals as being the same is part of the problem, Gardner said.
A better understanding of the beliefs and values of an intended audience has the potential to help the health and weight loss industry more effectively customize their marketing to fit the needs of both types of dieters, by including belief-confirming cues. In terms of health, when people go to the doctor with a health problem and lifestyle changes are recommended, Gardner suggests that doctors should consider asking questions to help people think through which method works best for them.
“Rather than have doctors give advice to count calories or never eat this or that, we believe the more important question is who is the doctor speaking with?” she said. “If that person is someone who does better if they avoid certain foods altogether, the message would be very different than for another person who does better by having everything in moderation. This new variable provides a way to differentiate people and not say one recommendation fits everyone.”
The research team’s work was recently published in the Journal of Business Research.
Moving forward, Gardner would like to explore whether people benefit from hard boundaries or balance in other dimensions of their lives. Lately, she’s seen a lot written about how people should maintain separate spaces for work, recreation and rest.
“They aren’t saying you shouldn’t do it a little bit; they are saying hard boundaries,” said Gardner. “But as humans, we may not approach all things the same way. For example, maybe we prefer abstaining behaviors in terms of diet, but we don’t mind a few work emails over the weekend if it means a smoother week ahead. Do people vary their approach by category, and how do culture, upbringing or religion affect our choices?”
It’s a lot to ponder.