Gendered packaging influences what we buy, how we perceive food products

A new Canadian study has found that gender-specific packaging influences what we buy in the grocery store, and also affects whether we think the products are good for us.

The look of food packaging can even affect how we think a product tastes: Study

Monster energy drink is branded with typically masculine packaging. (Monster/Facebook)

A new Canadian study has found that gender-specific packaging influences what we buy in the grocery store, and also whether we think the products are good for us.

More stereotypically feminine packaging, with subtle colours and script-style fonts, is used for healthier foods, while more masculine packaging with bold colours and large fonts is often wrapped around less healthy items. 

In ads for those products, you might see a woman twirl around her pink dining room while spooning up yogurt from a small cup and extolling its low-fat virtues. Contrast that with ultra-fit men diving off cliffs, snowboarding on remote mountains, and slam-dunking basketballs in slow motion while promoting an energy drink. 

These television ads aren't exactly subtle. They play to stereotypical ideas of what it means to be masculine or feminine in modern culture. 

Luke Zhu is an assistant professor of business administration at the University of Manitoba. He said that although they might not realize it, consumers overwhelmingly choose foods based on their gender-packaging.

Starting in 2013, Zhu worked with researchers at Yale and INSEAD, an international business school with campuses in France, Asia and the Middle East. Their study, called "Macho Nacho," was recently published in the journal Social Psychology. 

Yoplait packaging is more stereotypically feminine in font and colour choices. (Yoplait/Facebook)
Part of the study involved subjects separating foods into "male" or "female" categories — like baked versus fried chicken, or baked versus regular potato chips. Subjects also named their preference.

Generally speaking, people associated the less healthy foods with masculinity, and the healthier options with femininity.

In another part of the study, the exact same blueberry muffins were packaged several different ways. One featured a football background, along with a high-energy or power message, using the word "mega."

The second package was more feminine, featuring ballerinas and a message using the word "healthy."

Package three mixed the masculine image with a feminine message. And a fourth package combined a feminine image with a masculine message.

In the two instances where the packaging and message matched the stereotype — masculine packaging with a masculine message, or feminine packaging and messaging — subjects were willing to pay more for the muffin, and believed it tasted better. 

When the messaging was mixed up, pairing a masculine image with a feminine message, people said the muffin didn't taste as good.

Zhu said those are powerful findings, especially if you're trying to make conscious decisions about your diet. 

"As researchers ... we are more concerned with ordinary people who want to maintain a healthy lifestyle," he explained. "Most of the time we tend to think that our decisions, all of our decisions, are made rationally with evidence and reasoning. But no, all these little cues in our surrounding environment can have a huge impact on what we think and what we decide to do."

And Zhu added that for food companies, matching gender stereotypes to packaging will mean better sales. 

"The takeaway message from our study is ... that, especially for food manufacturers, you have to position your product well. That means if your food is genuinely healthy, then your packaging needs to be consistent with that — that means feminine."

And he said if a product is less healthy or maybe high-energy, go for masculine packaging. 

Despite his findings, it doesn't mean food companies aren't trying to break these stereotypes.

Take this commercial for Yoplait, featuring tough guy actor Dominic Purcell and a very sporty car. If Zhu's theory is right, commercials like this one, while funny, won't make men run out and scoop up cases upon cases of Greek yogurt.

But Zhu said consumers can sidestep the sexist packaging trap by taking more note of their food choices.