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Pretty Healthy Food: How and When Aesthetics Enhance Perceived Healthiness

Pretty Healthy Food: How and When Aesthetics Enhance Perceived Healthiness

Linda Hagen

JM Insights in the Classroom

Teaching Insights

Consumers expect food is healthier (e.g., more nutritious, less fatty) and contains fewer calories when looks pretty based on classical aesthetic principles (like order and symmetry) than when it does not, because pretty aesthetics feel more natural; this pretty=healthy bias can change choices and willingness-to-pay.

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Related Marketing Courses: ​
​​​​Advertising and Promotion; Consumer Behavior

Full Citation: ​
Hagen, Linda “Pretty Healthy Food: How and When Aesthetics Enhance Perceived Healthiness.” Journal of Marketing, 85, no. 2 (March 2021): 129–45.

Article Abstract
Marketers frequently style food to look pretty (e.g., in advertising). We investigate how pretty aesthetics (defined by classical aesthetic principles, such as order, symmetry, and balance) influence healthiness judgments. We propose that prettier food is perceived as healthier, specifically because classical aesthetic features make it appear more natural. In a pilot, six main studies, and four supplemental studies (total N = 4,301), across unhealthy and healthy, processed and unprocessed, and photographed and real foods alike, people judged prettier versions of the same food as healthier (e.g., more nutrients, less fat), despite equal perceived price. Even given financial stakes, people were misled by prettiness. Supporting the proposed naturalness process, perceived naturalness mediated the effect; belief in a natural=healthy connection moderated it; expressive aesthetics, which do not evoke naturalness, did not produce the effect (despite being pretty); and reminders of artificial modification, which suppress perceived naturalness, mitigated it. Given that pretty food styling can harm consumers by misleading healthiness judgments for unhealthy foods, managers and policy-makers should consider modification disclaimers as a tool to mitigate the pretty=healthy bias.

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Special thanks to Demi Oba and Holly Howe, Ph.D. candidates at Duke University, for their support in working with authors on submissions to this program.

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Linda Hagen is Assistant Professor of Marketing, Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, USA.