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Have you ever seen an ad telling you something like “Eat to fuel your body, not to feed your emotions”? You’re not alone. This marketing style that shows humans as machines and food as fuel is often used in a positive way to help us make healthier choices. Unfortunately, a new study from the University of Amsterdam and Stanford University published in the Journal of Marketing shows that it might not be producing the desired effect.

Governments and companies use it

One thing that we associate with machines is that they rely solely on their “head” to make rational decisions because they lack a human heart (emotion). Most developed countries adopted these cognitive, head-based approaches in efforts to improve public health. People are encouraged to read nutrition labels and calculate calories to maintain optimal health.

Human as a machine
Humans are often compared to machines. © Profimedia

This is reinforced throughout our culture. For example, the National Geographic series “The Incredible Human Machine” described unhealthy behaviours as (human) “errors” in the maintenance of our bodily machine.

And food companies are taking advantage of this as well. The supplement manufacturer Centrum asks consumers to “power the human machine” with vitamin pills. Nestlé, on the other hand, encourages indulgence as the “human” thing to do. Their tagline “Working like a machine? Have a Kit Kat.” motivates consumers to be more like humans and have a chocolate bar, a choice that rational machines wouldn’t make.

Similarly, Red Bull suggests that consuming their beverage makes you analytical and rational like a human machine.

It makes us choose unhealthier options

When we see human bodies portrayed as machines, we feel that we are expected to behave like them and choose food like they would, in a rational and calculating manner. This can help some people make healthier choices. But the problem is that it backfires for a very vulnerable group of people. Those who have low confidence in their ability to choose healthy foods. For them, human-as-machine representations actually lead to choosing unhealthier options.

“For this consumer segment, the expectation that one should be rational and machine-like when it comes to food feels impossible. Instead of feeling motivated to be more rational, the feeling of not being able to perform like a machine triggers unhealthier choice making instead. Thus, a strategy used with good intentions to educate consumers and improve their health can have an unintended dark side that hurts the very segment that consumer welfare organizations want to help,” explains Andrea Weihrauch, the author of the study.

Junk food
Being portrayed as machines can backfire and lead to people make worse food choices. © Profimedia

Making machine-like food choices is doable

Researches provide a practical solution to this unwanted side-effect. They suggest accompanying the human-as-machine visuals with a message to reassure consumers that making machine-like food choices are doable. The study found that by adding this message in a cafeteria, the study found that consumers’ choice of healthy food increased by 22 % for some.

Some of us are better at making food choices like machines while others struggle. But we all have emotions that influence our decisions on a daily basis. It’s important to keep that in mind in the current world that depicts humans as machines more and more commonly.