Back when I was doing research on media literacy and would go into schools to teach high schoolers about navigating the media’s mixed messages, one of my favorite things to talk about was guilt. Specifically, I loved initiating a dialogue with these young people about how the media capitalizes on our individual and collective moral conscience when it comes to food choices.
An all-too-common advertising angle in marketing “healthy” food or. more often, “healthy alternatives” is to frame food as a moral issue. The media uses the concepts of guilt and shame freely to craft a very specific message — to be a good person, make good food choices.
Sometimes the reference is explicit — an advertising campaign will use the idea of “sin” to frame the food messaging. Advertisements for dessert-type foods are often accompanied by phrases like “indulgent”, “sinful”, or even “being bad” (with an obligatory wink). Chocolate gets an unfairly bad rap with this type of advertising. Conversely, advertisement for foods meant to be seen as “good” are often marketed by telling us that we can “ditch the guilt” and elevate our moral superiority by making having this food instead of that. It’s not uncommon to use specific religious imagery to highlight these ideas. The idea of an angel and devil on the shoulder in making a food choice is time-honored marketing image.
These tactics are fraught with problems — perhaps not for the millionaire advertising executives making a pretty penny off our collective shame, but certainly so for the rest of us. First of all, it’s dangerous – and unhelpful – to frame food as good or bad. They are arbitrary labels based on — well, what? There’s no universal rubric for how to identify what special ratio of fat to protein to sodium to iron to whatnot constitutes a food being good or bad. My perspective is that food doesn’t fit into simple categories like this. It’s food. It just is. It’s all good. It’s best when there’s a variety. That’s it.
Further, confusing food with morality leads us down a slippery slope. Guilt and shame, in my opinion, too often define individuals’ experiences of themselves, and this is particularly true for women. So many of us spend out lives feeling guilty for this choice or that choice — I didn’t call my friend back when I said I would. I’m a bad mom for choosing to work outside the home. I use plastic instead of resuable grocery bags. The last time I worked out was 2008. And the litany goes on. Do we really need to add “I ate a piece of chocolate” to that list?
Last, shame is a notoriously bad motivator for change. Rather than inspire us to be a better version of ourselves, shame tells us we are bad and deeply flawed. We can’t expect people to make choices in line with their health values from a place of unworthiness and shame. So while people might buy your box of veggie crisps the first time because you’ve guilted them into it, unless they like them and they fit into their food repertoire, they’re not going to keep buying them. I’ve said it before and I’ll said (one hundred times) again, shame doesn’t work to change people!
Interestingly enough, a study actually showed that people tend to report enjoying food more when they experience a sense of guilt. So marketing your product by telling us how we don’t have to feel guilty anymore may actually be counterproductive.
But more than that, I just want corporate advertisers to quit telling us how to feel about the choices we make. We make thousands of choices in a given day that define our character. Whether we eat a Hershey Kiss doesn’t need to be one of them.