First Impressions Matter For Meat Alternatives
Despite growing evidence that animal agriculture harms animals, the environment, and human health, most consumers continue to eat meat. For animal advocates, this may seem counterintuitive. However, research has found that the taste and sensory experience of meat are major reasons why meat-eaters won’t remove animal products from their diet.
To justify their meat consumption, many consumers use strategies to reduce their guilt. For example, they may claim that meat is necessary, underestimate the amount of meat they eat, or deny that animal agriculture is prevalent and causes animals to suffer. Other strategies include avoiding reminders about the animal origins of meat products and denying that animals possess cognitive abilities. These justifications are referred to as “motivated reasoning.”
Meat alternatives are a promising opportunity to combat motivated reasoning and the taste barriers cited by meat-eaters. In fact, the authors argue that offering affordable, convenient, high-quality meat alternatives should encourage the average person to lose their arguments in favor of meat. However, no research exists to support this claim.
In this study from the U.K., researchers wanted to learn whether consumers might show a stronger preference for plant-based meat alternatives and reduce their motivated reasoning when exposed to visually appealing images of plant-based meat. To conduct the study, they separated meat-eating consumers into either a control group or one of four experimental groups. Participants in the experimental groups saw either a plant-based meat item or a traditional meat item, classified as either visually “appealing” or “unappealing.” The researchers then asked participants to rate the following:
- Their preference for either plant-based or traditional meat meals
- Their estimate of how much meat in the U.K. comes from factory farms
- Their agreement with the statement that animals can feel pain
The authors hypothesized that consumers exposed to appealing visuals of plant-based meat and unappealing visuals of traditional meat would show stronger preferences for plant-based meals and weaker motivated reasoning.
Regarding food preferences, the researchers found that people exposed to appealing visuals of plant-based meat showed a stronger preference for plant-based meals when compared to those exposed to unappealing plant-based visuals and unappealing meat visuals. However, those exposed to appealing plant-based imagery didn’t differ significantly in their preferences when compared to the control group. Likewise, there were no significant differences in meal preferences between those who saw unappealing meat imagery, appealing meat imagery, and the control group.
On average, participants estimated that 70% of meat in the U.K. comes from factory farms. It’s important to note that these estimates did not differ for those who were exposed to appealing plant-based imagery or unappealing meat imagery. In other words, viewing a tasty photo of plant-based meat or a non-tasty photo of meat didn’t impact perceptions of how much meat comes from factory farms. Similarly, there were no significant differences in the belief that animals can feel pain, regardless of which image a participant viewed.
The authors’ hypothesis was partially supported. Namely, seeing appealing images of plant-based meat increased participants’ preferences for meat alternative meals, but only when compared to participants who viewed unappealing images of plant-based or traditional meat. Furthermore, viewing appealing plant-based imagery and unappealing meat imagery did not impact consumers’ “motivated reasoning” for choosing meat. However, the researchers note that they didn’t provide educational material on factory farms or ask people to weigh in on subjective beliefs about animals, such as an animal’s moral worth. If they had, they might have seen different outcomes.
For animal advocates, this study offers an important takeaway: First impressions matter when it comes to promoting plant-based meat alternatives. Many advocates use vegan food imagery to encourage consumers to reduce their meat intake, and this study provides further evidence that incorporating high-quality images of tasty-looking vegan dishes can make or break a vegan advocacy campaign.