When it comes to influencing what Americans will order at a restaurant, a picture is worth a thousand words – or roughly six billion dollars, which is what restaurants spent on advertising in the U.S. in 2011, according to Kantar Media. We should consider that for a moment.
It's largely believed that education is the answer to our ever-widening waistlines. There's a push to help adults and children better understand nutrition principles, and to make restaurants disclose more details about the content of our food. But is it helping?
With nutrition advice dispensed from every lifestyle magazine, TV news program and relative's lips, one would guess we have enough facts to fuel a lifetime of spinach omelet and Greek yogurt restaurant orders.
Yet we continue to struggle with smart choices when dining out. Despite copious free nutrition guidance, despite a real desire to eat healthy and despite increasingly mandatory calorie counts and recommendations on menus, we're still tugged toward the pancakes afloat in maple syrup.
Nutrition information is important, but it's only one piece of the healthy eating puzzle – usually, the piece that's easiest to ignore. We can take a cue from marketers on this one: What we need is not more facts. It's more pictures.
Why Unhealthy Food is Winning
When it comes to choosing which sandwich to have, there are two mental processes in effect, explains Debora Thompson, an associate professor of marketing at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. One is our conscious attention to the sandwich. The other is our non-conscious "gut" response to it. Pictures, she says, tend to trump facts in both processes. "Marketers have known for decades that visual cues are very impactful in how people process and weigh information," Thompson says. In the attention category, it simply takes less mental effort to process pictures. "It's less taxing on our cognitive system," she explains. "When you talk about ingredient labels and reading calorie info, all that is pure cognition."
In a study of the effectiveness of calorie labeling at McDonald's, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that it did not, in the end, alter the orders of 1,121 participants. The study was published in the American Journal of Public Health.
"I'm speculating on this, but probably one reason is that people just don't process that information," Thompson says. "A person doesn't always have the cognitive resources." Meaning either they don't want to spend brain power doing the calorie math, or they're busy processing other things. And heaven knows we're dealt an extra serving of stimuli when dining out, from shuffling through a line, to being rushed to place an order, to simultaneously carrying on a conversation with friends.
When we're already processing a thousand other things, one more cognitive demand is, sometimes, one too many. And maybe you'll agree with me: The promoters of unhealthy food are using imagery much more masterfully than the promoters of healthy food. One bacon cheeseburger, please.
Our Gut Response to Pictures
On top of factoids being more cognitively demanding, they tend to fall flat in the sensory department. (When was the last time you could "almost taste" a nutrition fact?) But visual information is great at triggering emotional and visceral responses, both of which play a huge role in what we choose to eat.
If a photo of a porterhouse steak reminds us of weekends with dad, for example, then we apply fond feelings to the steak, and there's an increased chance we'll order it. Psychologists call this an "affect transfer effect," and Thompson calls it extremely powerful in hedonistic realms such as food. "Emotion sometimes competes with cognition and completely overpowers it," she explains. "So even those who actually read and process the calorie number may come up with justification for why they're still going to go for the 2,000 calorie steak."
Essentially, not only is processing pictures mentally easy, but countering our Pavlovian response to food – courtesy of imagery – is extremely hard.
Registered dietitian Cortney Staruch sees this all the time. "Sometimes people will be trying to transform their lives, diet-wise, but as soon as they see an advertisement, whether it's a billboard or commercial, they give in," says Staruch, who counsels kids and adults at Activ8 Athleticism, a Carlsbad, Calif.-based health and wellness performance company. "It's one thing to see a McDonald's restaurant and keep driving by. But a photo can cause the consumer to recall the smell, taste, texture and feeling of comfort they may receive from a specific meal," she says. It's like we've half-bitten into the thing already.
And sometimes, pictures give the impression that the food is healthier than it is. Take the ubiquitous Photoshopped burger photos: "There's always a nice leafy green piece of lettuce hanging off, or a juicy tomato. We think, hey, maybe that's not so bad," Staruch says. But in hand, we get a burger "spread with mayo and sauce, which adds a lot of fat, and it ends up being iceberg lettuce, which is mostly water."
Using Visual Cues for Good
Given the one-two punch that pictures have in our decision-making process, it's clear that critical thinking barely touches our choice of what to grab for lunch. But this doesn't mean we are doomed to eat unhealthfully at restaurants. It means we need to fight photo with photo.
Who's to say a picture of perfectly steamed broccoli can't be drool-worthy? While an image of French fries may trump a fact sheet, images of fries and broccoli could go head to head. At least that's what research shows.
When Iowa State University put up a digital display of salad at a camp cafeteria buffet, kids were up to 90 percent more likely to load up on salad. While people aren't likely to get nostalgic over veggies, sometimes we just need to be reminded of them. Kids especially. The Iowa State researchers speculated that the rotating, digital images succeeded simply by grabbing their attention.
The more vivid and lifelike the image, the more potent, Thompson says. "We're bombarded with stimuli every day and there's a lot that never makes it to our awareness level. But size, color, movement, sound – all these increase the likelihood that a particular piece of stimulus will make the awareness threshold." Lifelike images might enhance our visceral response, as well.
"Making healthy choices is much easier when they are presented right before our eyes," Staruch agrees. "A vegetable egg white omelet might not sound all that appealing, but when shown an appetizing picture, it suddenly becomes mouthwatering."
It's time we start using proven marketing tactics to nudge people toward healthier choices. Granted, we probably can't expect steak and burger joints to care about steering us toward the salad bar. But we can apply the power of appetizing visuals in other venues – workplace cafeterias, health food stores, student lunchrooms.
And really, if pictures of healthy food become more prolific, all restaurants would do well to remind us that we can eat healthily at their establishments. One big, colorful and rotating spinach omelet at a time.
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Chelsea Bush is a journalist on a mission to tap the secrets of psychology to end laziness, cheeseburger addictions and other annoying habits that keep us flabby. Join the cause here, at @chelseawriting and at her blog, Survival of the Realist.