Portraying Humans as Machines to Promote Health: Unintended Risks, Mechanisms, and Solutions

Portraying Humans as Machines to Promote Health: Unintended Risks, Mechanisms, and Solutions

By
Andrea Weihrauch, Szu-chi Huang
Journal of Marketing (forthcoming).
2021

To fight obesity and educate consumers on how the human body functions, health education and marketing materials often highlight the importance of adopting a cognitive approach to food. One strategy employed to promote this approach is to portray humans as machines. Five studies (and three replication and follow-up studies) using different human-as-machine stimuli (internal body composition, face, appearance, and physical movement) revealed divergent effects of human-as-machine representations. While these stimuli promoted healthier choices among consumers who were high in eating self-efficacy, they backfired among consumers who were low in eating self-efficacy (measured in Studies 1 and 3–5; manipulated in Study 2). This reversal happened because portraying humans as machines activated consumers’ expectation of adopting a cognitive, machine-like approach to food (Studies 3 and 4)—an expectation that was too difficult to meet for those with low (vs. high) eating self-efficacy. We tested a solution to accompany human-as-machine stimuli in the field (Study 5): Externally enhancing how easy and doable it was for consumers low in eating self-efficacy to meet the expectation of adopting a cognitive approach to food, which effectively attenuated the backfire effect on their lunch choices at a cafeteria.