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Food Photos May Make Social Marketing Efforts Less Appetizing

Food Photos May Make Social Marketing Efforts Less Appetizing
Using photography to market food may backfire. / Credit: Sandwich image via Shutterstock

A warning for marketers trying to promote their restaurants or gourmet treats to the masses: Photos may not be the way to go.

New research out of Brigham Young University finds that looking at too many pictures of food can actually make it less enjoyable to eat.

The implication is that using social marketing tools, such as Instagram or Pinterest , to promote your food might actually have the opposite effect.

“In a way, you’re becoming tired of that taste without even eating the food,” said study co-author and BYU professor Ryan Elder. “It’s sensory boredom – you’ve kind of moved on. You don’t want that taste experience anymore.”

Elder and co-author Jeff Larson, both marketing professors in BYU’s Marriott School of Management, said the overexposure to food imagery increases people’s satiation. Satiation is defined as the drop in enjoyment with repeated consumption. In other words, the fifth bite of cake or the fourth hour of playing a video game are both less enjoyable than the first.

To reveal this food-photo phenomenon, Larson and Elder recruited 232 people to look at and rate pictures of food.

In one of their studies, half of the participants viewed 60 pictures of sweet foods such as cake, truffles and chocolates, while the other half looked at 60 pictures of salty foods such as chips, pretzels and french fries.

After rating each picture based on how appetizing that food appeared, each participant finished the experiment by eating peanuts, a salty food. Participants then rated how much they enjoyed eating the peanuts.

In the end, the people who had looked pictures of the salty foods ended up enjoying the peanuts less, even though they looked at pictures of other salty foods, not peanuts. The researchers say the subjects satiated on the specific sensory experience of saltiness.

The good news is that the phenomenon does not happen immediately, leaving some room for moderate social media marketing efforts.

That’s because the authors said the effect is strongest the more pictures one views. So, a few pictures posted to your company’s Facebook page might be fine, but post too many and you run the risk of turning off your customers.

“You do have to look at a decent number of pictures to get these effects,” Elder said. “It’s not like if you look at something two or three times you’ll get that satiated effect.”

Larson and Elder, along with University of Minnesota co-author Joseph Redden, published their findings in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Jeanette Mulvey

Jeanette has been writing about business for more than 20 years. She has written about every kind of entrepreneur from hardware store owners to fashion designers. Previously she was a manager of internal communications for Home Depot. Her journalism career began in local newspapers. She has a degree in American Studies from Rutgers University. Follow her on Twitter @jeanettebnd.