Food, Sex, Guilt: How Marketing What We Eat Needs to Change

Eating has always been closely linked with courtship. All species, including our own, seem to be involved in this mating gamble with food as the bait. Equally, food and sex are generally closely linked. Biologically, they are physically linked in the limbic system of the brain, which controls emotional activity. Many of the words we use to describe sexuality and food are similar—both areas of experience deal with different textures, tastes, and smells. It is not surprising that we link food and sex. Good food is little different than good sex.

Here’s an example of where the two, food and sex, intertwine – dating. The choice of setting for food and courtship is as important as the food itself. There is a tendency to move gradually (or swiftly as the case may be) from the public to the private. For modern urban couples, dates usually begin in a crowded public place such as a bar or lower-key restaurant. On the “second date,” they may move to a more intimate restaurant. This stage may be prolonged, but at some point (date three, four, etc.) the “your place or mine” issue arises, with, researchers have found, her place being generally preferred. At this stage she is supposed to supply a meal – usually a “romantic” candlelight dinner – thus demonstrating her abilities as a cook and hostess. Of course, for non-heterosexual couples the gender rules don’t apply directly, but the process unfolds in much the same way: public space, intimate space, private space. Breakfast follows the consummation, often cooked by the host since it’s her/his kitchen, but with the more egalitarian or romantically inclined, that act of cooking falls to the “guest”.  While this is a fairly mechanical breakdown, the point is that food is a prelude to sex, part a symbolic dance. It is increasingly intimate and sensual. And this level of interconnectedness between food and sex touches on everything from food categories (chocolate as an aphrodisiac, etc.) to holidays to fetishes.

What’s most interesting, however, is that it is the very sensuality of eating that spurs the rejection of food pleasures in more conservative circles. And that conflict between puritanism and sensuality shapes how we talk about, advertise, and market food. Food is fuel, sex is procreation, and pleasure is something not to be entirely trusted. The pleasures we derive from sex and food are filtered through an elaborate set of internal conflicts competing against our most basic drives – cultural norms, dogma, and historical context remind us that the sensuality of sex and food are tinged with the animalistic, the impure.  We finish an extraordinary meal, give a great exhale (smoke a cigarette after sex), and then say, “I shouldn’t have eaten that,” or “why did I eat that?”. In other words, we taint those things from which we derive the simplest of joys. That seems exceeding strange. Mark Twain noted the bizarre anti-eroticism of Christianity when he considered heaven, though the observations can be applied across many religions, cultures, and times:

“[Man] has imagined a heaven, and has left entirely out of it the supremest of all his delights, the one ecstasy that stands first and foremost in the heart of every individual of his race . . . sexual intercourse! It is as if a lost and perishing person in a roasting desert should be told by a rescuer he might choose and have all longed-for things but one, and he should elect to leave out water!”

Sex is deemed “good” when it conforms to rather rigid restriction that often appear to be centered on limiting or acknowledging pleasure. That same rigidity and focus on restriction and/or guilt carries over to what we eat. Food taboos are known from virtually all human societies. Most religions declare certain food items fit and others unfit for human consumption. And religions are by no means the only institutions to champion this approach to food and sex; medical doctors, governments, etc. have all participated in some of these same practices.

As an example, The Catholic Church, the dominant shaper of many norms in the formation of Western civilization, teaches that all people are obliged by God to perform some penance for their sins, and that these acts of penance are both personal and corporeal. The purpose of fasting is spiritual focus, self-discipline, imitation of Christ, and performing penance. Deprivation is meaningless unless it is joined with a spiritual fast from sin. St. Basil gives the following exhortation regarding fasting:

“Let us fast an acceptable and very pleasing fast to the Lord. True fast is the estrangement from evil, temperance of tongue, abstinence from anger, separation from desires, slander, falsehood and perjury. Privation of these is true fasting.”

Similarly, when it comes to sex, among what are considered sins gravely contrary to chastity, are masturbation, fornication, pornography, homosexuality, and contraception. And these sorts of restrictions are not limited to one faith – comparable restrictions, whether religious or secular, appear in all cultures. Whether you’re a believer or not, and I certainly have neither the desire nor the right to pass judgement on anyone’s faith, the point is that humans have a long tradition of censuring behavior, both carnal and epicurean. And those cultural positions are demonstrated in any number of subconscious marketing and advertising manifestations.

Dietary rules and regulations often govern particular phases of the human life cycle and may be associated with special events such as menstrual period, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, and in traditional societies preparation for the hunt, battle, wedding, funeral, etc. But in Western society of the last millennia, the central focus seems to be either protecting us from ourselves or playing off of the guilt we’re taught to embrace over taking pleasure in eating.

Protection: First off, this is not meant as a condemnation of regulations. Quite the contrary. Consider laws requiring food container labels or restaurant menus to include nutritional information. First, these laws don’t “protect us from ourselves” in the sense that they don’t forbid us from buying or eating certain items. It doesn’t even require us to read the nutritional information. It only requires that the information be available so we have the option of making informed choices. Foods with health consequences lead to medical resources being used for diseases that could have been prevented, causing society as a whole to spend more money on medical care. So there is an obvious benefit to reminding people that there are consequences to their actions, be it eating or having sex. No, what I am talk about is how we often rationalize food, or demonize it, and thus project a sense of  moral judgement onto what we consume that is rooted in historical and cultural prudishness. If  what we eat and how we have sex are anything but simply pragmatic, we aren’t just sinning, we’re endangering our very lives.

Take bacon for example. Bacon tastes delicious. It is smoky, fatty, and comforting. But we’re also reminded on a regular basis that it will kill you. One bite and you have placed one foot in the grave. And so we turn to other foodstuffs as a substitute, such as turkey bacon. Understand, I have no problem with turkey bacon, but I am intrigued by the fact that it isn’t sold on its own merit. Turkey bacon is, in fact, rather tasty. When it comes to how it’s marketed it is placed in opposition to traditional bacon, offering to prolong our lives and indirectly reminding us that eating traditional bacon is morally ambiguous at best, morally bankrupt at worst. We are protected from the decay of civilization and our hedonistic, self-destructive ways by choosing the alternative. The same can be said for fat-free yogurt, light beer, margarine, or vegan cheese (such as it is). Don’t get me wrong, I have no qualms with promoting a healthy alternative and I’m not passing judgement on any of these foods, but I am suggesting that using the motif of protection from ourselves is highly suspect.

Now, compare it to how we address sex. Abstinence is frequently the only way to ensure avoiding the fires of hell, sex for the simple joy of it is secondary to its role as an expression of the will of God, etc. Ultimately, the restrictions we place on sex are there, we’re frequently told, to protect us from a wide range negative outcomes and in doing so, we instill a deep sense that its sensuality (as with food) is dangerous and morally suspect. All of this leads to the second major point. Namely, imparting a deeply ingrained sense of guilt.

Guilt: The less utilitarian a food is, the more we market it in terms of indulgence. Food becomes a dirty secret. There’s something slightly perverse to enjoying that bite of chocolate or that butter spread across your toast. The same holds true for how we approach our sexuality – if it appears as something other than utilitarian it is rife with sin. It’s something to be hidden away and consumed or done when no one is looking. And when we combine sexuality and food in advertising and marketing (there are countless examples of it), we inevitably portray the connection as something to be hidden behind closed doors, something kinky.

The result is a rather unhealthy approach to food and sex. The subtext we see and are taught is that there’s something fundamentally wrong in taking pleasure in these things, be it eating a cheeseburger or getting it on for the sheer pleasure of it. From a marketing and advertising standpoint, talking about indulgence certainly works, but its sustainability is questionable. Particularly in light of the openness and inclusive nature of younger generations. For them, guilt is not the control mechanism it once was.

Changes Underway: Not surprisingly, there is a shift underway, where marketers are embracing the pleasure of food for its own sake. Companies like Fatworks, makers of high-quality fats for cooking have embraced flavor and texture as their key selling points. Shatto Milk has put quality, flavor, and ties to the local community above discussions of calcium, osteoporosis, or conversely, the evils of dairy. There is no sense of guilt, but rather an acknowledgement that the food we eat gives us pleasure. And that’s something we should be happy about.

Food and sex are two of the most basic drives for animal behavior. Creatures need food to sustain themselves and they need to continue the species—or blow off a little hormonal steam. Does sex sell? The short answer is yes, sex sells. We as humans crave sex. And, while I don’t think all of us constantly walk around fantasizing over what we can fornicate with next, research says otherwise, at least in part. As it turns out, how we think about food follows a very similar pattern. Advertising and marketing that highlight the sensual, near-sexual nature of food sells. The point here is not to analyze sexual advertising, that’s a topic for another day. Rather, the point is to ask whether or not marketing will need to focus more on the positive associations we have with sex and food going forward. I am inclined to think that our relationships with food and sex will become less guilty and less puritanical in the coming years. How we advertise and market will need to follow suit.

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Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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