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Fruit and vegetable sellers have known for a long time that misshapen produce just isn’t appealing to consumers… unless it is heavily discounted. A study carried out by three researchers, including NEOMA’s Nathalie Spielmann and Pierrick Gomez, has highlighted an alternative: sell at the usual price, but position photos with a positive connotation next to the produce. The aim is to challenge a particular stereotype: all that is ugly is bad on moral grounds.

Fruit or vegetable is considered “misshapen” when it lacks symmetry, is excessively curved or pitted, has protrusions or isn’t uniformly round – all characteristics that mean the produce will be left on the top shelf.

But it’s hard to be happy about this state of affairs when we know that one-third of all food grown worldwide is never eaten. It takes a huge amount of raw materials, water and energy to produce this food, and yet hundreds of millions of human beings still do not have enough to eat.

Misshapen fruit and vegetables pay an “ugly penalty”

Although this waste isn’t down to abnormalities in shape alone, deviations from the norm do generate feelings of disgust and rejection in customers that are hard to overcome. Fruits or vegetables that are “imperfect” will end up in the bin, or will be sold off more cheaply, even if the produce is beyond reproach in terms of its taste or nutrition. This only goes to reinforce its negative image.

In an attempt to break this vicious circle, the authors analysed the psychological mechanisms at work when consumers come across fruit or vegetables that do not live up to their aesthetic criteria. Previous research had documented the existence of an “ugly penalty” – when produce is deemed to have less taste and be less healthy, even if it isn’t suspected of harbouring dangerous pathogens.

The research team found that a different phenomenon was also operating: ugliness is unconsciously linked to negative moral evaluations! And this same stereotype also often applies to people.

Does natural produce have to look perfect?

More specifically, misshapen fruit or vegetables evoke feelings of disgust, because they run counter to a common belief: all natural products should be flawless in appearance. There is then only a single step that separates aesthetic judgment from its moral counterpart – a step that is all the easier to take since the two types of judgement come from the same areas of the brain.

The researchers tested this theory by conducting four studies with over 1,000 consumers in total in France, the US and the UK. Participants took part remotely in three of these experiments, when they were shown screenshots of a variety of different fruits and vegetables including tomatoes, cherries and apples that were either “normal” or misshapen. In the fourth experiment, customers at a farm shop were given the chance to buy either “normal” or misshapen carrots at the same price.

Lovely tomatoes and a positive adjective: a winning combination

The first study confirmed the existence and potency of the ugly = bad stereotype. Participants were timed as they gave a ranking to their associations between the photos of 10 different pairs of fruits and vegetables and adjectives with positive (pure, ethical, refined, etc.) or negative (dirty, repulsive, improper, etc.) connotations. They completed this task much more quickly when the suggested association conformed to the stereotype (e.g. a nice tomato was associated with the word “healthy”) than when it ran counter to it.

The second study focused on the role of disgust in triggering this stereotype. Participants were shown photos of cherries in different shapes; they were then asked to fill in words where only the first and last letters were given. Each word had several possible alternatives, but participants who had been shown photos of misshapen cherries suggested more terms linked to the register of disgust: coarse, repulsive, not nice and so forth.

Evaluative conditioning: images to soften the stereotypeThe last two studies assessed strategies for overcoming consumers’ reluctance to make a purchase by tackling the ugly = bad stereotype. The first strategy was based on slogans with a moral connotation: “All fruit and vegetables are equal regardless of their shape”; “Help us fight food waste”; or “Would you like to be rejected just because people think you’re ugly?” The second, known as evaluative conditioning, used a photo with a positive connotation: a group of happy, good-looking joggers.

It turned out that this strategy was far more effective, particularly in a physical shop where “normal” and misshapen carrots were displayed next to each other at the same price. In the week when the photo of the joggers was positioned above the display, the average basket of misshapen carrots rose by 43% (1.15 kilos rather than 700 grams).

This method, which can be reproduced easily at the point of sale, will be of interest to shops keen to sell all their merchandise without eating into their margins.

Words and slogans: non-productive and sometimes even counter-productive

In addition, the article demonstrates that slogans with a moral or campaigning message make little impact on consumers. Faced with an emotion such as disgust, and a stereotype as deeply-rooted as ugly = bad, an image that suggests health or friendship scores more highly than an ethical argument.

The authors also voice scepticism about the advertising campaigns run by entities such as Intermarché that go a step too far and rely on off-beat humour: their marketing touches on fruit and vegetables that are “ugly”, “hideous” or “grotesque”. This bias is more likely to elicit a reaction of disgust, and to reinforce the ugly = bad stereotype rather than putting an end to it.

Find out more

Nathalie Spielmann, Pierrick Gomez and Elizabeth Minton, The Role of the Ugly = Bad Stereotype in the Rejection of Misshapen Produce, Journal of Business Ethics, April 2023. Doi:10.1007/s10551-023-05420-1