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Will the New ‘Food Porn Index’ Get People to Upload More Photos of Healthy Food?

Raz Godelnik
| Monday February 24th, 2014 | 0 Comments

foodpornindex Are you into food porn? Well, you don’t have to admit right here right now, but given that there are more than 175 million food hashtags ond Twitter and Instagram, there’s a good chance you’re also part of this phenomenon.

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry–we’re not talking about porn that mixes sex with food, but about people sharing online photos of meals they’re about to eat at a restaurant or homemade food, from Krispy Kreme glazed donuts to peanut butter brownie pizza.

If you want to get a better idea about this phenomenon just go to Tumblr, Instagram or Twitter and search for #foodporn. What you’ll quickly notice is that most of the #foodporn photos on the various social media channels are of food that is not exactly the healthy type and include mostly fast food and fatty, sugary food.

Now, a new website wants to change that, one photo of kale at a time.

Welcome to FoodPornIndex.com, a new initiative of Bolthouse Farms, a manufacturer of juices, smoothies and other items, which is owned by the Campbell Soup Co. This new website is based on an algorithm tracking hashtags and mentions of 24 different food items on social media, where half are vegetables and fruits and half are mostly junk foods. Visitors can see the number of mentions for each item, as well as a tally for each group. As of last weekend, the unhealthy foods counted for 72.2 percent of the mentions online while the healthy foods counted for only 27.8 percent.

The website provides not just a constantly updated tally but also a visualized and fun experience–you can click on every food item and enter into a world of music and fun graphics. Click on “Snack” for example (14,060,297 mentions), and you will see a spiral of snacks zooming in with a warning window at the middle: “Warning: Your computer is being attacked by snacks.” At the bottom of the window there’s a “NOM” button that makes a funny NOM sound every time you click on it. If you click on “Mushroom” (4,098,039 mentions), you enter a sort of psychedelic experience with weird mushrooms floating around accompanied by music that could be part of the soundtrack of Zabriskie Point.

So why did Bolthouse Farms come up with this index?  According to the website, the company believes that: “If we can change the way people think (and post) about fresh fruits and veggies, we’ll make the world a healthier place.” The goal, added Bolthouse executives on the New York Times, “is to remind consumers that a fresh strawberry is just as beautiful as those found in a dessert like a tart—and healthier.”

Is this a marketing gimmick of Bolthouse Farms or an honest effort to level the playing field in an effort to change the #foodporn imbalance? It’s probably a little bit of both–creating this unique index has definitely proved itself to be a smart marketing move, giving the company free publicity on the New York Times, Slate and other media outlets. In addition, leveling the #pornofood playing field also benefits Bolthouse Farms, as more photos of veggies and fruits certainly don’t hurt a company that sells products like fresh carrots and premium beverages and claims to “loudly and proudly celebrate fresh fruits and veggies.”

Still, even if the Food Porn Index is about helping the company sell more of its products, I believe we should applaud it because of the innovative approach it represents. It takes the decade-long fight to get people to eat healthier and reframes it as a fight over social media dominance instead of a fight over education and affordability. What’s behind it is the realization that social media had become an important part of the food culture as for many people. “Showing your food . . . is showing a little bit about your personality and who you are as an individual,” Brigham Young professor Ryan Elder explains.

The importance of this understanding is that the type of #foodporn photos uploaded on Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest is not just a reflection of what people eat but also a mechanism shaping the general public’s perception of food consumption. This is due to the principle of social proof, which means according to Prof. Robert Cialdini et al. that: “One way that individuals determine appropriate behavior for themselves in a situation is to examine the behavior of others there, especially similar others. It is through social comparison with referent others that people validate the correctness of their opinions and decisions. As a consequence, people tend to behave as their friends and peers have behaved.”

In other words, we like to follow the crowd, and when this crowd is posting (and eating) mainly junk food, there’s a good chance we’ll also be posting (and eating) junk food. As healthier food becomes less and less prevalent on #foodporn photos, there’s a greater chance that we wouldn’t feel very comfortable uploading a photo of a quinoa salad we made or the beautiful strawberries we just bought at the farmers market. After all, too many people might think it’s not that cool, at least not as much as pancakes with peanut butter and hot fudge, for example.

I’m not sure to what degree the Food Porn Index can change the balance of power between online photos of healthy and unhealthy food, but it is an effort worth pursuing given our tendency to feel that we can’t really enjoy food unless we take a picture of it and upload it to make sure the rest of the world sees it. If more people will remember that every #foodporn counts as the website puts it, when making a great looking salad or a mouth-watering broccoli dish, there’s still hope to change the landscape of #foodporn photos.

Image credit: Bolthouse Farms

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School of Design. You can follow Raz on Twitter.


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