We’re all familiar with advertisements showing pictures of livestock animals with slogans like “I’m not meat.” But, do they actually work to decrease meat consumption?

According to the results of a new study from researchers at the University at Buffalo School of Management, soon to be published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, the answer is no. In fact, instead of choosing less meat, people who were made to feel guilty simply opted for a healthier meat dish.

There’s no doubt that plant-based food is having a moment — across categories, sales grew 27% last year. But, while more consumers are experimenting with plant-based products, the vast majority still eat meat. In 2020, U.S. meat sales hit an all-time high of $82.5 billion.

Animal welfare is among the reasons often cited for the increased popularity of plant-based foods, but the real-world results have been mixed. For example, a recent survey by the International Food Information Council found that animal welfare was way down on the list of factors affecting protein choices — far behind taste, type of protein, healthfulness, and price. 

In a series of studies, Sunyee Yoon and Danny Kim investigated whether having people attribute humanlike characteristics to food animals would make them feel guilty about eating meat and, as a result, choose a veggie-based meal.

The only participants for whom the guilt worked were those who had a “low commitment” to eating meat in the first place. Most other people still chose to eat a meat dish, but there was a kicker — subjects who had been primed to feel guilty were more likely to select the healthier option (e.g., grilled chicken with rice) rather than the tastier option (e.g., deep-fried chicken nuggets with fries).

The reason for this, the researchers suggest, is that we humans are very good at justifying our behavior. People view meat as nutritious. So, when presented with the moral conflict of animal welfare, consumers focus instead on the health benefits of eating meat. This conclusion is supported by the additional finding that, when animals are humanely treated, consumers don’t feel the need to further justify their choices — they just choose the tastier meat dish.

The research has a variety of implications for food marketers. For those hoping to encourage less meat consumption, making people feel guilty probably isn’t going to work unless the target audience is consumers who don’t eat much meat to begin with. On the other hand, the meat industry can overcome ethical objections by adopting and promoting animal welfare programs, as well as by focusing on the health benefits of their products.

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