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Guilt-free food consumption: one of your five ideologies a day

Paul Haynes (Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, UK)
Stepan Podobsky (Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, UK)

Journal of Consumer Marketing

ISSN: 0736-3761

Article publication date: 9 May 2016




Marketing products as guilt-free is not new, especially in the food industry, but what is new is the scope of ethical choice on offer and the variety and complexity of guilt-free narratives sold as part of the consumption package. The purpose of this paper is to present – and test – an innovative framework with which to analyse the key strategies in the creation of guilt-free narratives within the food industry and examine how consumer habits, motivations and attitudes are afforded by these narratives. The trend towards interpassivity, in which a consumer “outsources” moral responsibility to manufacturers, suppliers or retailers, is critically examined.


Data collection consisted of a non-probability quota sample of UK residents, administered online. There were three main areas of this study: consumers’ attitudes towards guilt-free products and marketing, consumers’ consumption habits and conscious-motivating factors and insights in unconscious-motivating factors. The questionnaire was designed to provide both qualitative and quantitative insights. It consisted of a variety of open-ended questions, as well as sets of given choices regarding habits and motivations, where the options were designed to encompass as many potential responses as necessary. The survey was shaped using a mini-focus group.


The paper demonstrates that consumers are in general willing to pay more for a guilt-free product but not for the reasons normally presented within the marketing literature. The paper shows that while self-accountability and anticipatory guilt are reasons for the effectiveness of guilt-free marketing, they are only minor factors. The paper shows that other motivating factors are more important as many participants buy products they do not entirely trust or have a particular preference for. One motive relates to interpassivity, that is, that guilt and guilt-alleviating actions can be transferred or delegated to the product itself.

Research limitations/implications

The concept of interpassivity and the idea of transference of actions or emotions to products has potential for new marketing frameworks. There are many different coping mechanisms for guilt or shame, and these could all be packaged into products to arouse a preference with the consumer. The entire area of guilt-free marketing is under-researched but because of the continued growth in consumer guilt-mitigation strategies, it is likely to see a lot of research activity in the near future. The main limitation is the limited statistical analysis afforded by the non-probability nature of the sample.

Practical Implications

The paper has developed a clearer definition of what constitutes a guilt-free product, that is, a guilt-free product is created when a regular product has any one or more of the three types of guilt (anticipatory, reactive and existential) packaged into it. Using this definition, the paper examined why guilt-free marketing has been effective, identifying that though consumers are willing to pay more for a guilt-free product, self-accountability and anticipatory guilt are only part of the explanation, with guilt and guilt-alleviating actions being transferred or delegated to the product itself a significant factor.

Social Implications

The paper has impacts for producers and consumers wishing to highlight the social good of a product. The study shows that consumers are sophisticated enough to examine social impact but often express a desire to delegate action to firms. Firms can more clearly frame their activity and contrast their action to the misleading marketing claims of rivals.


This paper is the first detailed analysis of guilt-free foods of its type. It seeks to create clearer definitions and frameworks with which to examine marketing practices and discourses of guilt in food consumption and marketing. The paper findings suggest that a relatively novel approach to consumption – interpassivity – is a useful explanation for otherwise puzzling consumer behaviour in a newly emerging area of guilt-free food marketing.



Haynes, P. and Podobsky, S. (2016), "Guilt-free food consumption: one of your five ideologies a day", Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol. 33 No. 3, pp. 202-212.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2016, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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