Popcorn Makes Moviegoers Ignore Ads, Study Finds

Popcorn - H 2012
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Popcorn - H 2012

Researchers at a German university say that chewing may affect the effectiveness of film advertising.

COLOGNE, Germany – Chewing popcorn while watching cinema ads could make us immune to the brand message.

That's the finding of a new study by researchers at Cologne University, who tested the impact of cinema advertising on popcorn-munching moviegoers.

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The researchers invited participants to watch a film in a cinema preceded by a series of ads for new, unknown products. Half the audience was given free popcorn to eat during the ads; the others got a small sugar cube that dissolved in their mouths within a minute.

A week after the screening, the researchers tested the participants to analyze the effect of the cinema ads.

While viewers who only received sugar were more likely to recognize and purchase one of the new brands presented in the movie commercials, the popcorn munchers were less likely to do so.

The effect was significant. Only 40 percent of popcorn eaters chose to buy one of the newly advertised products a week later, while fully 65 percent of the non-chewers did so.

Published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology under the title "Popcorn in the Cinema: Oral Interference Sabotages Advertising Effects," the study is based on a new psychological theory about how the brain absorbs brand messages.

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According to the theory, when we are introduced to a new brand name, our lips and tongue begin to subconsciously simulate the pronunciation of the name. Each time the brand is mentioned, our brain practices the name with a sort of “inner speech,” going through the motions the mouth would need to pronounce the name.

Chewing, the researchers found, disrupted this inner speech.

“The brain is so busy with the act of chewing that it does not have the space to do this subconscious articulation,” Sascha Topolinski, one of the study's researchers, told THR. “The brand name gets blocked out.”

The findings suggest popcorn machines and candy counters in cinema foyers could be counterproductive. “Selling candy in theaters undermines advertising effects, which contradicts present marketing strategies,” Topolinski said.

But he added that the “popcorn effect” only applies to new brands.

“An ad for Marlboro, for example, is fine,” he said (cigarette ads are still legal in Germany), “because the brand name is well known and the ad just conveys a certain feeling about the brand, the Wild West or whatever. But novel brands, say for Internet companies with odd names like Zalando -- it could be a problem.”

He suggests advertisers should try to prevent candy and popcorn being sold until after the ad roll.

So far, however, there's been no response from the advertising industry to the Cologne study.

“I guess they just need time to digest it,” Topolinski said.