Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Going to the Movies: The Story of a Popcorn Pit (Part 2)

Welcome to Part 2 of my journey to the movie theater. This will make sense if you haven’t read Part 1, but to enjoy the full impact of this visite du cinéma, I suggest you read both. If ya just don’t wanna then here’s a summary: (1) movie tickets are expensive, (2) as far as I can tell, nobody has really done a direct study of why, (3) economists try to explain why all movies cost the same through their “uniform pricing for differentiated goods” theory, (4) as it turns out, variable or differentiated pricing is probably better, (5) concessions are expensive too, (6) theaters get all of this “consumer surplus,” (7) channels of ticket distribution, group size, and theater characteristics affect concession sales, and (8) theaters get as much money as possible from people willing to pay it.

So far, we've made it past the door with our high priced tickets, and we stood in front of the concession stand wondering why those prices are also so high. Let’s say that you decide to take the monetary plunge and buy some concessions. You look over the candy, the nachos, the questionable looking hot dogs and you decide to go with popcorn. You look at the sizes of the containers, perhaps ask to see one a little closer, and go with the medium. But wait! The large is only 25 cents more! Okay, so you go with the large. I mean, if you are going to pay 5 dollars for popcorn then there might as well be a lot of it right?

What are the effects of ordering that 18 cup bucket of inflated food? It is slathered in a buttery goodness that makes it pretty frickin’ yummy, but are you really going to eat all of that? Most people tend to think that how much they eat is based on the taste of the food. Studies in the absence of environmental cues have largely shown this to be true. That makes sense if you think about it. When you have no distractions you can concentrate on the flavor of your food. However, the movie theater is the opposite of a distraction-free environment.

In 2001 Wansink and Park published a study where they gave 161 moviegoers free popcorn and soft drinks. The same popcorn was given in either a medium (120g) or large (240g) container, with before and after weights taken to see how much was eaten. Then they asked the participants to fill out a questionnaire after their movie about the taste of the popcorn. The results showed that people who rated their popcorn as tasty ate 49 percent more if it was in a large container than a medium one. Surprisingly, people who rated the taste of their popcorn as unfavorable still ate 61 percent more if it was put in a larger container. A related study from 2005, also headed by Wansink, looked at how container size can influence food intake, even when it is less palatable. Again they randomly gave 158 moviegoers either a medium or large container of popcorn, weighing the containers before and after the movie. But this time they purposefully changed the taste of the popcorn, giving participants either fresh or stale (14 days old…eww). Similar to the first study, the results showed that moviegoers ate 45.3 percent more popcorn from a large container than from a medium container when the popcorn was fresh. And while the moviegoers with stale popcorn negatively described their food as “stale,” “soggy,” or “terrible,” they still ate 33.6 percent more if they were given large containers than if they were given medium containers.

A more recent study published in the journal Appetite also looked to see if people consumed more food with larger containers, this time focusing on portion size vs. container size. They served M&M’s for free to 88 undergraduate students watching a 22 minute long TV show. Participants were served either a medium portion of M&M’s in a small container, a medium portion in a large container, or a large portion in a large container. Given the same amount of food, people with the large containers ate 129 percent (199 kcal) more than people with the medium containers, and when given a larger portion size they ate 97 percent more. Basically, that large bucket of food stimulates your food intake over and above the portion size. So perhaps that large popcorn you purchased wasn't the best idea.

But fear not! There is actually an up-side. You know how you eat most of your popcorn before the movie even starts, during the ads and previews? Well, an article published online this year in the Journal of Consumer Psychology looked at how “oral interference” (i.e. eating) affects the impact of those ads on people’s brand attitudes and choices. In their experiments, they gave free popcorn and chewing gum to participants and asked them to watch a movie preceded by a series of real but foreign commercials (so they hadn't seen them before), asking them to eat as soon as the commercials started. Then one week later they assessed the participants and a control group (no free popcorn or gum) for their purchasing choices. The researchers found that the control group spent more money and had a preference for the brands they saw in the commercials. The participants that ate during the commercials showed no such preferences. Yeah! Pop blocked!

I’ll see you next week for the last, and final, part of this series. Happy eating!

ResearchBlogging.orgB. Wansink and S.B. Park (2001). At the movies: how external cues and perceived taste impact consumption volume Food Quality and Preference, 12, 69-74 DOI: 10.1016/S0950-3293(00)00031-8

ResearchBlogging.orgB. Wansink and J. Kim (2005). Bad Popcorn in Big Buckets: Portion Size Can Influence Intake as Much as Taste Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 37 (5), 242-245 DOI: 10.1016/S1499-4046(06)60278-9

ResearchBlogging.orgD. Marchiori, O. Corneille, & O. Klein (2012). Container size influences snack food intake independently of portion size Appetite, 58, 814-817 DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2012.01.015

ResearchBlogging.orgS. Topolinski, S. Lindner, & A. Freudenberg (2013). Popcorn in the cinema: Oral interference sabotages advertising effects Journal of Consumer Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jcps.2013.09.008

Just for interest’s sake, an interesting article from the Smithsonian about the history of popcorn and the cinema: "Why Do We Eat Popcorn at the Movies?"

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