Can Eating Popcorn Make You Immune To Movie Ads? The Science Behind Subvocalization

By Chris Weller on October 15, 2013 6:19 PM EDT

Patrick Feller, CC BY 2.0
Patrick Feller, CC BY 2.0

Going to the movies is always something of a win-lose. Either you show up late to a busy screening and can't find two seats together, bidding your movie partner a fond adieu, or you show up early and have to sit through an onslaught of advertisements for overpriced candy or television shows you don't watch on networks you don't fit the demographic for. Also, it's expensive.

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But there's a saving grace. Researchers at the University of Wuerzburg found that when people ate popcorn while watching the precurtain ads, their inclination to buy the advertised products was significantly reduced. The popcorn stunted a cognitive process called subvocalization, and it's the same physiological response you make when reading or listening to music.

The team of researchers conducted two related experiments. One split 188 people into two groups. Both watched a movie that was preceded by advertisements for brands of makeup and butter that were foreign to study participants. The first group watched these ads, and the subsequent film, while eating a bottomless supply of popcorn. The other group watched the same ads and movie, unceremoniously, with only a quick-dissolving sugar cube as their refreshment.

Three weeks later, the team had people come back to spend fictitious dollars on a range of products. Those who had been given the sugar cube showed preference for the makeup and butter, while those who had engorged themselves with salty popcorn revealed no preference.

The second study, of 96 people, was similar in scope, except this time it wasn't purchasing decisions the researchers were testing, but charitable donations. Still, the group that had been fed popcorn decided, on the average, not to give money to whatever charity it was that played before their movie. Meanwhile, the sugar cube group was happy to empty their wallets for the charity they saw advertised just a few weeks prior.

"This finding suggests that selling candy in movie theaters actually undermines advertising effects, which contradicts present marketing strategies," researcher Sascha Topolinski, from the University's department of psychology, told the BBC. "In the future, when promoting a novel brand, advertising clients might consider trying to prevent candy being sold before the main movie."

Despite the fact that this would be completely impossible in the U.S. — on par, perhaps, with asking the Yankees to stop selling $10 beers because the girl singing the national anthem wants more attention — the psychology behind Topolinski's findings are in no way restricted to popcorn's ability to tune out ads.

Actually, the popcorn is a red herring. What's more important is the fact you're chewing anything at all. When you watch an advertisement with nothing in your mouth but 32 teeth and a loaded swear word if the ad runs too long, your brain engages in subvocalization. Your throat, lips, and teeth all work together to parrot the words you hear in advertisements. When a McDonald's commercial ends and plays the (now infamous) five-tone ring — ba da ba ba ba — the massive catalog of past experiences you have with that jingle fills in the rest. You're lovin' it.

The same happens when you read. Barring speed readers, who absorb words in fleeting batches, the majority of people focus on individual words as they guide their eyes across a line of text. Reading is speaking, just silently and in your head. You're reading with your larynx, in addition to your brain - just as you listen to music with your lips as much as your ears. Sensory perception is seldom a one-hit wonder.

The latest study is no different. Eating a steady supply of popcorn while an ad plays gives your mouth something to do other than form the product's name unconsciously. Your tongue is too busy guiding buttery bits of kernel down your throat to realize that the exact same brand of butter is being advertised right in front of you. And even if you do notice, you're too busy to care.

Not all ads are immune, Topolinski points out. Big name brands, ones that have already been branded into your memory, tend to seep through the subvocalization barrier. Your brain has less work to do, in other words, when it comes across an ad for Coca-Cola than when it sees one for RC-Cola.

"An ad for Marlboro, for example, is fine because the brand name is well-known and the ad just conveys a certain feeling about the brand, the Wild West or whatever," Topolinksi, whose home country still allows cigarette ads, told the Hollywood Reporter. "But novel brands, say for Internet companies with odd names like Zalando — it could be a problem."

The study also has a deeper implication, one that's somewhat darker. If the chewing, not the popcorn itself, is doing the heavy lifting in tuning out our surroundings, who's to say there aren't huge chunks of information whizzing past us while we eat — information that we could otherwise absorb if not for our infatuation with keeping our taste buds happy and our stomachs happier.

© 2012 iScience Times All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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