Word of mouth: How our tongue shapes our preferences, and why you should eat popcorn in the cinema

Eating popcorn in the cinema eliminates advertising effects

There are two main principles that advertising uses to promote favourable attitudes towards the advertised brands. One of course is connecting a positive feeling with the brand. The other way is simple repetition to make the brand name more fluent in your mind (e.g., Baker, 1999; Grimes & Kitchen, 2007). And this makes sense, since your eventual brand choice is often determined by familiarity (e.g., Baker, 1999; Janiszewski, 1993).

Paradoxically, most situations in which we are faced with commercials also entail oral interference, such as watching TV and nibbling snacks, or eating popcorn in the cinema. Given the experimental evidence above, it could be predicted that advertising is futile under such situations, since the mouth does not train subvocal articulation of the advertised brand names and thus no fluency will result. This was tested in recent field experiments. Topolinski, Lindner and Freudenberg (2014) invited German participants into a real movie theatre. Before the actual main movie, commercials were presented featuring products that were foreign for the German participants, such as the Scandinavian butter LURPAK. Crucially, one half of the participants received popcorn that they could eat during the whole cinema session. The other half, the control group, however, received a sole piece of sugar that they should consume right in the beginning of the session. This piece of sugar was dissolved soon, and their mouths were not busy anymore with sucking the sugar at the time the commercials were presented.

One week later, all participants were invited into a lab session. In this session, participants were presented pictures of products. Half of these pictures were of products they had seen the commercial of, and the other half of picture were from products that had not been advertised a week before. Participants were asked to indicate their liking of each of the products. Furthermore, their spontaneous facial responses to these products were assessed. It turned out that the sugar-cube group showed an advertising effect. They preferred advertised products over novel products. In addition, their faces showed subtle immediate smiling responses to advertised compared to novel products. That is, their attitude was more positive due to the advertising exposure. In contrast, the popcorn group did not show any of these preferences for advertised compared to novel products.

In a second study, it was tested whether actual consumer choices could also be affected by oral fluency. The paradigm with eating popcorn vs. eating a sole sugar cube was replicated, but this time commercials for foreign skin lotions and for (ostensible) charity foundations were presented in the cinema session. One week later, participants were invited into a café where they were given money to spent for skin lotions and to donate for charity organizations. They were presented a stand with several skin lotions half of which had been advertised for one week before. They were asked to purchase one of the skin lotions for 1 Euro. On another stand, they were faced with several donation cans for charity foundations, again, half of them having been featured in the session commercial block. It was found that the sugar cube group again showed an advertising effect. They more likely chose the skin lotions and charity foundations that had been advertised for. In constrast, the popcorn group did not show this effect. Advertizing did not work out for them.

These findings clearly show that oral embodiment does indeed shape even ecomonic decisions in real-life, and that a simple mouth movement can undermine the impact of advertising. More generally, this evidence also implies that establishing novel brand names by repeating them excessively in commercials may be futile, since the audience most likely experiences some sort of oral movements.

Preventing verbal contamination

The lines of research presented here show that the logo RayBan on your conversation partner’s sun glasses may actually influence you, but also show you the way how to circumvent this influence. The power of repeated names can be neutralized by keeping your mouth busy with something else. In many contexts this blockade of verbal contamination is advantageous, such as in persuasion and advertizing, you can easily escape the flood of brand names, internet banners, and commercials by simply chewing a gum. However, in other situations, this might be disadvantageous, for instance when you meet new people on a cocktail party and their names will not be familiar to you on later encounters.

On being immune to such branding and name-dropping in marketing, one group of people might have an advantage from their handicap, namely illiterates or patients with aphasia (a disturbance of language comprehension and speaking due to brain dysfunctions). It is quite likely that people who cannot read or are impaired on language more generally are not affected by word repetition, although an empirical test of this speculation is still pending.

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