Popcorn what? Noisy snacks reduce ads’ selling power

Eating popcorn in the cinema may interfere with more than just your neighbour’s concentration, as research shows that oral interference caused by food consumption during commercials reduces purchasing of advertised brands at a later stage.

Repeated exposure is known to cause a preference for any stimulus, an established concept in experimental psychology known as the ‘mere exposure effect’. Processing fluency is increased when a stimulus has been repeatedly encountered, as opposed to novel stimuli. When a word is heard frequently we also covertly simulate its pronunciation, causing that word to be more familiar than one heard for the first time. The positive emotion engendered by increased oral motor fluency drives the mere exposure effect, in which the familiar word is preferred to new ones.


Ads use the mere exposure effect to promote their brands

Ads use the mere exposure effect to promote their brands


The mere exposure effect is a common tool used in advertising to instil preferences for certain brands. However, research suggests that eating may cause an oral interference that disrupts this process. In a recent trial, volunteers either ate popcorn or chewed gum while watching commercials and a short film. A week later, the participants were given €4 to spend in a café in which items from the commercials were on sale. They were also asked to donate money towards one of several charities, half of which had been advertised in the first phase of the trial.

Participants in a control group made choices that clearly reflected the brands and charities to which they had been exposed in the commercials. This was not seen in the study groups however; gum chewers and popcorn eaters demonstrated no preference.

Munching popcorn may also involve visual distraction; however, this is not the case with chewing gum, which implies that oral interference did indeed affect the consumer choices made later. Eating prevents the mouth from covertly simulating pronunciation, with the simple consequence that processing fluency does not increase for repeated words, and the mere exposure effect is reduced.

It seems ironic that ads may be least effective in circumstances of oral interference; since talking, munching and nibbling are frequent companions of ad exposure…



S. Topolinski et al. (2013) Popcorn in the cinema: Oral interference sabotages advertising effects. Journal of Consumer Psychology 24, 169–176

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Veronica Wignall

Veronica is a Biology graduate from the University of Bristol, she is currently an editorial assistant but hopes to move into science media comms! Follow Veronica on Twitter @vronwig

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