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The Genius and Horror That is Movie Theatre Popcorn

October 19th, 2010

Watching the new blockbuster at your local movie theatre will probably cost you $10 or $11 bucks. That is, assuming you don’t venture to the snack bar. The large bucket of popcorn is almost the same price as the movie ticket. How is that possible? And can people actually eat all that popcorn during the movie?

It turns out that the high price of popcorn is an ingenious way to minimize ticket prices while maximizing profits. If the theatre kept popcorn cheap and increased movie ticket prices, less people would probably watch movies, and most of that extra money from more expensive tickets would be lost to the movie studios. But if instead they keep movie tickets “cheap,” and charge an absurd amount of money for popcorn and snacks, the theatre pockets all of that money. So essentially, buying popcorn and coke at the theatre keep the ticket prices from rising. But the genius does not stop there. Movie theaters also employ another marketing strategy to increase their profits. It is the same basic idea Mcdonald’s has been using for years.

In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser explains how much profit there is in selling coke:

The fast food chains purchase Coca-Cola syrup for about 4.25 a gallon. A medium coke that sells for $1.29 contains roughly 9 cents’ worth of syrup. Buying a large coke for $1.49 instead…will add another 3 cents’ worth of syrup-and another 17 cents of pure profit for Mcdonald’s.”

The idea of super-sizing your drinks seems like such a great deal. The customer gets more for their dollar while the company’s profits soar. Movie theaters are no different. Buying the $8.50 bucket of popcorn costs only cents more to make than the small or medium bucket. So when the cashier says “Would you like the giant bucket for 50 cents more,” of course you will say yes!

But before we get to the nutrition of movie popcorn, theatre’s have one more trick up their sleeves to get you to eat more popcorn. In 1999, a man by the name of Brian Taylor, a student at the University of Michigan at the time, started adding his own seasoning to the popcorn he made in his dorm room. It was an instant hit with all his friends. Brian realized he had something special, so he “contacted a team of flavor experts with over 50 years of experience to help perfect the seasonings.” Now Brian is a millionaire and founder of Kernel Seasons.

Movie theaters started placing his seasonings, called Kernel Season’s Popcorn Seasoning, near the snack stands because they discovered that popcorn sales increased when it was available as a topping.

But onto the nutritious popcorn. According to a report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, “a medium popcorn and soda combo at Regal, the country’s biggest movie theater chain [has]: 1,610 calories and three days’ worth—60 grams—of saturated fat.” Or the equivalent of 3 McDonald’s quater pounders with 12 pats of butter, as they put it. Or the daily amount of calories recommended for a 5’2″ 120 pound woman. So what drives someone to eat the whole bag. Is it the incredible taste of fresh popcorn? Or maybe it’s the salt?

According to Brian Wansink Ph.D., a professor of consumer behavior and director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, it is actually the size of the bucket.

He performed an experiment at a movie theatre to prove it. The subjects in his study were 160 people going to see Payback, starring Mel Gibson. As they entered the show, they were told it was “Free popcorn and soda night” to celebrate the Theater’s one year anniversary, and were given a free soda, and randomly given either a medium or a large popcorn. To try to eliminate good taste as a co-founder, the popcorn was 5-days old and stale.

After the movie was over, the people were asked to fill out a short survey, and their popcorn bags were weighed to see which group ate more.

The results were unexpected: the people given the large buckets of popcorn ate 53% more popcorn than those given the medium.

  • When separated by perceived taste of the popcorn, there was no significant difference between the people who rated the popcorn as gross and rated it as tasty
  • Larger packages stimulated 49% more consumption with relatively favorably rated popcorn (93.7 vs. 62.9 grams), and they stimulated 61% more consumption of relatively unfavorably rated popcorn (92.1 vs. 57.3 g)
  • Those who rated the popcorn as relatively favorable, ate more from large containers than small and this effect was further magnified if accompanied with a person of the opposite sex.

Although they didn’t control for things like stress induced by Mel Gibson’s acting ability, it seems like ordering a large bucket of popcorn makes you eat way more than if you would order the medium. So next time you go to the movies, order the small popcorn, or sneak in your own.

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Larry Food Marketing, Nutrition and Weight Loss

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