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A Full Mouth during Ads Means Half the Attention

Marketers probably don’t want consumers to watch commercials while they eat.

Bottom LineWhen they’re snacking or talking, people pay less attention to commercials and have less regard for advertised products. Unfortunately for marketers, this type of consumer behavior happens all the time.

It’s the summer movie season. You’ve settled into your seat, gearing up to watch the latest blockbuster. But we all know that before the trailers start and the titles roll, you’ll be treated to a series of commercials. These pre-show ads have proven wildly unpopular with the moviegoing public, but they’re unavoidable if you want to see a film on the big screen. As the lights dim, how much are you swayed toward the products being advertised?

It probably depends on whether you’ve visited the concession stand.

Yes, humans are primal, and when we’re paying attention to food, we’re usually not paying close attention to much else. As a result, snacking gets in the way of our judgment—not only when it comes to commercials but also, by extension, when it comes to a firm’s brand appeal. According to a new study, the mere working of a person’s mouth—chewing gum, for instance, or chomping on popcorn—provides enough distraction to dilute the positive impact of commercials, especially those for relatively unknown brands. And considering how many people view ads while nibbling on a bite or chatting with a friend, marketers should pay heed to the powerful effects of the phenomenon known as oral interference.

Psychologists have known for nearly a century that whenever we hear a word spoken, we subconsciously pronounce it ourselves , subtly flexing our tongue to articulate the term. This produces a positive feeling because of our understanding and ability to internally pronounce the word. And the more we hear the word (as one might in an ad), the more we identify with it. But when our motor system is prohibited from making these subvocalizations—because our mouth is otherwise engaged in munching or talking—this effect slackens, and the power of novel or repeated words diminishes.

Whenever we hear a word spoken, we subconsciously pronounce it ourselves.

To determine whether oral interference extends to the advertising realm, the authors of this new study conducted two experiments. They invited people to watch actual commercials; the participants were given the opportunity to either purchase the product after the showing or assess it a week later. To further enhance the real-world setting, the participants viewed the commercials in a lecture hall or movie theater before watching a film. A control group sucked on a sugar candy that was timed to dissolve before the ads began, so it would have no impact on oral interference; the experimental group did what so many of us do while watching commercials, munching on popcorn or chewing gum throughout the duration, ensuring their mouths would be continually engaged.

Sure enough, the snackers left the movie screening feeling far less enamored with the advertised products and were less likely to spend money on them compared with their counterparts who hadn’t been munching. The snacking group was especially unmoved by novel or comparatively unknown brands, presumably because even distracted people can identify with products or advertising campaigns they’ve encountered before.

OK, but popcorn tastes really good. So to make sure their findings weren’t the result of people simply being too distracted by the deliciousness of popcorn, the authors replicated their findings using tasteless gum. In doing so, they proved that it’s the motion of our jaws—not the flavor of the toppings—that draws our mind away from spoken words and, in turn, the messages carried in commercials.

But the findings resonate far beyond the confines of a movie theater, the authors note. People often view advertisements while their mouths are moving—think of the bubbly conversations that occur between friends during a television commercial break, or the snacks consumed while browsing the Internet. If too much of the viewing audience is preoccupied by dinner or a phone call, commercials that run on TV or online—especially those for novel brands—could be seriously undermined.

One possible solution for marketers: Focus on the visuals. Commercials that emphasize images instead of words might better penetrate the minds of people whose mouths are too distracted to subconsciously mimic any vocalizations or spoken terms. This means playing down brand names or slogans in favor of imprinting visuals on people’s memory. But the images must be powerful: The authors found evidence that oral interference can still impinge slightly on viewers’ attitudes even when ads concentrate on a product’s layout or design, and not just its brand name.

In an era of multitasking, it might seem difficult to grab people’s attention no matter the context. But the movement of the mouth is a special case. As the authors showed in an earlier, separate study, people who kneaded an exercise ball identified with repeated words much more than their counterparts who chewed gum. So the issue isn’t people being distracted by a smartphone or a remote control; it’s the use of their mouth. If marketers can time or target their ads to ensure that most of their audience isn’t eating or talking, they could take a bite out of the competition.

Source: Popcorn in the Cinema: Oral Interference Sabotages Advertising Effects, by Sascha Topolinski, Sandy Lindner, and Anna Freudenberg (all of the University of Wuerzburg), Journal of Consumer Psychology, Apr. 2014, vol. 24, no. 2

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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