February 10th, 2011


By Kyle Morich

This past Sunday, I hosted my annual Super Bowl party for my family and friends. The ambient noise drowned out much of the game and many of the famously expensive commercials, which for the most part is a good thing (I’m looking at you GoDaddy).  However, one ad I did actually watch this year, for Bud Light, caught my attention.  It reminded me of popcorn.

In a study currently under peer review, a team of researchers led by David Neal1 set out to discover if goals and preferences truly control human behavior.  Neal’s team brought in a large group of moviegoers, gave them a bag of popcorn and a bottle of water, and asked them to review movie trailers.  However, the study wasn’t about the movie trailers, it was about the popcorn.

The researchers divided the moviegoers into two groups.  One group got fresh popcorn, made that day.  The other group got a warmed-up bag of stale popcorn that had been made seven days prior to the experiment.  Upon leaving the theater, the bags of popcorn were collected and weighed to assess how much of the 60-gram bag each moviegoer had eaten.  These moviegoers were then given a version of the Self-Report Habit Index to assess how habitually they ate popcorn whenever they went to the movies.

For non-habitual popcorn eaters, the results are unsurprising.  They ate most of the bag of fresh popcorn and barely touched the stale bags.  For the habitual popcorn eaters, however, the amount eaten was high regardless of the popcorn’s freshness.  They chowed down.  Neal’s team then asked the moviegoers to rate the taste of the popcorn.  Amazingly, the habitual popcorn eaters who received the stale popcorn knew the popcorn tasted bad. But they ate it anyway.  Their behavior was completely controlled by the movie theater context, not their taste.

Just to confirm the role of context in habitual behavior, Neal performed the same experiment again, but in a well-lit laboratory using a small-screen television.  This time, the habitual popcorn eaters wanted nothing to do with the stale popcorn.  Only in a darkened theater, surrounded by the sights, smells, and other stimuli their brains had associated with the context, was the habit cued.

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As I watched the Bud Light commercial, I took a long sip from the bottle of Miller Lite in my hand.  Bud Light spent $3 million on this 30-second spot, yet here I was, drinking the competition.  I enjoyed the humor of the ad, but its promise of a “just right taste” had no affect on me.  Miller Lite did not advertise during the Super Bowl, but its commercials also talk about taste, in even greater detail. In these ads, Miller Lite explains, ”If you’re drinking a beer without taste, you’re missing the point of drinking beer.”  But it is Miller Lite that has missed the point. Drinking Miller Lite or Bud Light is not about taste.  Like many other behaviors, drinking these beers is the result of contextualized habits.

I bought Miller Lite for my Super Bowl party not because of the taste, but because it’s the brand I always buy in bulk for parties.  I’m fairly positive I could not discern between Miller Lite and Bud Light in a blind taste test.  Yet I know I’ll buy it the next time, as long as I’m in the same context and nothing is breaking my autopilot behavior (like a sale on Bud).  Miller and Bud would get a lot more from their advertising money if they remained focused on associating their brands with particular contexts and cues and stayed away from taste comparisons.  Their habitual users don’t care about taste, and those that don’t drink them will certainly never believe that an American-style light lager is winning any taste competitions.

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A beer maker that gets this is Dos Equis.  Their famous spokesman, “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” doesn’t target taste.  “I don’t always drink beer,” he says, “but when I do, I drink Dos Equis.”  By positioning their brand as a sophisticated choice for those contexts in which you may want a beer, Dos Equis is focused on habits.  It seems to be working, too.  While Miller Lite and Bud Light volumes have been declining by a few percentage points each year, Dos Equis shipments have been growing dynamically since the campaign was introduced.

(1)  Neal, D. T., Wood, W., Lally, P., & Wu, M. (2009). Do habits depend on goals? Perceived versus actual role of goals in habit performance. Manuscript under review, University of Southern California.

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