an outcome that almost defies mathematics. Give
away food, and people will buy
more of it. A lot more of it.
by Jim Kozak
is what consumer behavior researcher Kare Anderson
discovered in July 2001 as she conducted
her “bonbon experiment” at two Northern
California multis. Lines at these cinemas – the
CineArts triplex in Sausalito and the five-screen
Rafael Film Center in San Rafael – were descended
upon by young women wearing cinema uniforms and
brandishing complimentary chocolate-and-ice-cream
in line for an early-evening show received the
treats. Patrons at the next show did not. The
people who received the free bonbons spent a whopping
26 percent more on concessions.
On another day, the timing was reversed. Those
in line for the later show received the free bonbons,
those waiting for the early show got none. This
concession sales for the later show were 25.5 percent
Focus spoke to Anderson – a former Wall
Street Journal reporter and an Emmy-winning TV commentator
who now publishes the “Say It Better” online
magazine – about the details of her experiments,
their ramifications, and other aspects of consumer
psychology and behavior.
the results of these experiments revolutionize
the way moviehouses do business?
They could. But, you know, the biggest barrier is
that people have never done it that way. My experience
has always been until the first one does it the others
are largely unlikely to change how they do business.
Were the bonbons given to people in line at the
No, they were in line outside.
At the box office?
Yeah. Your goal is to get them at the time when they
are most bored or restless. Once they’re
inside they’re moving and the momentum turns
toward getting into the auditorium.
So you were giving them to people waiting in line
to buy tickets?
We did it both with people who had their tickets
waiting to get in, because that’s one line,
and people who didn’t have their tickets. The
sooner you do it the better. Because then they’ve
got the taste in their mouth and they’re waiting,
they want it, they want it right now. So, in other
words, if I’m waiting to buy my tickets, we
had a higher response rate than if I’d already
bought my tickets.
Did the people handing out the bonbons identify
themselves as employees of the theatre?
They did by inference; they were wearing those shirts
that have the cinema company’s logo embroidered
on them. See, our goal is to say as little as possible
because even tone and style can affect it. Some people
are naturally warmer than others. They hold out a
tray and say, “Would you like one free bonbon – the
kind you can find inside?” We didn’t
want to say “sell” because we didn’t
want to sound coercive.
one shouldn’t say “sell.” Is
it OK to say “buy”?
Neither “buy” nor “sell” because
that’s like I’m trying to get you to
do it, and there’s an initial resistance to
Do you think it would have made a difference if
the person handing out the bonbons was identified
as a representative of, say, the bonbon company instead
of the theatre company?
I don’t know. I think not. I think it’s
about knowing it’s safe. If they were not identified
as relating to the theatre, I believe in today’s
world there will be hesitation about taking something
to eat. But as long as you are identified as someone
who is “legitimate,” it’s safe.
are other variables. The more attractive I find
the person handing out the treat, the more I
will like it. We’ve done several studies that
support this, but we’re not the only ones.
also notice it helps if you can smell the food
as well as see it. Bonbons you can’t smell,
so we were actually experimenting with freezing them
and then heating them up lightly just before we took
them out so you had that wafting smell of chocolate.
My perception is you want multiple positive multi-sensory
cues. For example, the sense of sight and smell is
a multiplier; it’s not just double.
I’m going to try a similar experiment soon
where one can smell the food before one sees it,
because that pulls me, makes me curious. And if people
are curious about something and their curiosity is
not satisfied, I believe the desire increases.
You mention the level of attractiveness of
those handing out samples. Did you pull your
dispensers from the theatre staff or … ?
In this case we didn’t have “good-looking,” they
just weren’t ugly. I actually work with Dominican
College, which is a private college in [Northern
California’s] Marin County, and I teach a course
on marketing and another one on communications. So
I asked people in the class who were about the right
height. They’re just well-groomed women and
they were young. My instinct is that when someone
looks pleasant to you – that is, they’re
smiling, not broadly, but they have a warm face – you
tend to like what happens more because you feel better
Did you say something about height?
Yeah, I believe that slightly shorter would be better,
and I believe opposite-sex attractive will increase
your chances for a positive response.
Interesting. Are shorter men preferable as well?
I don’t know. In fact I don’t know by
the research where I could even extrapolate. Because
it’s a 2-sided thing by the way. Shorter men,
in some ways, are safer for women; taller men may
be more attractive. So, there’s a 2-level thing
that will happen. There’s also research that
suggests I want someone who looks more masculine
at certain times of the month.
You say you only used women?
Well in this case because there are only women in
that class. It wasn’t a choice, it was they
were the easiest to get and they would take instructions.
We practiced on a tape, the modulation of their
voice, because I wanted it relatively warm but
Was there any thinking about having a mix of men
and women handing out the bonbons?
Cross-sex works better then same-sex, we find, as
long as they’re medium to very attractive.
Otherwise there’s too many other variables.
How many people did you actually have handing out
We used 12, but we used them in rotation because
we wanted them to come out slowly. We wanted the
moviegoers to see the [bonbon dispensers] coming
out. But we’ve also done it with just one.
Did you say 12?
a lot of people.
It is, but we had them floating. In other words,
they came out and you would only see two at a time
and you’d see them coming. Motion draws attention
and heightens emotion.
Where did you get the idea to do the experiment?
I was standing in line and I just had finished some
research where the younger the group of people,
the shorter the attention spans, the less likely
they were to want to wait. I thought, “Well,
how can you appeal to them then? Because as restless
as people are when they have to wait, give them
something else and they’re more likely to
think about it. And so where are the places to
At which movie theatres did you conduct the experiment?
There were two; they were in the county of Marin,
which is my county. One is in the town of Sausalito
and one is in the town of San Rafael. We covered
over 300 people in each theatre. Sausalito is real
upscale. San Rafael has a whole mixture; it has
a lot of Vietnamese, Hispanic, from several parts
of Latin America, as well as WASPs. That’s
why I wanted San Rafael, because of the high Hispanic
content. Many of them don’t have nearly the
same income as others but a lot stronger family
Was there a lot of difference in the results between
the two theatres?
There wasn’t, and that startled me.
Was there any skepticism on the part of theatre
management over the viability of all this?
They didn’t see any downside in it, and they
became really interested. They said, “You’re
not going to charge us for doing this?” I told
them I was doing it because I wanted to study it
for my own purposes; it wasn’t research for
other people. So I tried to anticipate the questions
I would ask if I were in their shoes, about things
that might cause some concern. Whenever I do my research,
I want people to feel comfortable, so that when I
come back they’ll be open to having a follow-up.
Have you conducted other experiments in movie theatres?
No, but if there is a cinema owner who would like
to work with me. I have about four variations I’d
like to try relative to the experience inside a
The cinemas at which you tried the free bonbons,
do they continue at all to hand them out?
They’ve done it erratically; they’ve
done it sometimes I gather. I haven’t gone
back there much to ask, but I’ve seen it twice.
One would need to create a system to set it up on
a regular basis, and in my experience few people
think systematically. I mean I could sit down and
come up with a system for them that would allow them
to use existing staff just by rotating them differently.
my experience, institutions – even in enlightened
self-interest – rarely make major changes until
a competitor does. And I’ll bet if I worked
with one of the theatres in the same geographical
area on how to make it systematic – not needing
more staff, but changing the tasks and the order
in which they did them – then the other theatres
would adopt it in that market area.
So the lack of a system kept these theatres from
continuing with the bonbons?
I think they went back to business as usual. It faded
from their minds.
So people, even when you approach them with proven
data, are still reticent to change?
They’re not reticent, that’s the wrong
thing. They go about doing business. Everybody has
a job to do. I believe people don’t change
the way they do business.
it happens slowly. I guess you know that you can
cappuccino in theatres where you couldn’t
15 years ago.
True, but I don’t think it changes slowly.
Once cappuccinos were offered in one theatre I bet
a lot of competing theatres began offering it too.
Researchers who have been studying this for years
say that the biggest motivation is when your competition
does it, even if they dont do it well.
Is there another catalyst? Is it enough that a competitor
simply does something new, or do they have to see
some sort of special success with it?
No, I think they have to see it happen elsewhere
and then they get the idea. “If they’ve
done it, oh, I can do it” or “I can do
it better.” It can’t work poorly, it
just has to work somewhat. And they have to see it
with someone near them, someone they feel is on their
Do you think theatre owners would do well to hand
out bonbons all day, every day?
They should try different times. I definitely think
the early evening, when the movies start around 7
p.m., would be good because some don’t eat
or eat enough then. But [exhibitors] should do it
for two weeks, to see if it works better at some
times than others. You get immediate feedback on
cash. Figure out the pattern that works for you.
So you encourage them to experiment?
Oh yeah. For example, who knows if people’s
attitudes aren’t different when it’s
really cold? What snacks for this time of day, and
for this time of year, would work? During the summer
certain kinds of snacks are going to be more desired
than others, and they can tell that from what they
being chocolate-covered ice cream, obviously may
not work as well in winter. What’s your
instinct about other types of free snacks one might
This guy at the Food Marketing Institute, he and
I are going to be doing a study about saltiness and
men, and we think that there are certain times when
men like salty snacks much more than women, and we
don’t know who initiates the buying. If a woman’s
on a date, a man may take the initiative where a
woman may be more reticent.
would pick the snacks that people might otherwise
want to be having for that time of year and time
and place. If it’s really cold out, they could
warm up mini slices of something that’s warm
that they can buy inside. It all depends on what
they are offering inside.
something that is baked locally nearby, so that
it’s low-cost. [Exhibitors] could do partnerships
with other businesses; give away mini-slices
and offer larger versions inside. Or they can pick
with a longer shelf life.
whole goal in my mind is to get something that
people don’t mind sitting in a chair and eating,
or walking with and taking it to their car. I would
set up criteria for ideal snacks, because I want
them to buy it in the theatre and to eat on the way
home and to eat later on, because I want them to
have three reasons to buy.
you talk about “slices,” it makes
me think of pie or cake.
Oh no, not pie or cake, that would be messy. Something
that’s pre-sliced by the food provider. I want
to keep this as simple as possible. People are baking
cookie bars, bars that hold together well without
One assumes exhibitors utilizing local bakeries
should seek out bulk discounts?
Just as any other retailer would. If I was a theatre
owner I’d be going back to the bakery and saying, “Be
my partner in experimenting, so we both make more
I’d want to try different kinds of snacks.
I’d want to see salty, sweet, even offer both
as samples. I’m not a bakery expert, so I’d
ask, “What are some of the most popular salty-type
snacks you have? What are some that hold together
well so they won’t spill if they choose to
take them in the car.” In other words, share
with my partner, the baker, or candy-maker, or whatever
big a sample can you hand out without ruining a
It depends on the nature of what it is you’re
eating, but we want to have small samples.
Just big enough to leave them wanting?
It’s called a sample; it’s a taste of
it. “Get a taste of this, to see if you like
it, there’s more inside.”
friendly. Saying “You might want to buy this
when you get inside,” that’s forceful.
I want it friendly, not forceful. We say taste, so
if you’re getting it free you can’t be
betrayed. If they say “Can I have another?” “Yes,
there’s more inside.” You stay warm but
you play fair and say “I want to make sure
I have enough for everybody.”
Do you have any other ideas that would be applicable
for movie theatre owners, other things they can do
to increase profits?
You can do an “exposures audit,” which
means that you visualize the set of exposures customers
have to your theatre: literally from first line of
sight, what do they see? Usually what they see is
the theatre marquee of what’s showing, but
they don’t see anything about a luscious snack
to have inside, they don’t see any pictures
of it. So you don’t get people to start salivating
soon enough. Why not have it be an elegant picture
that matches the marquee and the rest of what you
do. The quality of the pictures of the food should
be relative to what people are seeing in other venues.
What constitutes a good picture of food? Should
it be larger, or more colorful?
Something photographic. Look at all the food displays
in most of the good food magazines now. The standard
of food photography is stunning, and relatively easy
to obtain. Have a picture taken by someone who takes
pictures of food. An ad agency here in San Francisco
has a whole section of food experts; all they do
is food photography. It’s not, ironically,
that expensive for something you want to have at
eye-level when people are walking by, and it can
show all your products in one luscious display.
of the stuff is rather low when you go into the
theatre to buy it. So why not have something
down the center. Give them more ways they can see
it easily. Glancing up, glancing over. Also, photos
of food behind the person taking tickets.
the number of things I see, smell, taste or touch,
so if I’m able to taste it, and if
I’m able to see it at eye level when I’m
walking in, if I see it as I’m approaching,
if I see it as I’m driving by – even
if I’m not going to the theatre – that
means it’s going to be more in my mind.