Opinion

We’re not always selling what we’re selling

By taking a look back to a time when popcorn wasn't a traditional cinema snack, Dave Trott teases out the 2-for-1 deal's origin story

In 1885, Charles Cretor invented the portable corn-popping machine. Ordinary, working class people loved it.

Popcorn was cheap, hot and fresh, it smelled and tasted delicious, it was an immediate hit at fairs and circuses.

Which is why it was banned from cinemas.

Cinemas saw themselves much more like theatres, for the educated middle class, and didn’t want to attract ordinary people.

Movies were silent, accompanied only by a piano.

You had to be literate, able to read the title-cards to appreciate the dialogue. They didn’t want illiterate people who had to have the titles read aloud to them.

Cinemas had carpets and plush seats, like proper theatres.

They didn’t want the noise and mess of snack eating.

So, if popcorn, and the sort of people who ate it, weren’t welcome in cinemas, what happened to change that?

Talking pictures happened, and that changed cinemas.

Now films weren’t just for educated people who could read.

Ordinary, uneducated people were attracted to movies, and started to sneak popcorn in.

Popcorn sellers realised this and set up carts nearby.

But cinemas still banned noisy, smelly popcorn, so what happened to change it? The depression happened.

In the 1930s, people were out of work, which meant cinemas were selling less tickets.

They had to find another way to stay in business, that’s when they discovered popcorn.

Suddenly they weren’t so choosy about their clientele’s habits.

They realised the popcorn sellers outside in the street were making money that the cinemas could have, so they began to sell popcorn inside, in the foyer.

And when they discovered the mark-up on a bag of popcorn was 85%, they realised that they could make as much money from concession sales as from ticket sales.

In fact, 46% of most cinemas’ profits came from popcorn sales.

And food and drink concessions became something for them to encourage instead of ban.

Nearly a hundred years later that’s still true.

Compare the Market gives customers 2-for-1 cinema tickets on Tuesday or Wednesday.

But giving away free cinema seats isn’t quite as generous as it sounds.

Because that free seat was probably empty on those midweek nights anyway. And that free seat now sells a lot of popcorn, and cola that otherwise wouldn’t get sold.

So, giving away a free seat is a smart way of increasing profits.

Supermarkets have always known this, it’s called “loss leaders”.

The pages and pages of money-off ads in the daily papers.

Of course, the money-off is only on selected items, and only for a short time.

And, if you only ever bought the money-off items, you’d save a fortune. But no one does that.

They are seduced into the store by the prospect of saving 10p or 15p on the items advertised.

But once they’re inside, they remember all the other things they need, that they might as well get while they’re there.

So they spend a lot more money. And the eventual cost of their basket or trolley will be $10 or $20.

The store’s profit will be many times more than the price cuts that attracted the shopper in the first place.

And that’s why they’re called loss-leaders.

But that’s the thing about advertising.

We’re not always selling what we’re selling.

Dave Trott is a consultant, author and former ad agency creative director. This article was first published on his blog.

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