Chances are you’ve come across this scenario in a commercial: A woman, weary from the demands of modern life, finds a quiet place to recharge by indulging in a pint of ice cream or bag of chips. The moment she’s alone and able to pop off the lid or tear open the packaging, the exhaustion in her face quickly turns into contentment.
This guilty pleasure genre of advertising works, and a recent paper in the Journal of Consumer Research helps explain why. In eight separate studies, groups of women were prompted to think about eating certain food items in secret, whether by watching an ad encouraging the behavior or being instructed to imagine hiding food from others. Not only did the test participants rate the food items more favorably, but both groups were more likely to choose them—and willing to pay more for them, too.
Lead author Maria Rodas, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, explained that the main reason people find eating in secret so enthralling is that hidden thoughts and desires tend to occupy the mind more than those out in the open for everyone to see.
“Because you’re suppressing this thought and don’t want to accidentally reveal it, it has this ironic effect that the more you want to keep something secret, you end up thinking more and more about it,” Rodas said. “Just by the fact that you’re trying to conceal your consumption, you end up thinking more and more about the consumer product.”
In other words, a personal rendezvous with your favorite pack of pudding is not so different from a romantic tryst.
“The reason why secret affairs are so compelling is because of the secret component,” Rodas said. “You just end up almost obsessing over the other person because it’s a secret.”
Part of the outcome, Rodas explained, is also down to the guilty pleasure aspect. People prefer to avoid judgment, and sometimes eating something you know you probably shouldn’t can feel both liberating and thrilling.
Another reason is that sometimes people simply don’t want to share; they want the whole package to themselves. That said, Rodas emphasized that the tendency for secrets to engross the mind was the leading factor behind the effect.
For instance, consider the “Bathtub” spot for Pepperidge Farm’s Milano Cookies, part of the brand’s “Save Something for Yourself” campaign that first appeared in 2017. In the 30-second spot, a woman locks herself in the bathroom while blissfully munching on the chocolate-filled snacks. When her child comes looking for her and begins to wiggle the doorknob, she lowers her voice and says, “It’s dad.” Convinced, her child moves onto another part of the house, leaving her in peace.
Data from ad measurement service iSpot.tv estimated that since the commercial debuted in February 2018, it’s received over 8,300 national airings and generated more than 1.7 billion impressions.
The gist of the “Save Something for Yourself” campaign is acknowledging that women today are juggling many roles and ideals, and therefore deserve to have some moments to themselves, explained Karen Marks, vp of integrated marketing at Campbell Snacks, the division of the Campbell Soup Company that oversees Pepperidge Farms.
“Based on the Milano brand’s research, more than half of the women polled find it somewhat difficult to fit ‘me time’ into their schedules,” Marks said. “They forget to take care of themselves, and usually put their family and friends first.”
Sales numbers suggest the secret eating ad strategy might be working. According to data from Chicago-based market research firm IRI, provided by Campbell’s snack division, sales of Milano cookies increased 2.8% throughout the past three years to hit $165.7 million in 2019, outpacing the overall cookie sector sales rise of 2.6%, reaching $8.01 billion.
Rodas noted that this so-called “secrecy effect” is not a matter of eating in private versus eating in public. The same preoccupation with a certain food item can occur while furtively snacking at work or while riding mass transit. “Secrecy can even happen in public, which at first sounds a little bit contradictory, but we make the case that secrecy and privacy are two completely different constructs,” she said.
Furthermore, the food doesn’t have to be unhealthy, either. Rodas and her co-author, marketing professor Deborah Roedder John at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, discovered that baked apple chips and raisins could produce similar results among their test subjects. The point is that once imbued with secretive connotations, any type of food can become more alluring.
On the other hand, the effect doesn’t appear to emerge in products people already know they don’t like. Indeed, eating these food items in secret can make them even less appealing to these consumers. Having a long history with a particular brand before being introduced to the idea of secret consumption can also dampen the results.
Rodas focused on women instead of men because while both sexes eat food in secret, the behavior is more prevalent among women. And while it’s beyond the scope of her research, Rodas admitted that for certain types of people who might have an unhealthy relationship with food, ads that appear to encourage secretive consumption can be potentially harmful.
When asked about this issue, Marks responded by stating that Milano’s “Save Something for Yourself” campaign is “not about eating in secret; it’s about finding a moment for oneself and, often times, it is between errands and tasks—a stolen private moment to savor a sweet treat.”
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 20 million American women and 10 million men will suffer with an eating disorder at some point during their lifetime. CEO Claire Mysko explained that while eating disorders often develop from a complex combination of factors, commercials that encourage people to hide their consumption habits can be problematic.
We’re already surrounded by messages that tend to influence how we talk about food and eating, Mysko explained, and those conversations have consequences.
“With advertising and media in general, it’s not a black-and-white, cause-effect,” she said. At the same time, “the idea of eating in secret is something we see a lot with people who are actively struggling with eating disorders.”