The St. George Theater, a movie palace I helped to run in 1976, had the highest per capita concession sales (translation: most food sold per customer) of any theater in the five boroughs of New York City. We may not have been able to fill more than a few hundred of our 2,672 seats, but most people arrived at those seats loaded down with a chunky assortment of what we offered to eat: fresh buttered popcorn, candy, soda, ballpark hotdogs on Italian buns, and Haagan Dazs ice cream. Many came back for seconds.
How could we make that thirds? My husband and partner, Dean, pondered this question; then he remembered reading about a study of subliminal advertising. In 1957, a researcher named James Vicary had inserted a single frame (not discernible to the conscious mind) with the words “Eat Popcorn” into a movie — as well as another frame that suggested “Drink Coke.” Supposedly, popcorn and Coke sales increased dramatically, results that were subsequently deemed a hoax. Dean forgot the hoax part.
Our experiment in subliminal advertising had as much to do with the smell of pot as popcorn. On a busy Friday or Saturday night, especially during midnight shows, certain ushers were often amongst the missing. Where were they? In the heat room, a space approximately twenty by twenty by forty feet, in the bowels of the theater, where all the air circulated, using large fans. During cold weather, a gigantic radiator covered one whole wall of this room, over and around which cool air was drawn from the auditorium and returned to it warm. Since pot smoke made its way into the heat room along with the cold air, some ushers thought they could get a contact high hanging out there. They didn’t. But Dean thought the system might work in reverse!
One Saturday morning, he asked two ushers to haul an old popcorn warmer into the heat room, then, right before showtime, they loaded it with five or six jumbo bags of popcorn saturated with extra butter. Up through the vents in the floor of the auditorium came the smell of fresh buttered popcorn. We’ve lost the statistics, but popcorn sales did increase dramatically.
All this came to a crashing halt when, in the depths of winter, the landlord stopped providing heat, which is part of a much larger story you’ll read some day soon; meanwhile, Dean wonders, “Is that old popcorn warmer still down in the heat room?”
1. During the depths of the first wave of Covid, when theaters were closed, popcorn sales, according to Variety, actually increased; check it out.
2. This blog post is an oldie-but-goody I run every once in a while, especially poignant since the easy culture of movie theaters has been supplanted somewhat by Covid isolation. When I first ran this post, in 2015, I received some interesting comments, which follow below:
Funny! In theory, I disapprove of subliminal advertising, but this popcorn story is hilarious. I'll mention it in my blog.
Well I don't approve of it either, but we were desperate!
I love that story, Vicki! As someone who lost his sense of smell a few years ago, but still vividly remembers how seductive the smell of popcorn is, it brought me right there – I can see (and SMELL) that experience. Thanks for sharing!
So popcorn survives even the loss of smell; I find that amazing...
Robin Locke Monda:
Buttered popcorn is one of the great aromas of the world.
What a great story — I worked at an Art School in the 70's and am pretty sure that your ushers and my art students were playing the same game — trying to get high on a fragrance (which all of us popcorn lovers know is easy to do)