Language in the News

“You’ll Have to Speak Up, I’m Wearing a Towel” –Homer Simpson

A direct result of grad school is that it has made me more critical of what I read. This doesn’t mean that I read articles looking for problems, but when I read something that doesn’t sound right, I feel the need to dig a little deeper.

This week, I came across an article about a recent study that argues that eating popcorn while watching advertisements makes us less susceptible to advertising. The reason? Because the act of chewing interferes with people’s tendency to subvocally pronounce words that they’re exposed to (via reading or hearing), overriding the familiarity caused by repetition of certain words and phrases in ads.

This version of the article, found in Bloomberg Businessweek, specifically says:

“Ads can be masterpieces of visual invention, but one of their most persuasive mechanisms is repetition—that’s why marketers find ways to say the name of a product over and over.”

and that:

“When people read, they tend to mime the act of speaking. Even if they’re not saying the words out loud, the brain simulates the corresponding muscle movements of the throat and mouth”

When I first read this article I was skeptical, because there seemed to be a much simpler answer for why eating popcorn seemed to block susceptibility to advertisements: chewing is noisy. By that I mean that the sound of chewing reverberates in the skull and can easily drown out external sound. I experienced this myself during lunch today—who knew spaghetti could be so loud?

Since this conclusion about chewing being loud seemed really obvious, I figured that this is something the authors of the academic article would have addressed in the article itself. (Luckily, I still have access to these kinds of journals through Georgetown’s online library.) So I read the article, and…nope. They did not. And although the authors pointed out that the language of the test ads was non-German (the authors are all employed by the University of Wuerzburg, Germany), they didn’t really describe the content of the ads in depth, meaning how many times the brand name was spoken versus how many times it appeared on screen in writing. Nor did they go into how they know that everyone subvocalizes what they hear and read. This was just accepted as a given, with citations to other sources listed in support of the idea.

So I checked a few of these sources, including previous work by the primary author. Now, if I were writing a research paper, I’d go into greater detail about the parts of their various experiments that I’d like them to address, and why I am still not sold on the idea of subvocalization. But since this is my blog, I’ll keep it short and simple: Before advertisers and movie theaters decide to join forces and deny the movie-going public their extremely over-priced salty snacks, I would ask the authors to address this possibility, and to run some more experiments. After all, undergrad psychology students the world over are always looking for some extra credit.


*The Bloomberg article, by Drake Bennett, is just one of several versions of the academic article summarized for the popular press. Just search for “Popcorn advertising” to read different takes on the original.*

**The original article citation:  Topolinski, S., et al., Popcorn in the cinema: Oral interference sabotages advertising effects, Journal of Consumer Psychology (2013), **


2 thoughts on ““You’ll Have to Speak Up, I’m Wearing a Towel” –Homer Simpson

  1. Great post! Love to see bad science get called out. I don’t have access to this journal – could you send me the references to subvocalization? I’m interested in their connection to narrative voice.
    Any thoughts?

  2. Daniel–I’m glad you enjoyed it!
    I’d be interested in hearing more about the connection you see between subvocalization and narrative voice. Do you mean narrative voice in a literary sense? Or narrative voice as the linguistic changes we use when telling narratives to indicate shifts in character/tone/time/point of view?

    And, as requested, here are the sources for the two additional articles I read:

    Topolinski, Sascha, and Fritz Strack. “Motormouth: mere exposure depends on stimulus-specific motor simulations.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 35.2 (2009): 423.


    Stroop, J. Ridley. “Studies of interference in serial verbal reactions.” Journal of Experimental Psychology 18.6 (1935): 643.

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