The Popcorn PR Problem – Blog Assignment #8

You’re at the movies, and you want to snack on something during the show. What’s the go-to solution for the movie munchies? A big bucket of salty, buttery, delicious popcorn, of course! It’s the perfect treat. It feels natural, automatic–an inconsequential classic, right?

It turns out, your bag of popcorn may be more menacing than the dastardly villains or alien invaders onscreen. A recent study by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) put movie popcorn under the nutritional microscope. What they found is the plot of a horror film: moderate servings of popcorn likened health-wise to steakhouse specials with all the fixings and after-dinner dessert.

Hardest hit by the study was the Regal Entertainment Group, whose theaters popped the unhealthiest product of the tested movie theater chains. Their largest serving of popcorn contains 20 cups of popcorn, totaling 1200 calories, 60 grams of saturated fat, and 980 milligrams of sodium. According to FDA guidelines, that’s three days worth of saturated fat, the type of fat responsible for clogging arteries and causing heart disease. It’s also got about as many calories as three Quarter Pounders from McDonald’s and nearly as much sodium as three orders of large french fries.

Even the small serving of 11 cups of popcorn contains 670 calories, 34 grams of saturated fat, and 550 mg of sodium. That’s more calories than a Big Mac, and enough fatty artery paste to cover the next 36 hours. Each tablespoon of extra “buttery topping” adds an additional 130 calories and 2 grams of saturated fat.

The study also revealed that Regal’s drink sizes are larger than those of its competitors, offering more calories and sugar in every serving. The cherry on top? A large and medium popcorn at Regal contain the same amount of popcorn: the round, short bucket-like container of the large only makes it seem bigger than the bagged medium size. The prices, of course, are not the same; though the large does come with free refills, or as much heart poison as you so desire.

Regal has found themselves with a buttery heap of very bad press. The study was released just last week, and the theater chain has yet to respond. But this could be catastrophic to Regal and all chain cinemas, whose greatest profit margins come at the concession stand by far.

Regal has several issues to address here:

  1. Their popcorn is very unhealthy.
  2. Their popcorn is more unhealthy than the already unhealthy popcorn at other theater chains.
  3. Their drinks are larger and more unhealthy than those at other chains.
  4. Their candy servings are unusually large and therefore more unhealthy.
  5. Their “large” popcorn is actually the same size as their “medium” popcorn, even though the “large” costs more. (though it does provide free popcorn refills)
  6. The stated nutritional information for their popcorn was very inaccurate.

First, they can accomplish several quick fixes:

  • Get rid of the “large” size popcorn bucket with free refills – The offer is mostly a sham anyway (since the large is the same size as the medium), and the free refills are seen as a ticket to extra heart disease. Do away with it entirely.
  • Get rid of the largest drink size – The studies showed that Regal’s “large” drink size was much larger and more unhealthy than those of rival chains. If movie concessions are hazardous to your health, Regal doesn’t need their treats to be more hazardous compared to their competitors.
  • Upgrade all popcorn and drink sizes – McDonald’s used this strategy when their fries and drink sizes came under attack a few years ago. “Small” becomes “medium,” and “medium” becomes “large”– just so that size-to-health-detriment comparisons do not seem as troublesome.
  • Limit the amount of “extra” buttery topping – There’s no need to add more artery paste onto an already hefty amount of artery paste. Extra topping is free anyway, so do not offer or publicize its availability. Customers who ask for it should receive 1/2 tbsp. increments, dispensed by concessions workers only.

These immediate responses should be described in a press release, along with open acknowledgment of the study and its findings as well as a promise that Regal is actively working on improving the nutritional value of its popcorn and other concessions offerings.

Next, Regal can start to implement additional quick and easy changes:

  • New “small” size – A smaller “small” size for both popcorn and drinks will allow consumers to buy portions that are less unhealthy than currently available options. The prices of these sizes do not have to be much lower than the former small sizes and can actually be higher in terms of dollars per unit.
  • Smaller candy portions – Similarly, smaller portions of candy will be healthier than the currently used larger-sized bags and boxes. Again, prices do not need to be cut much, allowing for higher profit margins.

Regal should not try to discredit any of the information in the study: this will make them seem like they are defending unhealthy eating habits. Though the CSPI study aggressively assails movie theater popcorn without providing any advice for improvement, it does hint at the solution to these problems. In their monthly Nutrition Action Health Letter, they quote the Popcorn Board industry group’s website:

“Did you know that popcorn is among the healthiest—and tastiest—snacks around? …It’s a whole grain food that’s low in calories and fat and it’s a complex carbohydrate.”

The CSPI addresses this assertion:

“Turns out the Popcorn Board is right…if you’re talking low-fat popcorn or (fat-free) air-popped.”

There’s a crucial springboard for the folks at Regal. They need to replace their current popcorn production methods with healthier alternatives. Regal should openly “work with” the Popcorn Board to come up with new techniques– air-popping their popcorn and using low-fat popcorn.

This initiative should also be described in a press release to inform the public and media that Regal is indeed taking the issue seriously and responding appropriately.

Next, Regal needs to re-vamp the image of their concessions stand. They could make new popcorn bags and soda cups that are decorated with “green” imagery (trees, flowers, etc.), giving the sense of well-being and better health. The new containers can be made out of 100% recycled material, and this fact along with nutritional information should be clearly printed on the containers themselves.

Also, Regal’s new popcorn-popping methods should be described in plain and simple language on the new popcorn bags, as to assure consumers that their popcorn portions are not hazardous to their health and much more healthy than comparable movie theater fare. Regal should outwardly name their competitors from the study (AMC and Cinemark) when comparing their new, healthier popcorn.

If the new popcorn is less appetizing and tasty to consumers than the previously-offered unhealthy variety (as would be expected), extra “butter topping” and salt can be available for consumers to dispense onto their popcorn as they please. Both topping and salt should be offered in pre-set amounts that are clearly described nutritionally on their respective dispensers, for the sake of full disclosure. This way, Regal will offer a healthier product, even if it does not taste as good. If individual consumers want to add toppings to improve flavor, that is their prerogative– but they would be doing so while knowingly worsening the nutritional value of their popcorn.

To further improve their image health-wise (and to deflect from the unhealthy nature of popcorn and soda), Regal should introduce new, alternative snack options. They wouldn’t have to invest too much into these options: it’s more a means of appearing more health-conscious than actually offering healthier choices. If the new snacks do not sell well, Regal can phase them out as their image improves. If the response is positive, they can look into expanding these options.

Some possible healthier snacks: peanuts, rice cake snacks, pre-set calorie snack packs of various snacks food items (cookies, chips, etc.), and dried fruit. Regal could look into partnering with a health food label like Weight Watchers in developing these alternatives. Along with soda, Regal can also offer flavored water and fruit drinks.

All of these actions should be widely promoted with pamphlets, advertisements, and press releases. There should be heavy focus on better health, lighter snacking, and green initiatives. All of this would indeed follow the PRSA code of ethics: information will be accurate and fully disclosed, Regal will openly admit the short-comings of its current snack options, and all initiatives will indeed better serve the public, offering healthier solutions to the movie munchies.

The most difficult but also most important variable in play will be the cost of these changes and the prices of new products. Theater snacks are already viewed as over-priced, and compared to other venues, they are. Still, Regal needs to combat the risk of losing its biggest profits from consumers spooked by the CSPI study’s findings. At the same time, they can’t spend so much on concession revamps that they end up losing money anyway.

Regal needs to distract from necessary inflated prices by focusing entirely and heavily on the health aspect of its snack options. Pricey movie snacks have become a part of the status-quo. Regal only needs to set themselves apart from their competitors by being the healthiest of the bunch. Hopefully, consumers will feel more compelled to buy from concessions, believing their purchases will not make as big of a dent to their health (even if the dent to their finances hasn’t changed).

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~ by Adam Mehring on November 23, 2009.

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