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Thursday, May 24, 2012

An Economist Gets Crunch?


In An Economist Gets Lunch, Tyler Cowen displays considerable cred as both an economist and a foodie.  But it’s his economist’s take on our passion for eating out that makes Lunch special.  Read the book: you’ll view  upscale eateries, ethnic restaurants in strip malls, street food carts, and everything in between in a whole new light—thanks to your new lens on  producers costs and incentives.

Another useful topic is restaurants’ cross-subsidization of low-margin offerings with higher-margin offerings (like keeping the prices of entrees down by overcharging on drinks). That leads to a discussion of how local cinema operators make up for scant margins on tickets with higher-margin receipts from the refreshment counter. (Overall, about ½ of ticket receipts and sometimes up to 90% go back to the movie makers during a film’s typical opening weekend, writes the author.)

In their mission to refresh, cinemas cast popcorn in a stellar role.  Raw materials are inexpensive; popping is a snap—via production that the cinemas control. Movie operators also enjoy flexibility in pricing and have been known to stimulate demand through a witches brew of fat, salt, and oils.

No crunch at the cinema (click to enlarge)
Popcorn Is Quiet. But I can no longer remain silent: popcorn  becomes cinema’s über-snack only when you add its sonic properties to the mix. It is a snack without crunch. That’s high-functioning design, given the near intimate distance between patrons in a crowded theatre. So don’t expect to score chips and unshelled peanuts at your local cinema’s refreshment counter (you might find nachos, but they’ll be hot and flaccid.) After cinemas introduced popcorn in the early 1930s, the high-margin snack helped keep them afloat during the Great Depression, notes Cowen and his alpha source, Popped Culture. But a sotto voce snack was at a premium for another reason: beginning with talkies in the late 1920s, you ingested dialog with your ears, not your eyes.

No need to get up: it's in the frigid-chair.
A Gateway Snack. With popcorn leading the way, snacking in the cinema has excelled as a role model for subsequent mindless eating wherever Americans watch TV. Perhaps Mr. Cowen’s next econ text will highlight TV dinners and TV trays as complementary goods?  “TV,” laments Brian Wansink in his cautionary Mindless Eating, “is a triple threat."
Aside from leading you to eat, it leads you not to pay attention to how much you eat, and it leads you to eat for too long. It’s a scripted conditioned ritual—we turn on the TV, we sit down in our favorite spot, we salivate, and we go get a snack. Eating or drinking gives us something to do with our hands, and it occupies us while we focus on the plot of our television show and on the questions that it raises: “What else is on?” “Have I seen this one before?” “Did the Flintstones really happen?” (103)
Mindless eating in front of the TV and silver screen has inspired descriptors of “trance eating” and “negative multitasking.” What could be timelier than the latter, given our market-driven cult of fractionating our attention span via multiple devices and activities. So what else are you reaching for as this excursion pulls into the station?

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