By Maria Rodas, Ph.D.
Many advertisers depict people consuming their product surrounded by other people. However, advertisers are beginning to depict people consuming their products in secret. For example, Breyer’s advertises its line of gelato by showing a couple waiting for their children to go to bed so they can secretly enjoy eating their gelato. King’s Hawaiian’s advertises its dinner rolls through a humorous ad showing a man keeping his consumption of dinner rolls secret by hiding them in a hidden wall cabinet. And the city of Las Vegas has been running a campaign shrouded in secrecy for some years now with its slogan “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas.”
This phenomenon prompted my co-author Deborah Roedder John and I to ask ourselves: Is it possible that consumers like a product more if they are prompted to think about consuming it in secret? In a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Consumer Research, we explore this question in a series of eight studies, where we asked women to consume different products (cookies, chocolate, baked apple chips), with or without a prompt to think about their consumption as secret, and in different settings (public vs. private). We used several methods to prompt secret consumption. For example, in one study we showed women an advertisement that encouraged eating the food item in secret, while in other studies we instructed them to imagine eating the food item in secret or to hide the food item from others while eating. After consuming the product, we asked women to evaluate the product and compared these evaluations to ones obtained from women who consumed the same product without a secret consumption prompt.
Secret consumption is a prevalent phenomenon. In an early study we conducted, we found that 60% of women and 44% of men reported having engaged in secret consumption. Among women, secret consumption is most common for food categories (e.g., ice cream, chocolate). Among men, secret consumption spans a number of product categories, such as alcohol, drugs, video games, and food. Overall, these numbers indicate that secret consumption is a familiar experience for many consumers, particularly women. For this reason, we focus our investigation on female consumers, and examine secret consumption in the food category, which is the most common context for their secret consumption experiences.
Across these eight studies, we found that prompting women to think about consuming products in secret had an impact, not only on their product evaluations, but also on their choices and willingness to pay for those products. Specifically, we found that prompting secret consumption led to more favorable product evaluations and higher willingness to pay. We refer to this effect as the “secrecy effect.” Products that are generally well-liked, such as chocolate and cookies, were even more positively evaluated when the product was consumed with a secret consumption prompt. Further, prompting secret consumption affected women’s consumption behavior, resulting in increased product choice.
One could think that the reason for this secrecy effect is that the products that tend to be consumed in secret are mainly indulgences (think cookies, ice cream, chocolate), and thus people have a positive association with secrecy and indulgent products (“if I’m eating this in secret it must be good”). However, our research shows that the secrecy effect emerges even for non-indulgent, better-for-you products, such as baked apple chips, and that it is not driven by people’s expectations that something consumed in secret must be better or more special. So what is driving the secrecy effect?
We look to theories of secrecy and attitude polarization to explain this novel effect. In brief, when people are prompted to think about their consumption as secret, they become preoccupied with thoughts about the product they have consumed. Thoughts about the product continue to pop into mind, resulting in increased thinking about the product. This increased thinking leads to a polarization of product evaluations, which is more positive for generally well-liked food products.
What are the implications of our research findings for firms that are using notions of secrecy in their marketing strategies? We find that prompting the idea of secret consumption results in more favorable product evaluations and greater product choice. This suggests that firms can benefit from encouraging secret consumption in advertising and product naming (e.g., Secret Sensations ice cream) for many categories of products that are generally well-liked by consumers, such as chocolate and cookies. Our findings also suggest that these strategies could be used to promote more liking and choice of healthier foods, such baked apple chips and raisins.
Further, we believe that secrecy effects may be even stronger if consumers engage in reoccurring episodes of secret consumption, prompted by advertising and other marketing materials. Reoccurring episodes of secret consumption could develop into a deeper relationship with the product or brand, culminating in what Susan Fournier refers to as a “secret affair.” Although our research does not address longitudinal issues, there is evidence from secrecy research that the effect of secrecy on attraction is most evident in the early stages of interpersonal relationships. We speculate that if people begin using a product while prompted to engage in secret consumption, it is more likely that it will fuel a stronger emotional bond and a stronger relationship with the brand, perhaps culminating in a secret affair. As we have seen, framing the consumption of a generally liked product as secret causes one to become preoccupied with the product, and reoccurring positive thoughts about the product would appear to be conducive to building a stronger bond and relationship. This may not occur, however, if people have been using a product for some time before the idea of secret consumption is introduced into advertising and marketing materials.