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A Weird Neuroscientific Explanation for Why We Love Cheetos

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Getting sticky, tangy orange dust everywhere is usually considered a drawback of snacking on Cheetos. But that messy, colorful coating is actually one of the reasons people love Cheetos so much. Or at least that's what companies analyzing our brain activity think.

Back in 2008, Frito-Lay hired a company called NeuroFocus (later bought and folded into market research company Nielsen) to help figure out how to sell Cheetos. NeuroFocus did electroencephalographic-based neurological testing on people to try to figure out how their brains responded to eating the snack.


Fast Company described the results gathered from analyzing electrical activity on the scalp:

After scanning the brains of a carefully chosen group of consumers, the NeuroFocus team discovered that the icky coating triggers an unusually powerful response in the brain: a sense of giddy subversion that consumers enjoy over the messiness of the product.


Frito-Lay tested out a commercial that emphasized this subversive glee that Cheetos dust apparently gave people. The commercial shows a woman (played by the indelible Felicia Day) who pranks another woman in a laundromat by putting Cheetos in her white clothes, as Chester the Cheeto eggs her bad behavior on.

Focus groups hated it, saying it was mean-spirited. But NeuroFocus revealed that people who watched it had EEG results that showed positive feedback. Just like most people don't admit or even know that they like getting artificial cheese dust all over the place when they eat Cheetos, people didn't want to admit that they liked a commercial about an asshole who flouts social norms. But the ad tapped into the pop neuroscience that linked Cheetos with deviant thrills.

A lot of neuromarketing is mostly hype, and a lot of the research gets contaminated by confounding factors. But NeuroFocus wound up with a pretty solid track record. "The Orange Underground" Cheetos campaign that this ad kicked off, which focused on people doing subversive things with Cheetos, was a success in drawing in sales and won a Grand Ogilvy award.

If Don Draper lived in 2015 and he was not a fictional character, he'd be all over neuromarketing. It often contradicts the findings of focus groups by giving people what they didn't know they wanted. It's unsettling that marketers are drawing conclusions about how people feel by studying the electrical impulses in our brains, but it can be effective.


So next time you wipe Cheetos dust on your pants and wonder why they haven't found a recipe that doesn't coat your fingers, know that it's not a mistake — it's a carefully considered decision based on our brains' strange responses.

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