It’s a common question in focus groups, one I’ve been asked numerous times about everything from yogurt to pizza. As a teenager, I participated in a focus group about pizza advertising, and responded to that question without any concept of how many people were watching through a double-sided mirror — or how carefully our innocent, honest responses were being tracked for advertising and marketing purposes.
The line of questioning indicated that the feelings evoked by the photos I was shown — smiling teens surrounding pizza boxes, cardboard lids open to reveal the cheesy contents within — were considered just as important as whether or not I liked the product being showcased. According to entrepreneur and New York Times bestselling author Gary Vaynerchuk, “To get customers, you need to go from the heart to the brain to the wallet.” Pizza toppings, it seems, are a subject close to many people’s hearts — and therefore one that big brands take very seriously.
Pizza ads and commercials tend to highlight three specific kinds of pizzas: pepperoni; pepperoni and mushroom; and pepperoni, mushroom, green pepper, onion, and black olive. A DiGiorno pizza ad pops up into my Twitter feed every hour: It’s pepperoni. Banner ads for Little Caesars, Domino’s, and Pizza Hut? Mainly pepperoni. Google pizza commercials from the 1980s, and discover an endless supply of pepperoni, pepperoni-mushroom, and the PMGPOBO. I watched seven different commercials from 2017 and they rarely deviated from this pattern.
With consumer tastes and marketing tactics constantly in flux, why has the most salable pizza topping remained the same for so many years? Is it based on focus group results or maybe what photographs best? And why does every single pizza depicted in ads seem to always include pepperoni?