The art and science of the “cheese pull”: Why the cheesiest ad trick still makes us hungry

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Ah, the cheese pull. Who hasn’t been snared in its steamy web at one time or another? You may not know the advertising trope by name, but you absolutely know it when you see it:

It’s that stylized shot of perfectly-congealed cheese strands that stretch seductively from a slice of pizza as it’s lifted from the pie. The pizza “money shot,” if you will.

In advertising, the cheese pull is more than just a tantalizing glimpse of melted goodness. It’s an idea, and an enduring one at that. Advertisers use it to communicate with the part of our brain that’s not verbal, with the primal core of our being that doesn’t understand words but responds with hunger, thirst, arousal, desire.

A cheese pull is an image that “brings people into the moment and gets them out of their right minds,” said Mark DiMassimo, chief executive of the advertising agency DiMassimo Goldstein. “They have this iconic bit of hunger transmitted to their brains and they just without thinking go out and eat a lot of the product.”

Pizza chains aren’t the only ones that use such evocative visual cues to tap into our baser urges. The hair flip in shampoo commercials, the car cruising down a windy road in auto ads, and the closeup on condensation on an ice-cold bottle are each metaphorical “cheese pulls,” designed to provoke an involuntary response—one that advertisers hope will lead to a purchase.

In food advertising, the cheese pull can “trigger deep-seated memories of food experiences” to “signal an enjoyable experience in you,” said Uma Karmarkar, an assistant professor of marketing at the Harvard Business School. ”Food is what we call a primary reinforcer,” she said. ”We recognize the value of food items even when we can’t touch them or feel them in person.”

Those memories can actually set off a release of chemicals in the brain akin to those involved in drug addiction. As many of us know, pizza is an addictive food, so the cheese pull in an ad can easily set off a craving simply by showing you a gooey, steamy slice.

“The chemicals that are released in the brain often are released before we get a bite of a food,” said Kevin Hogan, who has written extensively on the psychological triggers behind marketing and advertising. “It’s hooking up to the same drug as street drugs… That addiction becomes activated and you want that pizza.”

The cheese pull is an old trick, but it is incredibly efficient. It gets its message across in an instant, which is crucial to advertisers now, in an era where time has never been more valuable.

“The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is physiologically true,” said Britt Nolan, US chief creative officer at Leo Burnett. “That’s why people rely on these quick, visual clichés so much.”

Here are some other uses of the “cheese pull” across advertising that you may recognize:

The taco cheese pull

Taco Bell recently co-opted the techniques of its sister brand, Pizza Hut, to push its cheesy new menu item—the Quesalupa. The fast-food chain spent two years perfecting the messy practice in stores and on camera to ensure that the strands of pepper jack shown in ads resembled what customers encountered when they pulled the quesadilla-chalupa lovechild apart themselves.

Taco Bell also uses the cheese pull to promote other menu items, including its breakfast flatbread quesadilla:

The sweating bottle

Like the cheese pull, the visual of condensation dripping down an ice-cold bottle instantly speaks to our physical senses, which is why beverage brands including Coors Light, Coca-Cola, and Gatorade rely on it. It evokes the real-life experience of pulling a cold beverage out of a fridge or cooler on a warm day.

The image taps into a primal physical desire, said Dan Davenport, executive content director at the agency MXM: “I’m thirsty and hot. That’s cold. That feels good.”

The beer pour

There’s real craft involved in pouring beer, even if the bartender at your local dive isn’t a master of it. In beer ads, like the one above, the beer flows in perfect portions until the glass is frothy and brimming.

As with certain types of food, a beautifully poured pint can trigger the “feel-good” chemical dopamine in our brains. For those that drink alcohol, watching the beer cascade seductively into a glass signals to your brain that alcohol is coming. “We have that release before we even take the drink,” said Hogan. And, suddenly, you’re feeling parched.

The bite of a juicy burger

Fast-food brands have a lot of tricks to make their greasy, assembly-line burgers look like they were prepared by gourmet chefs. There’s the close up:

The sizzling burger on the grill:

And most gratuitously, a person (often a sexy and incongruously slender woman) jamming a thick, juicy burger into her mouth:

The hair flip

No shampoo or hair color ad is complete without the hair flip—that majestic shot of a woman whipping her flawless locks. Never mind that such shimmer will never in a million years be achieved by any real woman, with any hair product. “It’s a beautiful image,” said Karmarkar. “One that’s aspirational. It glamorizes the product.”

This “aspirational” trigger taps into our yearnings, the way we want the products to make us feel, or at least, how advertisers think we yearn to feel.

Performing the hair flip has become a rite of passage for women hair icons in the US. In the 1970s, Farrah Fawcett flipped her perfect curls to sell hair dryers.

Today, stars ranging from comedian Tina Fey to pop artist Selena Gomez perpetually toss their locks on television.

The “chocolate orgasm”

Whether it’s a bar of Ghirardelli or a single Hershey’s kiss, there’s a feeling of indulgence you get when you see a packaged treat emerge from a Willy-Wonka-like river of luscious, velvety chocolate.

The trademark chocolatier shot is typically followed by a woman taking the teensiest, little bite of chocolate, then closing her eyes in pleasure. “I call it the chocolate orgasm,” said DiMassimo.

The heavy eyelid

The heavy eyelid is one of the most-clichéd images (video) in the weird world of perfume advertising. Our sense of smell has strong ties to our emotions and sexual desires, so marketers often equate fragrances with sexual satisfaction. As with chocolate, the tantalizing heavy eyelid suggests just that.

The shirt drying in a summer breeze

We may not have a primal desire to do laundry, but ads for fabric softener and detergent often use the perfume-advertising trick of tying scent to emotion. A woman pulls a freshly laundered shirt out of the dryer, sniffs it, and suddenly she’s transported to a magical field where the shirt is blowing in a summer breeze. It’s light, it’s airy, it’s carefree, it’s clean. It washes away the stress of doing laundry, and reminds you of that fresh feeling you have when it’s all done.

The car cruise

It starts with a close up. There are flashes of dangerous curves. The camera pans out to a reveal a car, cruising on the open road. A grin slowly stretches across the driver’s face. And he loses himself in the car and the open road in the ad’s climax.

The basic ingredients of a sex scene are used to sell luxury vehicles—the suggestion, of course, being that this car will really turn you on.

The cheese pull

A classic pizza cheese pull may only last a few seconds. But there’s plenty that goes into it.

Domino’s Pizza documented the art of the cheese pull a few years ago. To nail the perfect shot it took 20 lights; 50 C-stands; 150 people including pizza chefs and hand models trained to pull the slice with precision; food stylists who primped the pizza with Q-tips, tweezers, torches, and spatulas; and an alarming amount of drilling. ”If we’re lucky, we get one shot an hour,” said Sam Fauser, the pizza chef in the video. “If we’re lucky.”

All this rigamarole and artifice has lead some brands, including Domino’s, to drop the tactic. It can also look outdated, especially as social media pushes brands to favor user-generated content and authentic-looking images over stylized shots.

“We took a peek behind the curtain at all of the effort and engineering that goes into creating the all-mighty ‘cheese pull,’” said Tim Eger, group creative director at GSD&M, an advertising agency that has worked with Domino’s. “We called it out as phony and vowed never to do it again.”

Indeed, in this age of media and advertising saturation, these tactics are so overused that they’re practically interchangeable. But lots of pizza brands, including Little Caesar’s and Pizza Hut, still rely on the cheese pull for one simple reason: It is tried and true.

It’s not so surprising; people tend to lean toward the familiar. ”Original thought is a little bit scary,” Nolan said. “It’s hard to defend within an organization and explain to people why it’s good to break from the tried and true.”

And in one sense, the cheese pull never gets old. Hunger is “one of those core desires that you have wired into you,” Hogan said. “That’s not going to go away.”

Try it yourself. Watch the gif above, ideally before lunch. You may find your mouth watering and your stomach growling. Pizza Hut hopes the next thing you’ll do is reach for the phone to place an order.

Feature image by Scott Bauer/Itzuvit via Wikimedia Commons, licensed in the public domain.