“But how does this image make you feel?”
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?
“Data shows that among meats/proteins, pepperoni is by far the most popular, followed by sausage and now bacon,” says Ed Gleich, the senior vice president of global marketing at Little Caesars. “The ingredients shown [in our ads] are heavily driven by what our customers love. Pepperoni is often the go-to because it is so popular with customers.”
In 2013, Business Insider published an infographic showing that pepperoni was by far the most ordered topping, at 36 percent, with sausage coming in at a distant second, with 14 percent. A few months ago, data made available by delivery app Slice showed that in most states, the preferred pizza topping remains pepperoni.
In addition to being popular with diners, pepperoni is relatively photogenic. “Some food just doesn’t photograph well,” says Rob Douglas, a 20-year advertising veteran currently serving as executive vice president at Gravity. “If you were to put sausage on top of pizza it may look like poop.”
“Pepperoni has a lot going for it,” says Thomas DeGrezia, co-owner of Sofia Pizza Shoppe in New York City. “Its color and ability to maintain its structure [throughout the cooking process], unlike veggies or most other meats, make it visually appealing against a backdrop of mozzarella. Places like ours who do the charred-edge ‘roni ‘cups’ add to the visual enticement because you can actually see the different textures at work on the pie.”
Showcasing the most popular pizza topping also serves as a sort of shorthand, with a pepperoni-topped pizza serving as a nearly universal, highly recognizable symbol. That symbolism, tellingly, extends to the pizza emoji. “Like the hieroglyphs of ancient times (or logograms), emojis need to communicate a universally understood person, place or thing,” Douglas says. “A pizza emoji with the cue of pepperoni on top is familiar and readily understood to more people. Without the pepperoni, a slice could be interpreted as an ice cream cone or a party hat. A pizza pie without the pepperoni cues could be interpreted as the letter O, a wheel, or a balloon.”
That readability extends to real-life images of pizza, as well. “When you’re dealing with a pizza brand or any other brand that typically has a lot of different varieties to it, your initial goal as the creative team is not to focus on one particular variety,” Douglas says. “The creative team just wants to show the idea.”
Representing a pizzeria’s extensive menu offerings is often a later step, not the initial goal. “What the toppings are and how it’s styled depends on who they want to target,” says food stylist Charlotte Omnès, a board member for the Museum of Food & Drink. “Companies use their base standards to attract their core consumer” — i.e., pepperoni eaters — “and then their core consumer can get a bit deeper into their offerings of the menu.”
Among most-ordered non-protein toppings, according to Little Caesars’ Gleich, mushrooms lead, with onions and tomatoes trailing close behind. DeGrezia mentions that mushrooms are also the most popular vegetarian topping at his restaurant, suggesting that commercials presenting the pepperoni-mushroom combo indicate to both meat eaters and vegetarian customers that their desired toppings are available.
Images that highlight pepperoni and mushroom, essentially, are immediately understood and get people in the door; from there, brands can try to entice diners to branch out. “Think about when you see something as simple as a 7-Eleven or a bodega advertising a cheese or pepperoni pizza,” Omnès says. “When you enter there’s obviously many more options. They’re showing you the base to be enticed by it.”
Meanwhile, something like a PMGPOBO pizza is used to signal variety: It’s not necessarily a combination that people are ordering, but it serves as shorthand that the pizza place advertising has a wide variety of options.
“We continuously monitor restaurant and ingredient trends, and examine consumer preferences to develop our products and subsequent advertisements,” says Little Caesars’ Gleich. “We use data from focus groups, customer surveys, customer intercepts, and global trend data to inform our decision making.”
The ad agencies of leading pizza brands like Domino’s, Pizza Hut, and DiGiorno were less forthcoming than Little Caesars about why, as their menus have grown and expanded over the years, the products in their ads have remained so static. But there’s something weirdly comforting about how, with all the things that have changed in 40 years, there are certain things that have not.
As food trends come and go — Omnès remarked how with the advent of Pinterest and Instagram some can last three months or three years — these particular pizza toppings have forged a place in history. For each food styling assignment Omnès embarks on, the most important question she has to ask is: “What is that story they’re trying to tell?” The answer as it pertains to pizza? It’s apparently always “delicious and reliable.” And that trend isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon.
Danielle Sepulveres is a writer in New York.