DALLAS -- Few would call the past year's line up of "reality TV" shows inspiring, but when contestants of one show said the first thing they wanted when they returned to the real world was a pizza, the folks at Pizza Hut began thinking.
The marketing group at the world's largest pizza company thus began a pizza deprivation study to better understand why and to what extent its key customers -- high school and college-age students -- craved pizza. The challenge: survive 30 days without pizza, attempt to substitute other foods to assuage pizza cravings, and document any feelings or reactions to those cravings.
According to Larry Dykstra, vice president of consumer insights for Pizza Hut, the most interesting finding was that no satisfactory substitute for pizza was found.
Participants chose a wide range of alternative foods to still their pizza cravings, ranging from sandwiches (12 percent) and Mexican food (11 percent) to hot dogs and fries (3 percent each). But no clear alternative choices emerged as suitable substitutions to pizza.
"Pizza is a unique combination of flavors, textures and aromas that can't be replaced by anything else," said Dianne Engell, a psychologist on Pizza Hut's marketing staff. "Something magical happens when you combine tomato sauce and melted cheese with crust and toppings. The young people in our study reported pizza is their number-one craved food."
The study's participants were drawn from six geographically diverse U.S. markets. All used tape recorders to express their feelings about pizza cravings and wrote about their pizza fasts in an online journal. At the end of the four-week period, they attended a local pizza party to share their experiences with fellow abstainers and Pizza Hut researchers.
Engell said another interesting finding was that young people view eating pizza as a social experience that goes beyond mere consumption of food.
"Two thirds of participants indicated cravings were more emotional than physical, induced by feelings about wanting to eat pizza with friends or wanting to reward themselves for a tough week," she said. "The remaining third felt that their cravings were the result of an actual physical desire for pizza."
Finally, when participants were able to eat pizza at the end of the 30-day deprivation period, Pizza Hut researchers found they were extremely specific about the type of pizza and toppings they craved.
"People who love pizza tend to have a very specific personal preference for their special pizza that they favor above all other choices," said Engell.
Why is Pizza Hut so interested in this age group's dining habits? It's estimated that Echo Boomers, who number 72 million, will eat more than $350 billion of pizza in their lifetimes -- more than Generation X, Baby Boomers and the mature market combined.