How childhood advertising exposure can influence long-term attitudes
This research provides an initial investigation into how exposure to ads in childhood can lead to enduring biases that favour the associated products.
This study has been published in the Journal of Consumer Research. It has received considerable attention in the British press.
Very little is known about the long-term effects of childhood advertising exposure on people's later attitudes towards products. Children learn how to understand and evaluate advertising as they gain maturity. At first, children respond to TV commercials as if they were entertainment programming. Even once they can tell the difference between programming and ads, children respond to the upbeat messages in advertising less critically than adults. Thus, they tend to receive ad messages with little scepticism. From a very young age, children are targeted with ad messages that emphasise fun and happiness, especially for food products and toys. Based at least in part on these ads, they can develop beliefs about brands that may be relevant to them for many years. What happens to these beliefs once the child is grown? We reasoned that the positive emotions associated with heavily advertised brands in childhood might bias people's judgements about brands years and even decades later.
We approached this research within the context of advertising characters that represent food options that have both healthy and unhealthy aspects, e.g. - pre-sweetened breakfast cereal and fast food. We focused on advertising characters because children often develop an affection for these characters that has little do with their actual consumption of the product. In four experimental studies, we examined adults' judgements of the healthiness of various products, some of which were heavily advertised in their childhood years. Participants viewed either images of advertising characters that would have been widely advertised when they were children or images of advertising characters that were also widely advertised, but not until after participants had reached adulthood. Participants then reported their feelings about the characters in the ads, and also rated the products featured how healthy they were.
We found that exposure to advertising in childhood (before age 13) can indeed create biases that favour the products supported by the ads. That is, people rated pre-sweetened cereals and french fries as healthier when they were exposed to ads for these products as children. These biases can be explained statistically by the positive feelings that people feel toward the characters in the advertising. In other words, childhood advertising exposure leads to positive feelings for the ad characters, which in turn leads to favourable evaluations of the brand's nutritiousness years later. Furthermore, we found that people who harbour strongly positive feelings toward the ad character resist changing their minds about the products featured in the ads. Finally, we found that these effects are not limited to the products that were originally advertised. If people continue to have positive feelings toward advertising characters, then they also rated fictitious new brand extensions as healthier.
These results are interesting for consumers themselves. We suggest that consumers re-examine nutrition labels on favourite products from childhood. Affectionate feelings for the brand may have resulted in overlooking relevant information. We suggest that parents discuss the persuasive nature of advertising with their children, and to encourage them to develop critical thinking skills in response. They may wish to point out that commercials use funny narratives to entertain the viewer, but that commercials may not provide all the information about the product. Parents might want to limit the amount of advertising very young children see until they are old enough to have these conversations. Parents will want to be mindful that many of the products their children request may be supported by advertising that parents themselves were exposed to as children. For example, many advertising characters have existed for decades. Thus, it is possible that parents' judgements of these products might be clouded due to their own childhood exposure to ads. Future research could determine if this might lead into a greater likelihood to yield to their children's purchase requests. At the same time, this research suggests that public health and safety campaigns aimed at children may affect them throughout their lives-but only if children develop positive feelings for the ads. Thus, we recommend that health-oriented media campaigns targeted to children should aim to relate to children on an emotional level, for example, by emphasising loveable characters and fun narratives. These results are relevant for the public debates occurring in North American and Europe about the role of advertising targeted at children in today's world.