But knowing that to be true and proving it matters is different and that brings us to a fascinating (but somewhat challenging to read) series of studies conducted by Paul Connell, Merrie Brooks and Jesper Nielsen who aimed to explore whether or not,
"the messages of fun and happiness so common in children’s advertising create lasting affective associations that cloud people’s judgments about the featured products for the rest of their lives?"And more to the point here,
"can childhood advertising exposure cause biased evaluations for new products introduced years or even decades later if the same advertising stimuli are used?"Which translated to our modern day environment where the food industry is angling to avoid legislation designed to ban their ads and instead voluntarily limit their advertising to so-called "healthier" items (or even just to use their mascots to highlight other issues like literacy as in the McDonald's initiative seen in the photo up above) might be asked if the creation of positive brand associations might increase the likelihood of future adult consumption of the truly awful?
Their answer was yes in that they found that it was the positive brand associations with childhood advertising characters that influenced an adult's belief that sugary cereals were more healthful. Older adults who were exposed to Tony the Tiger as children, but not to Coco the Monkey, rated old school Tony's pre-sweetened Frosted Flakes as more healthful than modern day Coco's Kellogg's Cocoa Pops after an exposure to advertising to both, whereas younger adult study participants who had been exposed to both brand mascots rated the cereals equally following exposure to advertising to both.
To suss things out further and rule out the possibility that the mascot simply evoked positive consumption memories they conducted a second experiment whereby people were shown either advertisements involving Ronald McDonald and Toucan Sam (both utilized heavily in advertising for decades including during the childhood of this experiment's participants), or simple photos and descriptors of McDonald's fries or Froot Loops along with accurate brand labels. Participants were then asked to rate the healthfulness of McDonald's fries or Kellogg's Froot Loops. The thinking was that if the ads in the first experiment had triggered a memory of consumption rather than an emotional brand attachment and that memory was responsible for the bias, the photos of those actual childhood foods ought to lead to that same outcome. But they didn't, and again, it was found that ads featuring beloved childhood characters biased adults' opinions on the healthfulness of junk food.
For me though the strangest part of the study had nothing to do with the experiments, but rather the conclusions of the lead author who reported to The Daily Mail,
"We suggest that parents discuss the persuasive nature of advertising with their children, and encourage them to develop critical thinking skills in response to advertising messages."I found this to be strange in that it seems mind-boggling to me that a professor of marketing is suggesting that despite the billions of dollars a year spent on highly sophisticated advertising targeting children, that the call to action is to suggest that parents have a chat with their kids rather than a call to put an end to kid targeted advertising in the first place (though to be fair, the newspaper may have simply left out that quote).