The impact of endorsing characters on children’s food attitudes and consumption: future research directions

Recently two academic reviews addressed the question whether and how endorsing characters, such as Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob, persuade children. A European (Smits et al., 2015) and an American (Kraak & Story, 2015) research team reviewed the empirical evidence for food endorsement effects on children between 2 and 12 years old. Both reviews confirm that: a) spokes-characters increase children’s liking of and consumption of endorsed foods, b) familiar media characters appear to have a stronger effect compared to unfamiliar characters, and c) media characters can only boost children’s interest in fruit and vegetables when unhealthy alternatives are unendorsed.

Methodological limitations

However, there are some methodological limitations in the food endorsement literature. The European team noticed that only three experiments were able to detect absolute endorsement effects by including baseline measures and ruling out individual differences between the children. The American researchers recognized that most studies lacked a sufficient theoretical frame to test hypotheses and interpret results. Further, both reviews considered that although the small sample sizes decrease the strength of the experiments to make causal claims, this is somewhat compensated by the fact that the series of studies reviewed provide consistent evidence.

The missing gaps

Both research teams recognize that only the ‘raw’ effects of endorsing characters were investigated. So we don’t know whether some children are more vulnerable than others. For instance, we can imagine differences based on children’s advertising processing level, impulsivity, age, sex, BMI and so forth. Another remark is that the focus should shift from measuring food liking to actual food choices and consumption. We can also wonder whether characters endorsing healthy foods stimulate additional consumption rather than replacing unhealthy foods by healthy ones.

What’s next?

Both reviews conclude that the next step is to understand how children’s processing of food endorsing characters impacts their food choices and consumption. To what extent do endorsing characters affect children’s attention to, and elaboration upon the commercial message? Endorsing characters might distract children from the commercial intentions of the ad, and primarily affect children through associations with fun and fantasy. Yet the persistence of these associations, and their impact on behavior in the long run remains unclear. When children repeatedly see these brand-character combinations their brand attitudes might grow stronger and encourage impulsive choices and consumption.

Further, existing studies scarcely examined the mechanisms linking positive affect to food choices. Para social interactions with media characters might offer one explanation. Young children may request foods because their ‘pal’ endorses it or because they want to collect foods that depict their favorite character.

Another question is whether endorsing characters function as a simple cue or persuasive argument depending on children’s developmental level? Tweens might be more persuadable by characters in low involvement situations, while younger children may actually consider a match between a character and a brand (e.g. Mega Mindy endorsing strawberries) as an argument to request the endorsed foods.

American review: Kraak & Story, 2015: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/obr.12237/full

European review: Smits, Vandebosch, Neyens, & Boyland, 2015: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/275339272

The above belongs to the line of research within the KULeuven Institute for Media Studies in which we investigate food marketing that targets children. We study the effect of food endorsement (e.g. Smits & Vandebosch, 2012) but also more subtle food marketing cues (e.g. Neyens, Aerts & Smits, 2015), and we will continue to study these effects as well as the underlying persuasion processes.

photo: GuCa

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