New Research Offers First Proof that Ads We See as Children Still Shape Our Beliefs as Adults

March 26, 2014

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New Research Offers First Proof that Ads We See as Children Still Shape Our Beliefs as Adults

March 26, 2014 – There’s an age-old tip for indoctrination: “Get them while they’re young.” Now a landmark series of studies from the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona and the College of Business at Stony Brook University shows just

TUCSON,  Ariz. – March 26, 2014 – There’s an age-old tip for indoctrination:  “Get them while they’re young.” Now a landmark series of studies from  the Eller College of Management at the University  of Arizona and the College of Business at Stony Brook University shows  just how far that maxim goes when it comes to kids and advertising. 

Think Your Adult Brain Decides What’s Healthier? Think Again.

In  what they believe is the first study to examine how childhood marketing  affects us as adults, the researchers used images of brand name foods  and the characters used to market them to children  — Ronald McDonald and french fries, for example — in a series of four  studies designed to rule out alternative explanations when the findings  are looked at as a whole. 

Three clear phenomena emerged:

  • When  thinking about two sugary cereals — one with a character we remember  from childhood and one after our time — we see the one from our own  childhood as healthier;
  • That  favoritism persists, even after our “adult brains” are primed to think  about things like nutrition, exercise and even how children are  especially vulnerable to advertising;
  • The  biases are so ingrained that we bring them to thoughts about new  products in the same brand family that might exist at some point down  the road.

Using Childhood Biases to Our Advantage: Marketing as a Force for Good

The  findings are both sobering and promising, the researchers suggest. On  one hand, they’re a wake up call: Even when we think we’re making adult  choices at the grocery store, those beloved  tigers and rabbits from childhood commercials may still be pulling  strings. 

"A  lot of children's advertising has been around for more than a half a  century,” said Merrie Brucks, one of the professors behind the study.  “Parents should consider that their judgments about  products that had ads they saw as children might be clouded."

The  researchers also suggest that parents teach their children early that  ads are not like other cartoons — they they’re meant to make us believe  things and that they don’t have all the information  we should want. 

On  the other hand, the studies also suggest how white-hat marketers can  use these “back doors” to lifelong beliefs to their advantage.  Anti-smoking campaigns, for example, might be more effective  throughout our lives if built on characters we first learn to love as  kids. 

Findings  from the study, conducted by Brucks and Jesper H. Nielsen of the  University of Arizona in collaboration with Paul M. Connell of State  University of New York at Stony Brook will be published  in the June 2014 issue of Journal of Consumer Research.