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4 February 2014

The Power of Advertising Characters

Keywords: advertising, brands, characters, food, health, North America, Western Europe, experiment, food commercials, marketing, marketing strategy, persuasive tactics, television,
Advertising characters, such as ‘Tony the Tiger’ (known from Kellogg’s breakfast cereals), are often very popular among children, and therefore successful in creating positive feelings for the products they advertise for. A study in the Journal of Consumer Research emphasizes their power, and shows how these positive feelings persist into adulthood. It turns out that ‘warm’ feelings about advertising characters known from childhood relate to adults’ positive ideas about the product’s healthiness.

Take aways

  • The more positive feelings adults have towards advertising characters known from childhood (before age 13), the more favorable their perception is about the healthiness of the product.
  • This is also true for product line extensions, even when certain products do contain lots of sugar (for example sugary breakfast cereals).
  • For social policy makers it’s good to know how much impact advertising characters can still have later in life. Since these characters are often used to market unhealthy food, efforts should be made to look more critically at the products they are alluring kids with. 
  • Social marketers should know that linking characters to healthy foods and beverages early in life is likely to have long term health consequences.

Study information

  • The question?

    Does exposure to advertising characters during childhood affect product evaluations later in life? 
  • Who?

    Study 1: 177 British adults (55% women)

    Study 2: 151 American adults (46% women)

    Study 3: 150 undergraduate students from the University of Arizona (47% women)

    Study 4: 78 undergraduate students from the University of Arizona (40% women) 
  • Where?

    United Kingdom (study 1), United States (study 2, 3, and 4
  • How?

    Study 1: The participants were divided into two groups, one group saw an image of the advertising character ‘Tony the Tiger’ (from Kellogg’s Frosties cereals), and the other group an image of ‘Coco the Monkey’ (from Kellogg’s Cocoa Pops). These characters were selected because one (Tony the Tiger) was present in advertising when all participants were children, and the other one (Coco the Monkey) when some were already adults. All participants were asked to write down their earliest memories with the character. Their liking of the character was measured as well, just as their perception about the healthiness of the advertised product.

    Study 2: The participants from this study were also divided into two groups, but one group saw an image of an advertising character (i.e., ‘Toucan Sam’ from Kellogg’s Froot Loops or ‘Ronald McDonald’ from McDonald’s), and the other group an image of the product itself (the Froot Loops cereals or the French fries). As in study 1, questions about their earliest memories, liking of the character/product, and product’s healthiness were asked.

    Study 3: In this study, some participants saw ‘Tony the Tiger’, and completed a word-search exercise where they had to search for words related to heath (e.g., healthy, nutritious, thin). In this way researchers tried to ‘trigger’ them with thinking healthy. They were asked to recall a memory from childhood with the character as well (in the hope they would come up with ‘sweet’ memories about the product the character advertised for, and as a consequence enhance their awareness about why they might evaluate the product as healthy). Afterwards liking of the character and product’s healthiness were measured again.

    Study 4: This study resembled study 3, but additionally an image was shown of a fictitious new product from Kellogg’s, Frosted Puffs (i.e., cereals made of corn), and questions about the product’s healthiness were asked for the fictitious line extension product as well. 

Facts and findings

Study 1:
  • Adults who had first been exposed to advertising with Tony the Tiger and Coco the Monkey in their childhood (before the age of 13), evaluated both breakfast cereals (Kellogg's Frosties and Cocoa Pops) as equally healthful, while adults who had first been exposed to advertising with Tony the Tiger in childhood, but yet exposed to advertising with Coco the Monkey in adulthood, evaluated the Cocoa Pops cereals as less healthful. 
  • This difference in health perception had to do with their liking of the character: adults experienced more positive feelings towards the advertising character they knew from their childhood, which in turn positively affected their perception about a product’s healthiness. 
  • An explanation is that evaluation about a product’s healthiness already starts during exposure to advertising in childhood when children aren’t able yet to fully grasp advertising tactics. 

Study 2:
  • Exposure to an advertising character (Toucan Sam or Ronald McDonald) that adults’ liked, resulted in more favorable product evaluations about its healthiness, than exposure to a product (Froot Loops or French fries) that adults’ liked. 

Study 3:
  • Adults who were ‘triggered’ to think healthy by the word search game, and who brought up memories about the product Tony the Tiger advertised for, only evaluated the sugary cereal as less healthy when they were neutral or mildly positive about the advertising character, however, the more positive they rated the advertising character, the less likely they were to evaluate it as unhealthy. 

Study 4:

  • Adults’ liking of advertising characters is not only related to favorable evaluations about a product’s healthiness, but to more positive evaluations about fictitious line extensions from the brand (i.e., Kellogg’s Frosted Puffs) as well. 
  • Critical note: This study does not allow for any conclusions about cause (liking of advertising characters) and effect (product evaluation). The results only show that adults with positive feelings towards advertising characters known from childhood, perceive the healthiness of the belonging product more favorably.