Can children resist the subconscious advertising allure of Cheryl Cole?

Posted on 24 April 2012
Regardless of their conscious brand judgments, children tended to have a more positive emotional response to the brands that had been paired with a celebrity.”

New research demonstrates that by the age of 12 children are wise to advertisers’ use of celebrities on their choice of brands, but paradoxically, they are still under their influence at a subconscious level.

These are the findings of Hayley Gilman, MSc student at the University of Keele and her supervisor Martin Rowley, who presented their research at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference held at the Grand Connaught Rooms, London.

The study began by asking 70 children, aged nine to 15 years, how much they liked images of well-known celebrities, non-celebrities and fictitious brands. One week later the same children were presented with eight fictitious brands they had rated neutrally, randomly paired with four non-celebrities they rated neutrally and four celebrities they had said they liked. Each pairing was presented in sequence on a computer, and children were asked to state how much they liked each brand.

The children then entered the subconscious phase of the study. Implicit Association Tests (IATs) were used to assess subconscious responses by measuring the children’s response times to the eight brands presented on the computer, at the same time as responding to words describing either positive or negative attributes. In this type of test, the speed of presenting the images and words occurs too quickly to allow subjects time to reflect and think; it demands a much more rapid, automatic response, derived from a subconscious, emotional level. A slower time indicated the brand and its positive or negative adjective were in conflict; conversely a faster time indicated the brand and its adjectives were in sync.

Children’s response times on the subconscious IATs were faster, across all age groups, when celebrity brands were paired with positive stimuli. This suggests that, regardless of the conscious, explicit brand judgments they had made earlier, merely presenting a fictitious brand with the image of a well-liked celebrity was enough to trigger a positive emotion towards the brand.

Hayley Gilman commented: “Our research is exploratory in nature and participant numbers were quite small. Even so, our data suggest that, regardless of their conscious brand judgments, children tended to have a more positive emotional response to the brands that had been paired with a celebrity.”

Dr Martin Rowley added: “We cannot be sure from this data how conscious and subconscious attitudes interact in children’s actual brand choices. As children get older, it may be that they are better able to resist the emotional impact of advertising because they have more advanced conscious processing powers. However, ability to combat the effects of advertising may not be an all-or-nothing thing and more work needs to be carried out to look at how children respond to different advertising formats.”

The purpose of the study was to investigate the extent to which advertising impacts upon subconscious feelings about brands. Much of the research carried out to date in advertising has examined conscious processing, but very little is known about the extent to which subconscious processes influence children’s brand choices.

The traditional view of advertising is that it works by communicating information about a product which is then rationally evaluated by the potential consumer.  The present study is part of an emerging body of literature that suggests much of advertising may not actually work at the conscious level at all, but at the subconscious level, by influencing consumers’ emotional responses to brands.



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