David T. Neal, Ph.D., and Wendy Wood, Ph.D.

The New Unconscious

Childhood Advertising and the Unconscious Mind

Does the advertising we see as children create habits for a lifetime?

Posted Mar 16, 2014

Savvy marketers have always had a knack for using psychology to sell products.

Faced with lagging sales in the 1950s, the makers of Betty Crocker’s cake mix famously turned to psychoanalysis for help. Wives evidently felt guilty about making a cake by “just adding water”—it didn’t feel like enough effort to have earned their husband’s approval.

Betty Crocker Cake Mix ad circa 1950

Betty Crocker Cake Mix: One of the earliest examples of brands using "unconscious nudges" to influence consumers' decisions

What did the psychoanalysts suggest? Make the recipe just a little more complex by requiring the addition of water and an egg. By adding the egg, the housewives now felt they had performed meaningful labor. As a Freudian bonus, each slice of pineapple upside-down cake also now became an unconscious opportunity for the wife to serve up her eggs to a doting husband.

New research published in this month’s Journal of Consumer Research adds an interesting twist to our understanding of these unconscious brand influences. The paper shows that the advertising we see as children may, in fact, stick around in memory and influence our decision making decades later.

Prior work showed that children become progressively more skeptical about advertising as they age. Until they reach 13, though, most kids lack the cognitive skills and knowledge to critically evaluate advertising. As a result, advertising to young children is much more powerful than advertising to older children or to adults.

In the new research, Paul Connell and his colleagues tested whether exposure to certain advertising characters (e.g., Ronald McDonald, Toucan Sam, etc.) during this vulnerable pre-13 period, leads people to show biased decision making about the advertised product decades later.

To test this, they presented adults with different advertising images, some of which were ones they would have been exposed to before 13, and others they would have seen for the first time as adults. Importantly, the images were all linked with well-known products, so were equally familiar overall.

After seeing the advertising imagery, the adult participants rated the healthfulness of the food (e.g., french fries, Fruit Loops, etc.) and rated their positive and negative feelings towards the brands.

Kellog's Frosted Flakes

New research suggests we form strong bonds with advertising characters as young children - bonds that persist into adulthood

The results? When adults were rating products that had been advertised to them prior to the age of 13, they rated the product as significantly healthier. In other words, if you were exposed to lots of Ronald McDonald ads as a young child, you may still be walking around with a bias to view french fries as a relatively innocent indulgence.

As the authors note, many things might contribute to this effect. However, the studies found evidence for one factor in particular. It seems that heavy exposure to an advertised character as a child creates strong positive feelings towards the brand that hang around in memory for decades. These positive feelings can then be triggered by advertising as adults, making us “switch off” critical processing that would otherwise lead us to question the products’ health benefits.

Fortunately, though, all hope is not lost.

In their final study, the authors show that simply knowing about this bias and being motivated to make healthy choices can make us switch our critical minds back on, leading to less biased decisions about these childhood brands.

Now, these are grrreat ideas to consider tomorrow over the breakfast table.

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