NEW YORK: Celebrities who endorse specific foods in TV commercials are a powerful influence on children, and that effect may extend beyond the advertisement itself, according to a new study from the UK.
Based on observations of 181 children, researchers found the kids ate more potato chips after seeing ads featuring a popular UK sports figure – and after seeing him as the host of a TV show – than kids who watched commercials for toys and nuts.
“Obviously when they saw Gary Lineker in the advertisement, they ate a lot more crisps… but what was surprising was when we showed him presenting his show we found that it had the same effect as the advertisement,” said Jason CG Halford, from the University of Liverpool who worked on the study.
Past research has shown that kids are more likely to pick foods endorsed by celebrities, even when it’s fruit. For example, a 2012 study found kids who were offered both cookies and apples were more likely to choose the apple if it had an Elmo sticker on it.
That phenomenon is worrisome, researchers say, since most foods advertised on TV are unhealthy, and could affect a child’s future weight and health.
To test the extent of celebrity influence on kids’ eating habits, Halford and his colleagues recruited 181 children between the ages of eight and 11 years old. Each child watched one of four commercials or TV show clips that were embedded in a 20-minute cartoon.
One of the commercials featured Lineker, a former soccer player who has been endorsing the potato chip brand Walker’s Crisps since 1995. Another clip was from Lineker’s popular TV sports show without any mention of the chips. The two other commercials were for salted nuts and a toy.
After watching the cartoon and commercials, the children were allowed to eat from two bowls of chips. One bowl was marked as Walker’s Crisps. The other was marked as “supermarket brand.” The researchers then measured how much the children ate from each bowl.
They report in the Journal of Pediatrics that the children ate about the same amount of the supermarket chips regardless of which commercials or clip they watched – about 15 grams.
But kids who watched Lineker’s potato chip commercial or his TV show ate significantly more of the Walker’s Crisps branded potato chips – about 35g, compared to the kids who watched the nut or toy commercials, who ate between 20g and 25g of Walker’s Crisps.
“Our findings that the celebrity endorser influence extends beyond the celebrity’s involvement in commercials and does not affect intake of nonendorsed brands of the same item speak to the strength of the associations that children develop between celebrity and branded products,” the researchers write.
The authors acknowledge some of their study’s limitations, for example, they did not know the children’s favourite foods, which could have an impact on how much of the snacks provided they chose to eat.
Still, Halford’s team points out that UK law currently prohibits “celebrities popular with children” from advertising foods high in fat, sugar and salt.
The American Academy of Pediatrics lists celebrity endorsements among the advertising “techniques to which children and adolescents are more susceptible.”
The study’s results show that Lineker’s endorsement didn’t just get kids to eat a specific brand, it may have influenced them to eat more overall, Halford told Reuters Health.
“You’re not just going to get that swapping, you’re going to get a general increase in consumption,” he said.
“I’m not saying food advertisements are the cause of childhood obesity,” said Halford, but a combination of solutions to the problem should be considered, he added.