Product placement and the promotion of healthy food to pre-adolescents: When popular TV series make carrots look cool

Karine M. Charry

IÉSEG School of Management (LEM-CNRS 8179)

Introduction

Although product placement is more than half a century old, it has never been as popular either in the media or as a subject of academic research as it is now. A recent review (van Reijmersdal et al. 2009) noted that more than 30 studies were conducted on the topic over a three-year period. Valuable insights have been offered, and the effectiveness of the practice on adults has been extensively demonstrated in terms of brand recall, brand attitude and brand choice (see van Reijmersdal et al. 2009; Hang 2012 for reviews).

Fewer studies have focused on children as the target audience. Although the practice of product placement is spreading in all types of child-oriented media, far fewer researchers have investigated product placement in that context. Ethical concerns may well explain this caution. Many in the field have considered product placement to be a deceptive practice (Auty & Lewis 2004b; Balasubramanian et al. 2006), and it may seem that studying product placement and ways to increase its effectiveness on vulnerable targets is even more questionable. These views may, however, underestimate the pro-social potential of product placement that has educational rather than commercial objectives. In an early study, Collins and her colleagues (2003) showed that TV programmes might be an effective tool for teenage sexual education. More recently, entertainment–education placements – also referred to as ‘edutainment’ placements by scholars (Collins et al. 2003; Pechmann & Wang 2008) and in the entertainment industry (Kaplan & Folb 2013) – were demonstrated to be useful in discouraging pre-adolescent smoking (Pechmann & Wang 2010); nevertheless, the focus of these studies has remained fixed on adolescents and young adults. Therefore the first objective of this study is to investigate younger targets and determine whether product placement may help achieve educational and social objectives by evaluating its effectiveness on a critical age group: 8 to 12 year olds. Edutainment placements for this age group require their own stream of research for two reasons. First, there seems to be a consensus that it is necessary to consider children as a specific target, namely with respect to advertising issues (Roedder John 1999, 2008; Valkenburg & Cantor 2001; Livingstone & Helsper 2006). Pre-adolescence (8 to 12 years) represents an important transitional period in child development. Pre-adolescents are no longer under the sole influence of their parents (Valkenburg & Cantor 2001). They are not only acquiring autonomy (Palan et al. 2010) but also confronting substantial peer pressure (Valkenburg & Cantor 2001). These factors should certainly not be ignored in this persuasion context. Second, focusing on edutainment placements may lead to somewhat different conclusions than focusing on commercial placements. For example, in edutainment, brands are not the focus of concern per se; in fact, brands actually may not be considered at all, such as in placements related to smoking prevention or safe-sex information. Consequently, the persuasion knowledge that may be elicited after exposure to a placed brand (Matthes et al. 2007; Hang 2012), and the influence of brands’ symbolic dimensions observed in commercial contexts (Belk et al. 1982, 1984; Goldberg et al. 2003), should be here hindered. The potential failures induced by such commercial cues should therefore be much limited.