Advertising and political campaigns exploit psychological research to control unconscious behavior


A new study has shown that whilst people think advertising and political campaigns exploit psychological research to control their unconscious behaviours, ultimately they feel the choices they make are still their own.

The research, led by Dr Magda Osman from Queen Mary University of London, asked people to volunteer everyday examples of when they feel their behaviours have been manipulated without them knowing.

Examples were collected from participants across the UK, US, Canada and Australia and categorised. Almost half of the examples were marketing or advertising-related.

Another seven percent were associated with politics, primarily the use of political campaigning techniques to influence voting behaviours.

Following this, a new set of participants were asked to assess the examples and determine to what extent their free choice would be affected in these situations.

Participants judged that whilst psychological research was used in advertising and political contexts to manipulate their unconscious behaviours, they were still able to maintain free choice when it came to their purchasing or voting decisions.

This contrasted with examples from therapeutic situations, such as hypnotherapy or the use of placebo treatments, which people felt had greater impact on their unconscious behaviours and they weren’t able to consciously control.

Unlike normal psychological studies where examples used in the study are constructed by the researchers, this study was entirely unique with real-life examples being volunteered by participants themselves.

Dr Osman, Reader in Experimental Psychology at Queen Mary, said: “This study reveals two critical things, the first is that in peoples’ minds subliminal advertising still exists as a phenomenon, when really this is just a myth as psychological research over the last 60 years has shown that it cannot actually influence our consumer behaviours.”

This contrasted with examples from therapeutic situations, such as hypnotherapy or the use of placebo treatments, which people felt had greater impact on their unconscious behaviours and they weren’t able to consciously control.

“Secondly, although people across the different countries and individual backgrounds consistently volunteered the same kinds of examples, such as advertising and political campaigning, when assessing them, they still felt the choices they made in these contexts were under their own conscious control.

This is important as we often see reports in the media on complex campaign tactics, particularly in politics, persuading people to make choices that they are unaware of, but our research suggests that people don’t believe they actually work.”

The types of examples commonly volunteered and the judgments then made about them were similar regardless of country and the age, gender, political affiliation, educational level, and religiosity of individuals.

Common examples generated by participants for marketing and advertising-related contexts included the use of subliminal advertising, commercial jingles or the placement of goods at eye level on supermarket shelves.

In the political category most examples corresponded to targeted advertising or campaign tactics that encourage party leaders to dress and behave in a certain way to influence people’s voting decisions.

Today, children have plenty of options for digital entertainment and social media. YouTube in particular, has emerged as a platform for children’s screen time and an alternative for traditional television (TV) content (Watson, 2019).

As an illustration, 81% of U.S. parents let their children under 11 watch YouTube (Pew Research Center, 2018), where they are exposed to advertising before they watch a video, and increasingly, brands are found within the videos, too (Weiss, 2018).

YouTube offers new possibilities for brands to engage with children and their parents, including embedded advertising formats containing subtle brand integrations in entertaining media content, making them less intrusive, and thus harder to recognize (Hudders et al., 2017).

For example, Ryan’s World1, which features a young boy reviewing branded toys and products, was the 6th most watched YouTube site for children, with more than 19 million viewers (April 2019; Clement, 2019).

Given the popularity and potential to reach young viewers online, digital advertising spending for children reached 900 million U.S. dollars in 2018 and is forecast to increase in the future (Guttmann, 2019).

The stars of social media, also referred to as vloggers on YouTube, have become important influencers for the consumption decisions of their young audiences. They give their followers an insight into the brands they love and use in their daily life and even give direct advice on the products their followers should use or not use (De Jans et al., 2019).

Because of their reach and the credibility they exude, many brands have added these influencers, who are often kids themselves (e.g., Stella and Blaise, The McClure Twins, AnnieLeblanc, or EvanTubeHD), to their marketing strategies. Although these endorsers may appear to be “ordinary” children, some are actually highly paid endorsers, for example, Ryan earning $22 million in 2018 (Robehmed and Berg, 2018).

This is because, in return for free promotional goods or payment, brands ask these influencers to endorse their products on their social media profiles (on their feed or in their stories on Instagram, videos on YouTube and TikTok, or Facebook updates, etc.) and their YouTube channels in turn earn advertising revenue as a result of their large audiences.

This is a phenomenon which has been referred to as influencer marketing (De Veirman et al., 2017). This form of marketing – the influencers’ social media contributions – is regarded as a form of advertising when

(1) influencers receive a compensation (free products or financial payment) and

(2) advertisers have control over the content, which also includes simple final approval of the post or general instructions regarding the post (e.g., I want two posts about our product). This definition of influencer marketing can be found in the guidelines of some advertising self-regulatory bodies (e.g., EASA, 2018).

Brands appear within influencers’ content as seamless implied endorsements. Hence, the branded content or advertising is fully integrated in the media content children are consuming (Hudders et al., 2017De Jans et al., 2019).

Moreover, despite clear guidelines from governmental regulators for mandatory disclosures of these endorsements (e.g., Federal Trade Commission in the U.S.), influencers often do not appropriately disclose the commercial nature of their posts (Children’s Advertising Review Unit, 2017De Veirman et al., 2019).

Ryan’s World, for example, was recently accused of deceiving children through “sponsored videos that often have the look and feel of organic content” in an official complaint by the watchdog group Truth in Advertising, filed with the Federal Trade Commission (Hsu, 2019). As a result, children (Folkvord et al., 2019) and even parents (Evans et al., 2018) may not understand that the YouTube content they are viewing is, essentially, an advertisement. However, despite their increasing prevalence and importance in children’s commercial media environment, research on how influencer marketing affects young children is still limited (for an exception, see De Jans et al., 2019).

Most of the studies on influencer marketing focus on an adult audience and examine how influencers affect the purchase decisions of their followers (e.g., De Veirman et al., 2017Lou and Yuan, 2019Schouten et al., 2019).

Therefore, this paper aims to theoretically outlay how social media influencers, as a new source in advertising, target and affect young children. Children have always been an important target group for marketers, both because of their impact on their parents’ buying decisions, but also as future adult consumers (Calvert, 2018).

We focus on children under age 12 as they are highly vulnerable to advertising. Their advertising literacy, all knowledge and skills related to advertising, is not yet fully developed (Hudders et al., 2017). The cognitive abilities, emotion regulation, and moral development are still immature for children under 12 (John, 1999Rozendaal et al., 2011Hudders et al., 2017). These abilities help them to understand the persuasive intent of advertising and strategies used to persuade them, control the emotions that advertisements may arouse, and evaluate the fairness and appropriateness of advertising (e.g., use of stereotypes).

A strongly developed advertising literacy is indispensable to be able to critically reflect on advertising and avoid subconscious persuasion (Hudders et al., 2017). Not surprisingly, several studies have shown that children under 12 have difficulties to cope with embedded advertising (e.g., Hudders et al., 2016De Pauw et al., 2018a,b).

Accordingly, specific corporate actions and self-regulations apply for children under 12 in order to protect them from advertising influence. For instance, several European food brands agreed not to advertise unhealthy food products to children under 12 in the EU Pledge2 agreement as they are aware of children’s high susceptibility for their advertising messages. Since 2019, influencer marketing has been included in this agreement.

The purpose of this review is threefold. First, the research aims to provide insights into the importance of social media influencers as a source in advertising targeting children. In order to adopt a theoretical approach to children’s processing of influencer marketing, we draw upon existing theoretical and empirical work regarding source effects in persuasion.

During childhood, children encounter different advertising sources shaping their tastes and preferences, trying to turn them into brand loyalists as they grow older. Social media influencers can be perceived as a new type of real-life endorser affecting children’s and their parents’ consumption behavior. Second, this paper provides a review of the current (limited) academic research on influencer marketing targeted at children.

Additionally, societal and policy implications of this tactic in the context of prior research are discussed. Third, a future research agenda that may foster academic research on the topic is included. This way, we hope our review may provide a basis for marketing-related regulation, policies, and parent intervention strategies and thus help ensure the protection of children.

Social Media Influencers as a New Source in Advertising Targeting Children

Source Effects in Persuasion

The importance of the source as sender of the object of information has been well recognized in the communication and advertising literature. Already in 1948, Laswell emphasized that every communication involves a message, a medium, a recipient, and a source (Lasswell, 1948).

In advertising, a distinction can be made between the one who bears financial and legal responsibility for the message and the one who communicates the brand’s message (Stern, 1994).

As such, in the latter sense, brands may create or license a character or pay an endorser or spokesperson to influence consumers’ attitudes and purchase intentions. The persuasiveness of advertising is strongly influenced by consumers’ perception of these sources (see Wilson and Sherrell, 1993 for a meta-analysis).

For instance, source credibility plays a critical role in how consumers evaluate brands and products, whereby a positive evaluation of the credibility of the source is likely to translate into positive advertising outcomes (Sternthal et al., 1978Ohanian, 1991). Source credibility consists of two dimensions: trustworthiness and expertise. Trustworthiness refers to the honesty, believability, and morality of the endorser, while expertise refers to the endorser’s competence, knowledge, and skills (Hovland et al., 1953Sternthal et al., 1978Erdogan, 1999Flanagin and Metzger, 2007). Both trustworthiness and expertise have been found to enhance advertising effectiveness (Amos et al., 2008).

Furthermore, the physical appearance or attractiveness of the source plays a major role in the endorsers’ credibility and, consequently, persuasiveness (Kahle and Homer, 1985Kamins, 1989McCracken, 1989Ohanian, 1991). Even among children, using attractive peer models has been shown to increase advertising effectiveness (e.g., Van de Sompel and Vermeir, 2016). Source attractiveness is driven by factors such as perceived similarity, familiarity, and likeability of the source.

Familiarity refers to the extent to which one knows the source through exposure; likability is defined as affection for the source as a result of the source’s physical appearance and behavior, while similarity is the supposed resemblance between the source and receiver of the message (McGuire, 1985). According to McGuire (1985), sources who are known to, liked by, and/ or similar to the consumer are found to be attractive and, as a result, are persuasive. Moreover, these source factors contribute to consumers’ identification with the source, which increases the likelihood they will adopt their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors (Kelman, 1961Basil, 1996).

When consumers identify with the source, they will likely imitate his/her behavior, including the products he/she uses (Kelman, 1961), also referred to as social learning (Bandura et al., 1961). Indeed, as sources in advertising usually show the usefulness of the product they endorse and how to use it, this action may lead to observational learning and modeling of their behavior accordingly (Bandura et al., 1966).

Moreover, next to family and friends, sources used in advertising may serve as role models they refer to in their identity formation (Lloyd, 2002Hoffner and Buchanan, 2005).

As a result, when advertising sources are paired with products, the positive affective responses toward those sources may transfer onto the products (Acuff and Reiher, 1999McNeal, 2007de Droog et al., 2012), which has been referred to as a meaning transfer (McCracken, 1989).

Importantly, crucial to the effectiveness of endorsement marketing is a good fit between the source and the product he/she endorses, which has been referred to as the match-up hypothesis in celebrity research (Kamins, 1990).

To conclude, the likelihood of the former process to occur increases when consumers develop a parasocial relationship (parasocial interaction; PSI) with the source (Tsay-Vogel and Schwartz, 2014). PSI, as introduced by Horton and Wohl (1956), refers to the relationships consumers develop with media characters, making them important sources of information (Rubin et al., 1985). Accordingly, when consumers identify with a source and their brand-usage behavior, they will likely adopt this behavior (Naderer et al., 2018). As the need for companionship, which is the main driver for relationship formation, emerges in childhood (Hoffner, 2008), children typically engage in the formation of PSI’s (de Droog et al., 2012).

The above theoretical insights explain the success of sources used in advertising in general. As such, this robust body of literature has demonstrated that the source in the message is important for persuasion effects.

These processes may also apply to social media influencers. Before discussing how influencers may affect children, we will first provide an overview of the different sources that are used in advertising targeting children and discuss how influencers evolved as a new source in advertising.

Insights Into the Persuasiveness of Different Types of Sources Targeting Children

Brand and Licensed Characters

Brands often display anthropomorphized or fantasy characters in their advertising and on their product packaging.

These cartoon-like figures can be created by the brand with the sole purpose of promoting their products and services (i.e., brand mascots, brand icons, and non-celebrity spokes-characters).

Famous examples of brand mascots are Tony the Tiger (Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes breakfast cereal), Chester Cheetah (Frito-Lay’s Cheetos), Ronald McDonald (McDonalds), and Mr. Peanut (Planters). These characters are in full ownership of the brand, which implies a very high level of control over the source and its message. However, as it takes a lot of development and marketing efforts to build awareness and affinity for these characters, brands may also opt to license a character from media companies [i.e., licensed (media) characters, also called celebrity spokes-character] (Kraak and Story, 2015).

Examples of licensed characters that are used by brands are numerous. For instance, Spongebob Squarepants endorses Yoplait GoGurt and Disney’s Cars figures endorse Hot Wheels toys.

McDonalds licensed different characters over time to endorse their happy meals (e.g., The Incredibles, My Little Pony, and Transformers Cyberverse). Spider Man endorses everything from Pop-Tarts to Cheez-it crackers to Fruit Snacks to Fudge Stripe cookies (for more examples, see

Contractual agreements allow them to use the characters for merchandizing and cross-promotions (Kraak and Story, 2015Smits et al., 2015). As a result, popular media characters are highly present in children’s daily lives, not only through television and other media, but also through merchandising (e.g., books, toys, and clothes featuring characters; Atkinson et al., 2015) and on product packages and in advertising.

Brands profit from these characters’ fame and popularity among children. For instance, in the fourth quarter of 2018, U.S. consumers spent approximately 21.6 billion dollars on licensed merchandise products for children (O’Connell, 2019).

Apart from the fact that they are effective advertising sources, brand and licensed characters hold the advantage that, since they are “fictional” (and therefore more “controllable”), they are less likely to be embroiled in a scandal as compared to real-life endorsers, which might negatively affect the brand image as negative associations people make with a celebrity can be transferred to the brand (e.g., Till and Shimp, 1998Stafford et al., 2002).

Furthermore, these characters do not age or change much over time, which makes their employability less timely as compared to human endorsers.

Research on the use of brand mascots and licensed characters on children’s attitudes and behaviors has mainly focused on food with findings suggesting that the presence of cartoon media characters positively affects children’s food preferences, choices, and intake, especially for energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods as compared to fruits or vegetables (see Kraak and Story, 2015 for a review).

The presence of brand mascots and licensed characters draws children’s attention (Ogle et al., 2017), helps them recognize and recall the products and brands they endorse, and has been found effective in improving attitudes about the advertised product (e.g., Neeley and Schumann, 2004Lapierre et al., 2011) and increasing product choice (e.g., Nelson et al., 2015).

There are multiple reasons why these sorts of sources are attractive for children. First, these simply drawn, colorful and funny characters appeal to them and are easy to remember, which is helpful given the limited cognitive abilities of young children (de Droog et al., 2011Lapierre et al., 2011).

Second, children easily form parasocial relationships with these likeable and fun characters (de Droog et al., 2012), which may result in a preference for the products they endorse (Lagomarsino and Suggs, 2018).

Moreover, as these characters are now finding their way onto social media (e.g., Chester Cheetah has 191k followers on Instagram), the perceived distance between (child) consumers and their favorite characters is reduced, which may even increase feelings of parasocial interaction.

Third, the pairing of brands with popular cartoon media characters is not only limited to packaging and traditional advertising, but also takes on more integrated forms. For instance, likeable characters may interact with and consume branded products in children’s movies (Naderer et al., 20182019), or brands may be integrated in highly interactive and engaging (adver)games featuring likeable and even customizable avatars (Bailey et al., 2009). As these placements are embedded in the media content, children may experience extra difficulties recognizing the persuasive intent of these placements (see De Jans et al., 2019c for an overview).

Given their persuasiveness, European food brands have agreed not to use licensed characters (e.g., Spongebob Squarepants and Spiderman) to promote unhealthy food products to children under 12 as a part of the European Pledge agreement (EU Pledge, 2019). Company-owned, brand mascots (e.g., Tony the Tiger and Chester Cheetah) do not fall under this agreement; however, implying that brand characters can still be widely used to endorse unhealthy food products.

Real-Life Endorsers: Celebrity and Peer Endorsers

Next to highly engaging and fun characters, real-life endorsers are also frequently used to mold children’s consumption. For instance, brands may tie (child) celebrities to their products and use them as endorsers. Children look up to these publicly recognized figures who may serve as role-models to them (Read, 2011Power and Smith, 2017). Brands aim for an image-transfer, hoping that positive associations attached to celebrities will transfer to the brands those celebrities endorse (McCracken, 1989), and children will wish to identify with them as they aspire to be like the celebrity (Kamins et al., 1989).

Celebrity endorsement as an advertising strategy has been widely researched among adult populations (see Knoll and Matthes, 2017 for a review), but has also been found a valuable strategy to target children as it may impact their attitudes, preferences, and behaviors (e.g., Ross et al., 1984Jain et al., 2011).

Research on the impact of celebrity endorsement on children has mainly focused on food marketing and has found that celebrities and athletes who are popular among minors typically endorse energy-dense and nutrient-poor products (e.g., Bragg et al., 20132016), which may increase children’s intake of these less-healthy foods (e.g., Boyland et al., 2013Dixon et al., 2014).

On the other hand, despite their presumed lower advertising literacy, children do have a fairly good understanding of celebrity endorsement, which they develop at an earlier age compared to their understanding of other advertising techniques (Rozendaal et al., 2011).

As an alternative to using celebrities as endorsers, advertising aimed at children typically presents (unknown) actors and models interacting with or consuming branded products. For instance, a recent content analysis of 506 food and beverage advertisements aired on the Nickelodeon channel found that most of the ad endorsers were “general people,” either alone (N = 232, 45.8%) or paired with brand mascots and licensed characters (N = 82, 16.2%), while advertisements with celebrity endorsers accounted for 7.5% (N = 38) (Ahn et al., 2019). Next to adults, these actors typically appear as “regular” children and teenagers with whom their young audience can easily identify.

Accordingly, the purpose of these ads is to evoke peer modeling or social learning, which implies that children will copy the peer’s behavior, including their consumption patterns (Bandura, 2002). Indeed, gaining peer acceptance and approval is important to children (Mangleburg et al., 2004Devlin et al., 2007).

Particularly from the age of 6–7 years, peers become important agents for consumer socialization and children start modeling peers’ behavior (John, 1999). Even pre-school children’s behaviors and consumption may already be influenced by their friends (Ahn and Nelson, 2015Atkinson et al., 2015). This has shown to be particularly effective when the peer is of the same age or slightly older than themselves (Brody and Stoneman, 1981).

Moreover, children are more likely to engage in peer modeling, when the peer’s behavior is being rewarded, which is mostly the case in advertising (Flanders, 1968). For instance, a content analysis of food marketing targeted at children found that these children are typically depicted as happy, playing with friends and enjoying the foods offered to them, thus conveying the indirect message that children will be happier when they consume these foods (Hebden et al., 2011).

The rise of social media introduced a new type of peer endorsement, namely social media influencers. In the following section, we will describe the rise of these social media influencers as a new source in advertising to target young children.

Conceptualizing Social Media Influencers as a New Advertising Source

The Emergence of Social Media Influencers as Credible Advertising Sources

The proliferation of social network sites has extended the reach of word-of-mouth and amplified the impact of peer recommendations, which can now be shared one-to-many (Lyons and Henderson, 2005Boyd and Ellison, 2007Knoll, 2016). Children today are audiences and creators of media. Children can easily generate electronic word of mouth (eWOM) themselves, which increases the brand’s visibility and awareness and has been shown to positively affect children’s products’ sales (Bao et al., 2019).

For instance, children are able to share online reviews (e.g., Amazon enables children under 13 to upload their own reviews which are marked as “A kid’s review”), engage with brands on social media (e.g., despite the age-limit of 13 years, children can easily create a Facebook or Instagram account with false information), and create and share their own videos, including showing their ownership of and experiences with products (e.g., YouTube Kids allow children under 13 to create an own account).

As peers are believed to have no commercial interest, they are perceived as authentic and credible sources of information. As a result, children and their parents may be less resistant toward their endorsements compared to brand-originated marketing communication and sources (de Vries et al., 2012van Noort et al., 2012).

Accordingly, brands aim to encourage and reward eWOM (e.g., free gift in return for a review or online check-in, like and share contests), resulting in (minor) consumers becoming advertising sources rather than merely targets (Chu and Kim, 2011). However, the high credibility and impact of these real-world endorsers may be offset by their uncontrollability (Yang, 2017).

Recognizing the impact of eWOM on consumers’ attitudes and decisions, brands have started approaching social media influencers (i.e., influential social media users who managed to build a large audience of followers or subscribers), and incentivizing them to create and distribute relevant, authentic-looking brand-related content, a practice that is called influencer marketing (De Veirman et al., 2017). This way, brands may leverage the power of word-of-mouth while re-gaining control as official agreements between brands and the influencers are made. Influencers will likely be po

sitive as they wish to remain loyal toward the brands they receive incentives from (De Veirman et al., 2019).

Social influencers do not only attract minors’ attention, the child audiences also aspire to become influencers themselves (Chambers et al., 2018). Some children indeed managed to build a large audience of followers or subscribers on their media channels, which are often run by their parents (Novacic, 2019). They mostly maintain multiple social media accounts, with Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube as the most important ones on which they post entertaining and inspiring content (De Veirman et al., 2019). There are even a number of very young child influencers or “kidfluencers,” who post a variety of videos on YouTube, including toy reviews, fun challenges and tutorials [e.g., EvanTubeHD (age 13); Ryan’s World (age 7)], or who maintain a successful Instagram channel [e.g., Call Me Sparkle (age 5); Zoooey in the City (age 7)]. Different than, for instance, child actors, the influencer does not pretend to play and have fun with toys, he/she really does, increasing their relatability to the audience and blurring any persuasive or selling intent.

As a high number of followers and likes are likely to result in a wide reach of the (commercial) message, these remain key metrics for brands, influencer agencies, and platforms aiming to identify and select appropriate influencers for their campaigns. This unfortunately also contributes to malicious practices of influencers buying fake followers and likes, for instance, through bots and clickfarms, to artificially inflate their perceived influencer status. On the one hand, this may lead to disappointing results for brands as their influencer marketing campaigns do not achieve objectives.

On the other hand, when the public finds out their favorite influencer bought fake followers and likes, they may think of him/her as a fraud, resulting in negative reactions and unfollowing (De Veirman et al., 2017). Moreover, influencers risk punishment, for instance, by the FTC who has the authority to bring enforcement actions against deceptive or unfair marketing practices (Section 5 of the FTC Act). Recently (October 2019), the FTC halted deceptive online marketing practices related to influencer marketing.

The regulatory body showed evidence of a company (Devumi) that sold fake accounts and indicators of social engagement and influence to various influencers. Specifically, the FTC complaint suggests that the company: “Devumi filled more than 58,000 orders for fake Twitter followers, enabling the buyers to deceive potential clients about their social media influence. The complaint cites over 4,000 sales of fake YouTube subscribers and over 32,000 sales of fake YouTube views.” (Fair, 2019b).

The option to buy fake followers and likes through a single click is particularly worrying when it comes to minors, both because of the financial burden and the legal consequences they risk.

Social Media Influencers as Relatable Role Models

Similar to traditional celebrities, influencers with a lot of followers on one or more platforms (e.g., so-called macro influencers have between 100,000 and 1 million followers; Ismail, 2018) have a large reach; however, the origin of their fame and nature of their influence is different. While traditional celebrities gained public recognition because of their extraordinary beauty (e.g., supermodels) or talent (e.g., actors and athletes), social media influencers branded themselves on social media through posting highly appealing self-generated content, either on a specific topic in which they present themselves as an expert (e.g., food, beauty…), or more generally, showcasing their lifestyles as a whole (Khamis et al., 2017De Jans et al., 2019). Children merely watch influencers’ videos for entertainment purposes. However, the content can also become informative for children’s consumption decisions as the influencers often let them know which brands they like and dislike and overtly display these brands in their videos (Martínez and Olsson, 2019).

Different than traditional celebrities, who are nowadays also present on social media and extended their fame online, social media influencers have built their fame on social media, without being known to the public beforehand (De Veirman et al., 2017Schouten et al., 2019).

A distinction can be made between different types of influencers, depending on their number of followers. As such, social media influencers may start out with a small audience of engaged followers (less than 1,000) with whom they have a real-life relationship, resulting in high perceptions of authenticity.

As they profile themselves as opinion leader in a specific niche, resulting in a growing audience, they are referred to as micro-influencers (1,000–100,000 followers). Some influencers even manage to build very large audiences (1,000,000–1 million followers) on social media and gain celebrity status (Ismail, 2018Alassani and Göretz, 2019).

Children look up to (child) influencers, but at the same time, they believe they are highly similar to them as they share the same interests and activities and they seem to be ordinary children just like them (van Dam and van Reijmersdal, 2019). Despite their online celebrity-status, influencers tend to be perceived as very relatable and approachable, due to the highly personal content they post and the interactions they have with their followers.

Their social media posts provide their followers a glimpse into their personal lives, resulting in perceptions that they have a lot in common with the influencer and he/she is a peer (Abidin, 2015Gannon and Prothero, 2018Schouten et al., 2019). Therefore, children are likely to build a relationship with their favorite influencers, which can be referred to as parasocial interaction (cfr. supra), which implies that they become influential sources of information and inspiration that may impact consumption-related decisions (Rubin et al., 1985De Jans et al., 2019). Lee and Watkins (2016) for instance showed that developing parasocial relationships with a vlogger may positively affect brand perceptions, and De Jans et al. (2019) found it to be positively related with purchase intentions. Moreover, as influencers show the usefulness of the products they endorse, children may learn and model their behavior (Akers et al., 1979Lagomarsino and Suggs, 2018), which has been referred to as peer modeling or social learning, which can be particularly effective for persuasion when the child likes or admires the model (Bandura, 1977).

For instance, Ryan (of Ryan’s World), today’s most popular child influencer with 21 million subscribers to the YouTube channel, shows his daily routines, including the type of cereal he eats, the toys he plays with, and the places he goes to in his vlogs. Accordingly, it is likely that children will perceive child influencers such as Ryan as peers, who are an important source of influence in their consumer socialization process (Bachmann et al., 1993). As a result, children may be very willing to identify with popular child influencers and take on their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, including those related to brands and products (Kelman, 2006Pilgrim and Bohnet-Joschko, 2019Schouten et al., 2019).

Social Media Influencers as Hidden Persuaders

Influencers have become an important asset for advertisers, as they directly address their target audience and include brand and product recommendations in highly relevant and entertaining content. The practice of “influencer marketing” refers to advertisers closing deals with influencers, which entail promotion in exchange for payment, free products or invitations to exclusive events (De Veirman et al., 2017).

Doing so, advertisers wish to create a meaning transfer (Russell, 1998) and reach their target audience in an authentic way. Influencers usually hold a lot of creative freedom in content creation, as they know their audience best. They incorporate branded content in reviews, recommendations, and tutorials in real-life settings, which increases their trustworthiness as they have tried the products themselves and promote them in an authentic manner (Uzunoglu and Kip, 2014Schouten et al., 2019). Influencers’ so-called sponsored posts or videos mimic and blend with organic content in users’ feeds without disturbing their mindless scrolling of social media (Abidin, 2016Wojdynski and Evans, 2016De Veirman et al., 2017). Accordingly, the practice of influencer marketing can be considered a form of native advertising, defined as “any paid advertising that takes the specific form and appearance of editorial content from the publisher itself” (Wojdynski and Evans, 2016). Moreover, although today there are clear guidelines and regulations on disclosing sponsored content, influencers are hesitant to transparently disclose the commercial nature of their posts, either because they are not aware of the rules or because they want to avoid irritation among their followers (De Veirman et al., 2019).

Therefore, children may fail to recognize influencer content as advertising and cope with such persuasion tactics critically (Friestad and Wright, 1994De Veirman et al., 2019). As a result, instead of advertising, influencers’ brand-initiated endorsements are likely to be perceived as highly credible electronic word-of-mouth the influencer shares out of genuine liking of the brand (Phelps et al., 2004Cheung et al., 2009).

Moreover, due to the correspondence bias, people (and children in particular) tend to believe that although the influencer was compensated for endorsing a brand, he/she would not do this if he/she would not truly like the brand. This bias is the tendency to believe that a person’s behavior is a true reflection of their true underlying dispositions when in fact, their behavior could be explained by situational factors, i.e., the influencer was compensated by the brand (Gilbert and Malone, 1995O’Sullivan, 2003). Interviews with teenage influencers recently revealed that they indeed only wish to endorse brands they fully support; however, when dissatisfied with a received product, a dilemma between being truthful toward their followers and being loyal to the brand arises (De Veirman et al., 2019).

Children are extra vulnerable when it comes to this type of native advertising, as their advertising literacy is not fully developed yet. Advertising literacy refers to an individual’s knowledge of and skills related to advertising (i.e., dispositional advertising literacy) and to their ability to recognize and critically evaluate it (i.e., situational advertising literacy) (Friestad and Wright, 1994Hudders et al., 2017).

The embedded nature of influencer marketing lowers both children’s ability and motivation to recognize it as advertising and critically reflect on it (Nairn and Fine, 2008). Their ability is lowered as influencers’ sponsored posts and videos appear between non-sponsored content in their feeds, which results in the simultaneous exposure of editorial and commercial messages. This content overload makes it hard for children to focus their attention and discern relevant from irrelevant information, resulting in a depletion of self-regulatory resources and difficulties to critically reflect on commercial messages. Second, their motivation is lowered as the commercial messages are integrated in fun and engaging posts and videos (Hudders et al., 2017).

Remarkably, influencers’ videos are available on YouTube Kids (e.g., Ryan’s World, today’s most popular child influencer channel), which parents perceive as a safe media environment. Indeed, while YouTube states that the limited ads on YouTube Kids undergo a rigorous review process for compliance with their policies (YouTube, 2019a), these covert advertising practices slip through the net.

Current Knowledge on Influencer Marketing Targeting Children

Selection of Empirical Studies on Influencer Marketing Focusing Among a Child Sample

A literature search was done employing a “title-abstract-keywords” search in the Scopus database using the keywords (influencer OR blog* OR vlog* OR microcelebrit* OR unboxing) AND (child* OR kid* OR minor* OR youth) AND (marketing OR advertis* OR commercial*) to get an insight into the literature that specifically focuses on social media influencers as an advertising source targeting children. At the time of our research (August 2019), this search process yielded 55 academic articles.

The papers were screened to exclude those not relevant to the limited research overview. Papers were only included if they met the following predefined criteria:

(1) only peer-reviewed articles,

(2) articles examining children up to 12 years old, and

(3) articles published in English. All articles were inspected by reading titles and abstracts to determine if they met the proposed criteria.

After screening, seven academic articles that matched our criteria were found. However, we also decided to include one article (Evans et al., 2018), which examined young children’s parents, rather than children directly. Furthermore, we checked the lists of “latest articles” of 25 SSCI-ranked journals from the domains of communication, media, marketing, and advertising, including two journals that specifically focus on children (see Table 1). No additional articles that comply with the inclusion criteria were detected. Below, we will briefly discuss the eight included articles. Given the small sample, we briefly summarize each of the articles below and then we compare and synthesize what is known about influencers and children in this nascent body of literature.

Table 1

List of 25 selected SSCI-ranked journals.

New Media & Society
Journal of Communication
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication
International Journal of Communication
Communication Research
Social Media + Society
Media, Culture & Society
Communication Theory
European Journal of Marketing
International Journal of Advertising
International Journal of Research in Marketing
Journal of Advertising
Journal of Advertising Research
Journal of Interactive Marketing
Journal of Marketing
Journal of Marketing Research
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing
Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science
Marketing Letters
Marketing Science
Psychology & Marketing
Cyberpsychology, Behavior & Social Networking
Young Consumers
Journal of Children & Media

Overview of Empirical Studies

Eight empirical studies examined the practice of influencer marketing among a young audience (see Table 2). One study reports the results of a content analysis of branded vlogs and three studies (one survey study, one focus group study, and one ethnographic study) focused on how children think about this sponsored vlogging. Three studies experimentally examined the effectiveness of sponsored vlogging, with two studies focusing on its effect on children’s food intake and one study focusing on the effect of an educational vlog on children’s susceptibility to vlog advertising. To conclude, one study examined how parents cope with sponsored vlogs. Remarkably, all studies focus on YouTube as the main channel for influencer marketing. Below, we discuss the studies in more detail.

Table 2

List of the eight included articles.

Nicoll and Nansen2018Mimetic production in YouTube toy unboxing videosSocial Media + Society
Marsh2016“Unboxing” videos: co-construction of the child as cyberflâneurDiscourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education
Martínez and Olsson2019Making sense of YouTubers: how Swedish children construct and negotiate the YouTuber Misslisibell as a girl celebrityJournal of Children and Media
Folkvord, Bevelander, Rozendaal, and Hermans2019Children’s bonding with popular YouTube vloggers and their attitudes toward brand and product endorsements in vlogs: an explorative studyYoung Consumers
Coates, Hardman, Halford, Christiansen, and Boyland2019Social media influencer marketing and children’s food intake: a randomized trialPediatrics
Coates, Hardman, Halford, Christiansen, and Boyland2019The effect of influencer marketing of food and a “protective” advertising disclosure on children’s food intakePediatric Obesity
De Jans, Cauberghe, and Hudders2019How an advertising disclosure alerts young adolescents to sponsored vlogs: the moderating role of a peer-based advertising literacy intervention through an informational vlogJournal of Advertising
Evans, Hoy, and Childers2018Parenting “YouTube natives”: the impact of pre-roll advertising and text disclosures on parental responses to sponsored child influencer videosJournal of Advertising
What Content Is Featured in Sponsored Vlogs and how Is It Perceived by Children?

One study performed a quantitative content analysis of branded vlogs. Nicoll and Nansen (2018) examined the content of 100 recent toy unboxing videos. They collected the videos by applying the “most recent” filter to the search term “toy unboxing” and analyzed the first 50 results on 2 days. They made a comparison between the vlogs of children (53%) and adults (47%) and analyzed variations of expertise, professionalism, and promotion across the vlogs. The age of the child unboxers ranged from toddler (2–4 years; 9%) to adolescent (12–18 years; 5%), with the majority (39%) being primary school age (4–11 years).

Concerning their gender, 36% of endorsers were female and 52% male, while gender was undecided in 11% of the videos (e.g., only hands were visible, no commentary). Boys mostly unboxed (and assembled) toy cars and Legos, whereas girls tended to unbox toys like Shopkins (tiny collectable toys). Their main conclusion was that the toy unboxing videos of children tended to be much more varied and used more everyday language compared to professional (e.g., EvanTubeHD) or adult’s videos, yet they seek to mimic adult and professional videos, including their production and branding strategies. On the other hand, well-known professional channels try to produce a semblance of amateur authenticity by imitating the playful qualities of children’s videos (Nicoll and Nansen, 2018).

Next, three studies examined what children think about sponsored vlogs. Marsh (2016) took an ethnographic approach to observe how a 4-year-old child engages with unboxing videos on YouTube. According to this study, the young child took the position of cyberflȃneur who seemed to enjoy the mere act of viewing, while not engaging in nagging behavior, asking his parent to purchase the products.

Martínez and Olsson (2019) conducted a focus group study to examine how the practice of sponsored vlogging is perceived among 9- and 12-year old Swedish children where 12 focus groups with 46 children were conducted. Participants were shown a video (make-up tutorial) of the popular YouTuber Misslisibell as an illustrative example of advertising in vlogs. They had normative discussions around her vlogging practices and YouTube celebrity status related to her young age and had various interpretations of the video as advertising. The study shows the importance of YouTubers to children in their construction of identity and as a role model that guides their consumption (Martínez and Olsson, 2019).

The study of Folkvord et al. (2019) is an exploratory survey study among pre-teens/teens (10–13 years) in which they examined the amount of time children spend on viewing vlogs, their awareness and understanding of the endorsed brand in vlogs and their self-perceived susceptibility to the potential persuasive effects of these vlogs. Their conclusion was that the majority of children frequently watch vlogs and that their degree of bonding with the vlogger predicted the time they spend on watching vlogs. Moreover, they could easily recall products and brands displayed in the vlogs (mostly food and beverages) and believed that they themselves and others were affected by endorsements in vlogs.

Effectiveness of Influencer Marketing

Three experimental studies examined how children are affected by sponsored vlogs and one study focused on how parents of children between the ages of four and 11 react to sponsored vlogs. First, two studies examined the impact of social media influencer marketing on children’s food intake (Coates et al., 2019a,b).

The first study is a randomized trial with a between-subjects design in which 176 children (9–11 years) were exposed to mock-Instagram profiles of two popular vloggers, either promoting healthy or unhealthy snacks. Results showed that influencer marketing of unhealthy foods increased children’s immediate food intake, whereas the equivalent marketing of healthy foods had no effect. In their second study, an advertising disclosure was included to alert children on the inclusion of advertising. In a between-subjects design, 151 children (9–11 years) were exposed to popular YouTubers’ vlogs including a non-food product, or an unhealthy snack with or without an advertising disclosure. Participants’ intake of the marketed snack and an alternative brand of the same snack were measured.

In line with their first study, influencer marketing increased children’s immediate intake of the promoted snack relative to an alternative non-food brand (control condition). Remarkably, the inclusion of an advertising disclosure increased the effect, as children who viewed food marketing with a disclosure (and not those without) consumed 41% more of the promoted snack compared to the control group.

The study of De Jans et al. (2019) examined how an educational vlog can help children (11–14 years) cope with advertising. In an experimental study (N = 160), using a two (advertising disclosure: no disclosure versus disclosure) by two (peer-based advertising literacy intervention) between-subjects design, they examined how an advertising disclosure can reduce the persuasiveness of sponsored vlogs and how watching an educational vlog moderates these effects.

The results show that an advertising disclosure increased their recognition of advertising and their affective advertising literacy for sponsored vlogs, and that only affective advertising literacy negatively affected influencer trustworthiness and PSI and purchase intention accordingly. Moreover, when young adolescents were informed about advertising through an informational vlog (i.e., peer-based advertising literacy intervention), positive effects on the influencer and subsequently on advertising effects were found of an advertising disclosure.

Evans et al. (2018) examined how parents of young children cope with sponsored vlogging on YouTube. They gauged parents’ understanding of and responses to sponsored child influencer unboxing videos. Through an experimental design among 418 parents, they assessed the influence of sponsorship text disclosure (present or absent) and sponsor pre-roll (sponsor pre-roll, nonsponsor pre-roll, and no pre-roll) for a toy on conceptual persuasion knowledge, perceptions of sponsorship transparency, and different outcome measures. Moreover, they explored how parental mediation influences the outcomes.

They found that sponsor variations in pre-roll advertising (sponsor versus nonsponsor versus none) and sponsor text disclosure (present versus absent) conditions did not affect parents’ conceptual persuasion knowledge of the unboxing video. However, if a sponsor pre-roll ad was included, parents reported higher levels of sponsorship transparency of the unboxing video compared to parents who saw no pre-roll ad or a nonsponsor pre-roll ad. There was no additional effect on sponsorship transparency or conceptual persuasion knowledge when a sponsor text disclosure was included. Moreover, high levels of parental mediation conditionally impacted the indirect effect of a sponsor pre-roll advertisement via sponsorship transparency on perceptions of the unboxing video and attitudes toward the sponsor.


Four observations can be made based on this thorough review of academic literature. First, all of the included articles focus on YouTube as a platform, which is not surprising as it is frequently used among children (Pew Research Center, 2018Ofcom, 2019). Only one study (Coates et al., 2019a) used mock-Instagram profiles in a randomized trial; however, these profiles represented popular YouTubers among children. No studies yet focused on TikTok, a social media platform which has become very popular among young children. Second, all the above studies except for one were conducted among teenagers with ages between 9 and 14 years old.

Only one study (Marsh, 2016) focused on preschool children (4-year-old children) and no studies yet focused on children between 6 and 8 years when examining influencer marketing. Third, most articles take a consumer perspective and examine influencer practices and how minors perceive the persuasion tactic, while specifically focusing on persuasive content and perceptions of transparency, including the use of advertising disclosures, using different methods. Only one study conducted a content analysis of (child) influencers’ vlogs (Nicoll and Nansen, 2018). A final minor observation is the focus on (unhealthy) food products (Coates et al., 2019a,b), beverages (De Jans et al., 2019), and toys (Evans et al., 2018) in the experimental studies gauging for influencer marketing effects on children.

Queen Mary University of London
Media Contacts:
Sophie McLachlan – Queen Mary University of London
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Open access
“Overstepping the boundaries of free choice: Folk beliefs on free will and determinism in real world contexts”. Author links open overlay panelMagdaOsman.
Consciousness and Cognition doi:10.1016/j.concog.2019.102860.


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