On the one side are those who argue against advertisements aimed at children due to a belief that children are uniquely susceptible, and on the other side are those who sell advertisements and advertising, such as ad agencies and business school textbook authors, out of a belief that advertising is able to effect product preference in any meaningful way. In short, both of these groups are incorrect, because advertising, and animated characters in particular, actually have fairly little influence on product preference and purchasing decisions. They can generate recognition and positive emotional connections between the audience and the product, but these connections do not necessarily translate into actual purchases. However, in order to demonstrate why this is the case, one must examine some relevant scientific research on the subject and attempt to inject some reasonable skepticism into the hyperbolic claims of parents' groups and advertising cheerleaders.
Aside from market research concerning the success or failure of certain advertising campaigns, over the course of the last thirty years there has been substantial academic research into the perception of animated characters and their effect on purchasing and brand identification, especially as they relate to children. Though the majority of the research focuses on children, by implication this will reveal useful information about adults as well. The first thing to note is that children as young as kindergarten-age are able to meaningfully distinguish between human and animated characters in advertising, suggesting "that children may not be as easily exploited as detractors of children's advertising assert."
While the goal of this study is not to defend children's advertising, recognizing that children are not as susceptible to animated advertisements as is commonly believed is important to recognize because it demonstrates that far from being "tricked" into liking a product by an animated character, children regard these characters from a (relatively) critical perspective. Thus, while animated characters can be "successful promotion strategies that reinforce brand recognition and positive associations," it cannot be assumed that any animated character aimed at children will able to do this, and furthermore, that these positive associations will necessarily correlate with actual product preference.
There are two important studies, one from 1986 and another from 2004, which have served to challenge some of the assumptions surrounding animated characters in advertisement, and it will be useful to examine these studies because they demonstrate what one might call the unacknowledged truth of animated characters in advertising (and advertising in general), which is that animated characters, while particularly effective at generating positive associations with a brand or product, have far less influence on actual product preference and purchasing decisions. This fact is not frequently recognized in discussions of the benefits and limitations of animated characters in advertising, likely because it reveals that advertisers have far less control over consumer choice than they would like to believe. Of the five different marketing and advertising books consulted for this study, only two hint at this fact, and only one mentions it explicitly by noting "just because people love your character, it won't necessarily mean they love your brand."
The other include an anecdote about the meteoric rise and subsequent fall of the Taco Bell chihuahua, but does not speculate as to the reasons behind its fall).
However, even in these two cases, the possibility that an animated character has little direct influence on product preference is viewed as an afterthought, rather than the basis from which any consideration of animated characters should stem. It is crucial to recognize that animated characters can only go so far because "although public opinion suggests that spokes-characters influence […] product desires, academic research has generally failed to demonstrate this effect."
However, this should not be taken as a claim that animated characters are useless in contemporary advertising, but rather that they have not been approached with the proper sobriety and attention to evidence that they require if one is to accurately determine their benefits and limitations. Thus, examining animated characters inability to directly affect product preference will offer a robust, scientifically sound basis from which to determine the actual benefits and limitations of animated characters in contemporary advertising (while the inability to directly influence product preference might be considered a "limitation," it is less a limitation than a fact about the medium, because this limitation is shared by all advertising, regardless of the particular tactic used).
The two studies under consideration here concern themselves with the effect of animated characters on product preferences, and in both cases, the studies found that while animated characters are particularly good at generating recognition, association, and positive emotions, these do not necessarily translate into preference and choice. This is seen most blatantly in the 1986 study, which showed that host-selling advertisements, in which a product was advertised via the use of a character from the show on which the commercial aired, actually generated less of a change in preference towards the product than when the advertisement included a different character.
The later study attempted to pinpoint why phenomenon such as this occur, and found that "while research findings show that young children can exhibit high levels of character/product recognition, association, and affect, the challenge arises when we assume that these early responses lead to product preference, intention, and choice."
The researchers propose that this disconnect stems from the fact that attention, recognition, and emotional response are relatively simple cognitive processes, and as such can be induced fairly easily, but preference and choice by definition are dependent upon more complex cognitive processes, and thus are influenced far less by animated characters in advertisements. Recognizing this offers an ideal point from which to begin an actual accounting of the benefits and limitations of animated characters in contemporary advertising, because recognizing what animated characters simply cannot do allows one to focus on what they can do, and how well they can do it.
Chapter 3: Benefits of Animated Characters in Advertising
As has been shown, animated characters are not particularly adept at influencing product preference and choice, but they do excel at generating recognition, attention, and positive emotional connections, all of which increase a brand's visibility and the likelihood that someone will at least think of that brand when making purchases. On the most basic level, this is because animated characters function as symbols for the brand or product itself, and "can be used to transfer desired meanings to the product with which they are associated," thus imbuing that brand or product with some otherwise arbitrary character.
This is one reason why so many animated characters are animals; by using a specific animal, the advertisement can play on unspoken assumptions regarding that animal in order to "link the personality and cultural meaning of the character to the product in the minds of the consumer" as a way of creating "a desirable image, or meaning, for the product."
For example, the character of Tony the Tiger creates a connection between the cultural meanings of the tiger and Frosted Flakes, such that sugar-coated corn flakes are almost magically imbued with a sense of vitality and energy. This effect is so strong that it continues to work even in print ads, where characters lack the animation but are still able to imbue the product with meanings that generate more positive attitudes and associations with the product.
This demonstrates one of the most important benefits offered by using an animated character rather than a human spokesperson. Because the cultural and symbolic meanings of an animated character can be carefully controlled and regulated, "unlike a celebrity, they won't be caught shoplifting, driving under the influence, or saying something stupid in public."
Furthermore, animated characters "don't need their own VIP trailers or dressing rooms, cappuccino breaks, or trips on the company jet," and the proprietary elements of the character are negotiated via contract and trademark, and thus future use does not depend on any one person, which is what has allowed animated characters to endure for decades even after human spokespeople have been long forgotten.
This "affection and long-term relationship with the consumer" is self-reinforcing, because the related forces of nostalgia and irony allow characters to appeal to different generations for different reasons.
Thus, the two key benefits of using animated characters in contemporary advertising are control and potential longevity, both of which stem from their status as fictional entities not dependent upon any single person for their success. The high degree of control over an animated character allows advertisers to precisely calibrate the meanings they intend to convey about the product or brand, and because the character has no life of its own, advertisers need not worry about those meanings being muddled by extracurricular activities. Similarly, because characters are created by the company (or an ad agency it hires), the character can be reused and reinvented indefinitely over the course of decades, so that an investment in an animated character frequently pays off over…