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Crowd pleasers: media characters in food company websites and apps for children

Lisa B. Hurwitz (Center on Media and Human Development – Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA)
Heather Montague (Center on Media and Human Development – Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA)
Alexis R. Lauricella (Center on Media and Human Development – Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA)
Aubry L. Alvarez (Center on Media and Human Development – Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA)
Francesca Pietrantonio (Center on Media and Human Development – Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA)
Meredith L. Ford (Center on Media and Human Development – Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA)
Ellen Wartella (Center on Media and Human Development – Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA)

Young Consumers

ISSN: 1747-3616

Article publication date: 29 May 2019

Issue publication date: 13 June 2019

Abstract

Purpose

Social cognitive theory suggests that children may have more favorable attitudes toward food products promoted by media characters who are similar to them, in terms of factors such as age, gender and race-ethnicity. This paper aims to profile the characters in food and beverage websites and apps for children and examine whether the healthfulness of promoted products varies as a function of character background.

Design/methodology/approach

This study includes two parallel content analyses focused on websites and apps that were produced by America’s top selling food and beverage companies.

Findings

There were very few child-targeted websites and apps, but those that existed were replete with media characters. These websites/apps tended to feature media characters with diverse gender, age and racial–ethnic backgrounds. However, marketing featuring adult and male characters promoted particularly unhealthy foods.

Social implications

American food companies, many of whom signed voluntary self-regulatory pledges through the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, should make a more concerted effort to refrain from featuring appealing media characters in child-directed new media marketing. Whether conscious or not, it seems as if food marketers may be leveraging characters to appeal to a wide audience of children of varied demographic backgrounds.

Originality/value

To the best of the authors’ knowledge, this manuscript is the only research to focus specifically on the demographic profiles (i.e. gender, age and race-ethnicity) of characters in food websites and the nutritional quality of the products they promote. It is also the first to systematically examine media characters in food apps in any capacity.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

This research was generously supported by a grant (#1251745) from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to Ellen Wartella at Northwestern University and Sandra Calvert at Georgetown University. NSF approved a project proposal but was not involved in any phase of data collection or analysis.The authors would like to thank Jennifer L. Harris of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity for teaching them about the NPI metric and providing them with Excel macros to facilitate calculating this metric. They would also like to thank Thomas H. Rousse, Lillian Yi, Brianna Hightower and Eric D. Morales for their valuable contributions to this work.

Citation

Hurwitz, L.B., Montague, H., Lauricella, A.R., Alvarez, A.L., Pietrantonio, F., Ford, M.L. and Wartella, E. (2019), "Crowd pleasers: media characters in food company websites and apps for children", Young Consumers, Vol. 20 No. 1, pp. 44-58. https://doi.org/10.1108/YC-09-2018-0847

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited