Children particularly like content that is specifically created for YouTube by YouTube personalities. Because these personalities have a large reach and are considered likeable and credible, they have become social media influencers. For advertisers, these influencers are an interesting channel to reach youth. Therefore, influencers often embed persuasive sponsored messages in their videos to earn money.
However, there are concerns about this practice because it is not always clear when a video includes advertising. Therefore, in several countries, guidelines have been developed that state that sponsoring in influencer videos should be disclosed as such. Until now, little is known about the effects of disclosures for influencer videos on children and the boundary conditions for such effects. Therefore, we investigated the effects of a disclosure of sponsored influencer videos on children’s advertising literacy. Additionally, we examined the consequences of the disclosure for children’s responses to the brand, advertised product, and video.
We also included the para-social relationship (PSR) that children experience with an influencer as a possible boundary condition for disclosure effects on persuasion. Our experiment amongst children between 8 and 12 years old showed that, when children correctly recalled the disclosure, the disclosure increased their recognition of advertising, and understanding of selling and persuasive intent. Moreover, advertising literacy evoked by the disclosure affected persuasion: The disclosure enhanced brand memory through ad recognition, but also decreased advertised product desire through understanding the selling intent of the video.
Furthermore, the PSR of children with the influencer proved to be a boundary condition for disclosure effects on brand attitudes. Only for those children who experienced moderate to low PSRs with the influencer, the disclosure resulted in less positive brand attitudes through understanding selling intent. For children who experienced a strong PSR with the influencer, the understanding that the content had a selling intent did not affect their brand attitudes. These findings show that a disclosure (if noticed and remembered) can be an effective tool to achieve transparency, but also influences the persuasive outcomes of influencer marketing in online videos.
Nowadays, the majority of children between 8 and 11 years old prefers to watch content on YouTube rather than watching TV programs on a TV set (Ofcom, 2018). Children particularly like content that is specifically created for YouTube by YouTube personalities such a vloggers. The YouTube content children consume varies from videos of daily lives (the so-called video blogs or vlogs), to pranks, people playing video games, unboxing products, product reviews, and people showcasing their (musical) talents. The YouTubers who create this content can become very popular and build large communities with occasionally millions of followers and subscribers. Their large network, the popularity of their content, and the fact that children consider YouTubers as likeable, credible, and inspirational characters have made them interesting spokespersons for advertisers. Hence, YouTubers have become important social media influencers that can reach a young audience.
As influencers, YouTubers are approached by brands to mention, show, or promote a product or brand in their videos in exchange for payment or other reciprocal arrangements (such as free products). For example, Ryan, a hugely popular child YouTuber with 22 million subscribers, unpacks and demonstrates toys from Hasbro in his videos on his channel called Ryan’s world. And, in his videos, Dutch YouTuber Furtjuh bakes cookies using the products of BlueBand, a famous Dutch butter brand.
Influencer marketing on YouTube, also referred to as sponsored content, native advertising, and vlog advertising, raises ethical concerns because this type of advertising is integrated in non-commercial content that is made by an independent content creator, and thus it blurs the lines between what is advertising and what is not. This subtle and embedded nature makes it difficult for audiences to recognize influencer marketing as advertising.
Children are expected to be even less likely than adults to understand the commercial nature of influencer marketing, because children’s advertising-related knowledge and skills, such as understanding the selling intent of an ad, referred to as advertising literacy or persuasion knowledge, has often not matured. Because people need advertising literacy to cope with advertising, this makes children even more susceptible to advertising, and especially to covert, embedded advertising such as influencer marketing. Qualitative research indeed showed that children (9–12 years old) and adolescents (12–16 years old) have difficulties recognizing hidden and embedded advertising in YouTube videos.
To help both adults and children to recognize influencer marketing, regulators and self-regulatory bodies stress the importance of clearly and conspicuously disclosing influencer marketing, also on YouTube. To our knowledge, only one study exists on the effects of influencer marketing disclosures among children. This study showed that a disclosure can be an effective cue to help children recognize advertising in YouTube videos. Although this finding is promising, there is still a lot to gain in this field. This study aims to add to the literature in three ways.
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