What “Overzealous Marketing” Findings Can Teach Parents

A fascinating marketing study by professors from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management may give parents insight into why their best, most heartfelt pitches to their kids often seem to fall on deaf ears.

The researchers read to a group of 4- and 5-year-old children three different versions of a story about a little girl named Tara who ate some Wheat Thins before going out to play. The children heard either that Tara “felt strong and healthy,” that she thought the crackers were “yummy,” or simply that she ate them. Then the children were given some time alone to snack on a bowl of Wheat Thins. The results were dramatically different, depending on which message their version of the story conveyed.

When they heard about health, 4- and 5-year-olds ate about three crackers each. When Tara thought the crackers were yummy, they later ate an average of 7.2 crackers each. But when children heard no message whatsoever, they ate nine! Moreover, the researchers replicated this finding in even younger children—and with carrots instead of crackers. Clearly, they are onto something. They believe the problem with “overly aggressive marketing” to children or adults, no matter how well-meaning, is the “dilution effect,” or “the watering down of a marking message that makes too many claims.”

This research may be applicable to the myriad of caring, yet often ineffective, messages parents give kids they see as underachieving in school. Desperate to get teens and tweens to do what’s best for them academically, parents talk about “keeping doors open for college choices,” “getting a good job,” or “having a successful life.” But now we may know why these messages may be backfiring.

Maybe mothers and fathers should do the academic equivalent of simply putting healthy food on the table: making sure kids have adequate educational opportunities and providing the basic structure and tools for success–for example, structured routines for homework completion, dinner, and bedtime; access to computers and school supplies; limits on screen time, etc. When it comes to all the coaxing, cajoling, and threatening messages about achievement, as with food less may be more.

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