It’s good to be Gary Lineker, once Britain’s national football star and forever her beloved son. In the decades since leaving the pitch, Lineker has launched a media career—announcing matches for the BBC and voicing a cartoon character known as Underground Ernie—married a Maxim model, made a cameo in “Bend It Like Beckham,” attracted more than a million Twitter followers, and since 1995, served as the celebrity spokesman for Walkers potato crisps. (For a time, his favorite flavor was rebranded “Salt-and-Lineker.”)
That Lineker is, according to everyone, an all-around nice guy, a player who never once drew a yellow card in his career, only adds to his irresistible charm.
Irresistible, indeed. According to researchers from the University of Liverpool, children who watched a Walkers commercial starring Lineker ate 40 percent more of the premium-brand potato chips than those who watched a non-Lineker food commercial. What’s more, children who, instead of being shown any food commercial, watched a clip of Lineker calling a football match ate just as many chips as their Walkers-ad-primed peers.
In other words, Lineker’s celebrity endorsement of Walkers crisps is so well established in the minds of pre-teens that simply seeing him onscreen, not as brand spokesman but as sports announcer, whets their appetite for the salty junk food.
The study, which appears in The Journal of Pediatrics, underscores the power of subliminal advertising and demonstrates just how plastic—and hence impressionable—the adolescent mind truly is.
The British researchers, led by Emma Boyland, showed 181 British children, aged 8 to 11, an episode of “The Simpsons,” interrupted by one of four ads: a Walkers spot, starring Lineker; a non-Walkers savory-food ad (Nobby’s Nuts); a clip of Lineker presenting soccer highlights on “Match of the Day”; or a control toy ad.
Afterward, the children were given bowls of both Walker’s and supermarket brand crisps, and told to eat as many as they liked, with unlimited refills.
Kids who were shown the Walkers ad ate 40 percent more name-brand chips than kids who saw the ad for Nobby’s Nuts, and 75 percent more than kids who saw the toy ad. The remarkable finding, however, was that kids who only watched Lineker talk soccer—no mention of food whatsoever—ate just as many chips as the direct-marketing group; indeed, they nearly won out as being the biggest gluttons. Lineker’s celebrity status is apparently so powerful—and so well-tied to the Walkers brand—that his endorsement sells chips even when he’s not trying to. Call it “advertising through osmosis.”
That celebrities acquire a kind of universal appeal is nothing new. As Eric Schlosser reported in “Fast Food Nation,” Ronald McDonald is the second-most-recognizable face in America, behind Santa Claus; 96 percent of kids know his name.
Still, it’s unnerving that children can be made brand loyalists—proto-consumers, really—from such a young age. If it’s so easy to get them to eat junk food, well, what else might ad execs teach them to swallow?