Journal Issue: Children and Electronic Media Volume 18 Number 1 Spring 2008
How Marketing Practices Affect Children
To explore how marketing affects children, I turn first to theories of cognitive development that address age-based differences in children's understanding of commercial content. I then examine empirical research about children's developing cognitive processes and about how exposure to advertising and marketing affects behavior. The effects of advertising and marketing depend on the attention children pay to the advertisement, how well they remember the content, and how well they comprehend the advertiser's intent, as well as on their subsequent purchasing behavior.
Developmental Differences in Children's Learning from Media
One key area in research on the effect of advertising on children has been analysis of age- based changes in children's ability to understand commercial messages, particularly their intent.88 Before they reach the age of eight, children believe that the purpose of commercials is to help them in their purchasing decisions; they are unaware that commercials are designed to persuade them to buy specific products.89 The shifts that take place in children's understanding of commercial intent are best explained using theories of cognitive development.
Developmental psychologists, as well as researchers in communication and marketing, often apply three stages of Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development—preoperational thought, concrete operational thought, and formal operational thought—to explain age-based differences in how children comprehend television content.90 During the stage of preoperational thought, roughly from age two to age seven, young children are perceptually bound and focus on properties such as how a product looks. Young children also use animistic thinking, believing that imaginary events and characters can be real. For instance, during the Christmas season, television is flooded with commercials that foster an interest in the toys that Santa will bring in his sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. Young children “buy in” to these fantasies and the consumer culture they represent. Preoperational modes of thought put young children at a distinct disadvantage in understanding commercial intent and, thus, in being able to make informed decisions about requests and purchases of products.91
With the advent of concrete operational thought, between age seven and age eleven, children begin to understand their world more realistically. They understand, for example, that perceptual manipulations do not change the underlying properties of objects. More important, they begin to go beyond the information given in a commercial and grasp that the intent of advertisers is to sell products. By the stage of formal operational thought, about age twelve and upward, adolescents can reason abstractly and understand the motives of advertisers even to the point of growing cynical about advertising.
Building on Piaget's theory, Deborah John constructed a three-tiered model of consumer socialization: the perceptual stage (roughly age three to seven); the analytical stage (roughly age seven to eleven); and the reflective stage (roughly age eleven to sixteen). The perceptual stage is characterized by “perceptual boundness” as children focus on single dimensions of objects and events, thereby limiting their decision-making skills as informed consumers. During the analytical stage, as children gain the ability to analyze products according to more than one dimension at a time, their knowledge of advertiser techniques and brands becomes much more sophisticated. During the reflective stage, a mature understanding of products and marketing practices results in a relatively sophisticated knowledge of products and advertiser intent. Even so, all children can be influenced to purchase certain products if the products are made attractive enough to consumers.92
Integrating a variety of different theoretical perspectives, Patti Valkenburg and Joanne Cantor advanced a developmental model of how children become consumers. In the first stage (birth to two years), toddlers and infants have desires and preferences, but they are not yet true consumers because they are not yet truly goal-directed in their product choices. During the second stage (two to five years), preschoolers nag and negotiate, asking for and even demanding certain products. At this point in their development, young children do not understand the persuasive intent of commercials; they focus on the attractive qualities of products and cannot keep their minds off the products for long. These developmental characteristics make them extremely vulnerable to commercial advertisements. By the end of this stage, children replace whining and throwing tantrums to get a desired product with more effective negotiation. In early elementary school (five to eight years), children reach the stage of adventure and first purchases. They begin to make clearer distinctions between what is real and what is imaginary, their attention spans are longer, and they make their first purchases outside the company of their parents. In the final stage (eight to twelve years), elementary school children are attuned to their peer groups' opinions. Their critical skills to assess products emerge, and their understanding of others' emotions improves considerably. In the later years of this stage, interest shifts from toys to more adult-like products, such as music and sports equipment. Although children's consumer behaviors continue to develop during the adolescent years, the foundation is laid in these early years with a progression from simple wants and desires to a search to fulfill those desires to making independent choices and purchases to evaluating the product and its competition.93
Fewer theories address the ways in which commercial messages influence children in interactive media exchanges. Research on how children learn from interactive media builds on developmental theories such as those of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, both of whom argued that knowledge is constructed through interactions between the knower and the known. Although such interactions do occur as children view television and film, including advertisements, they are different in the newer interactive technologies, which allow for greater user control and inter- changes. Interactive technologies are based on dialogue and turn-taking—a child takes a turn, then a computer responds and takes a turn, then the child takes a turn again. In essence, a conversation is taking place in which each response made by a child leads to potentially different content being shared.94 Learning takes place through contingent replies, responsiveness to the user, and turn-taking, tools that can enhance learning in any kind of interaction, whether human or simulated with intelligent artificial agents.95 The nature of the conversation that can take place, however, depends on the child's developmental level. For instance, children under age eight may well believe that they are really interacting with branded characters while older youth understand the differences between what is real and what is imaginary.
Because interactive media incorporate and build on a child's actions, they have an edge over traditional media like television in tailoring their message. In particular, an interactive medium is “smart” and can potentially take into account each learner's knowledge base and adapt the message accordingly. In an interactive medium, advertisers can transmit their message effectively by responding explicitly to the user's developmental level and knowledge base—a distinct advantage when marketers are trying to persuade a child or adolescent to buy a product, particularly given the varying knowledge bases during the childhood years.
The surreptitious presentation of messages about products in online forums can also tap into children's implicit memory, which involves learning without conscious awareness.96 For example, embedding a marketed product into entertaining content creates favorable attitudes about that product without the user even being aware.97 Precisely how implicit processes influence consumer attitudes and product choices awaits further study. The trend toward increased advertising online makes children more vulnerable to marketing. Once a television viewer watches an advertisement, that viewer must act on the message if a product purchase is to occur. That action can involve multiple steps: requesting the product from a parent, pulling it from a shelf while shopping with a parent, and making a purchase. The delay between seeing an advertisement and being in a store where the product can be purchased is also a potential disruption to a purchase. By contrast, newer interactive interfaces involve a user directly in the content; actions can range from clicking on a television icon to transport a child directly to a website where he can purchase the advertised product,98 to having a cell phone elicit purchase-oriented behaviors.99 In newer technologies, the distinctions between the commercial and program content can be blurred in a seamless presentation. The time between being exposed to the product and purchasing it can also be greatly diminished. These changes have major implications for children, who are more vulnerable to commercial messages than adults are.
How Children Process Advertisements
To be effective, marketing campaigns must get children to attend to the message, desire a specific product, recognize and remember that product, and purchase it.100 How well children understand the persuasive intent of advertisements also affects the success of commercials.
Attention. Commercials that are designed to attract and hold children's attention are characterized by lively action, sound effects, and loud music.101 The animated character Tony the Tiger, for example, bursts onto the screen, proclaiming that Kellogg's Frosted Flakes are “GRRRRRREAT!!” One study found that preschoolers paid more attention to commercials full of action, sound effects, and loud music than to more low-key commercials. 102 Audio features are particularly important in gaining children's attention. Another study found that children aged three to eight were more attentive to commercials that were higher in audio than in video complexity.103 Audio features have more recruiting power than visual features because interesting sounds can get children who are not looking at the television screen to direct their visual attention to it. These findings are consistent with Piaget's insight that young children are especially focused on the attention -getting perceptual qualities of presentations.
Children's patterns of attention help reveal how well they can make distinctions between the commercial and the television program. In one study, researchers trained mothers to examine their children's visual attention to Saturday morning cartoons and advertisements. The mothers reported that the younger children (five to eight) continued to pay attention when a commercial came on but that children older than eight looked away. The older children's awareness of the break in the content suggests that they are less susceptible than the younger children to the effects of advertising.104
Recognition and retention. Advertisers use visual and auditory production techniques and repetition to enhance children's memory of the content. One study found that preschool, kindergarten, and second-grade children remembered food products that had been advertised audiovisually or visually better than they remembered products presented in an audio version only.105 Advertisers use catchy auditory features, such as jingles, repetitively in commercials to reach child audiences.106 Song lyrics and rhymes can replay in children's heads, leading to automatic rehearsal and memory of content.107
When children are shown the same commercial repeatedly, they are more likely to remember the product advertised.108 Repetition also undermines children's, even older children's, defenses against product messages.109
Comprehension of commercial intent. As noted, children younger than age eight do not understand that the intent of commercials is to persuade them to buy one product over another; instead they see commercials as a means of informing them about the vast number of attractive products that they can buy.110 In a key study demonstrating the developmental advance during middle childhood, Thomas Robertson and John Rossiter questioned first-, third-, and fifth-grade boys about their understanding of commercials. Only half of the first-grade boys understood the persuasive intent of commercials, as against 87 percent of third graders and 99 percent of fifth graders.111
Product requests and purchases. What aspects of exposure to commercial messages lead to product requests? Researchers have found that repetition, in particular, increases children's requests for, and purchases of, specific food, beverage, and toy products.112 One study, for example, measured three- to eleven-year-old children's overall exposure to advertisements at home and to specific advertisements in their laboratory. They then had children visit a mock grocery store with a parent. Children who were exposed to more overall advertisements at home and who were most attentive to advertisements in the laboratory setting made the most requests for the advertised products.113
Premiums—bonus toys and treats that accompany the product—also increase children's product requests. For instance, Charles Aitkin found that 81 percent of mothers thought that premiums influenced their children's cereal selections. The more children watched Saturday morning television programs, which are saturated with cereal commercials, the more children wanted the cereals that contained premiums.114 Free downloads such as screen savers serve similar functions in newer technologies, but researchers have not yet fully examined the effects of such practices.
Does Exposure to Advertising Affect Children's Behavior?
Exposing children to commercial messages can lead to negative outcomes, including parent- child conflict, cynicism, obesity, and possibly materialistic attitudes.
For both younger and older children, not every request for a product leads to a purchase. Being denied a product can lead to conflict between parent and child.115 For instance, Aitkin found that when parents denied children's requests for products, children who were heavy viewers argued about the purchase 21 percent of the time, while light viewers argued only 9 percent of the time.116 Advertisers call this the “nag factor.”
In a review of research, one study found a causal relationship between children's viewing of television commercials and their pestering parents in the grocery store.117 As suggested by the model created by Valkenburg and Cantor, “pester power” seems to be a preferred tactic of young children.118 For example, four- to six-year-olds rely on nagging, crying, and whining to get their parents to buy them products.119
Children can also become cynical as they begin to understand the underlying persuasive messages of advertisements. For example, sixth and eighth graders who understand more about commercial practices, such as using celebrity endorsements, are more cynical about the products.120 Even so, children who are repeatedly exposed to attractive messages about “fun” products still want them, even if they are aware of advertiser selling techniques.121 The implication is that even though children—and adults too, for that matter—may know that something is not what it seems, that does not stop them from wanting it.
Because so many advertisements targeted to children are for foods that are high in calories and low in nutritional value, concerns have been raised that food advertisements are partly to blame for children being overweight and obese.122 A comprehensive review of the empirical literature on food advertising, conducted by a National Academies panel that was charged by Congress to investigate the role of marketing and advertising in childhood obesity, concluded that television food advertisements affect children's food preferences, food requests, and short-term eating patterns. The panel was unable, however, to conclude that television food advertising had causal effects on child obesity, because the data were, by necessity, correlational, not causal—one cannot ethically conduct research to cause some children to become overweight and obese.123 Research on the effect of newer forms of food marketing on obesity, such as practices that take place online, is notably lacking.
Another purported, though rarely studied, outcome of children's commercial exposure is an increased emphasis on materialism among younger children. Preadolescent girls, for example, are now purchasing more and more clothing, make-up, and other products that were formerly targeted to an adolescent teen market.124 An American Psychological Association task force has argued that heavy advertising and marketing campaigns are leading to the sexualization and exploitation of young girls.