Kids' consumption


Material Information

Kids' consumption how children perceive the relationships between advertisements and products
Physical Description:
vii, 271 leaves : ill. ; 29 cm.
Moore-Shay, Elizabeth S., 1957-
Publication Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
Advertising and children   ( lcsh )
Child consumers   ( lcsh )
Marketing thesis Ph.D
Dissertations, Academic -- Marketing -- UF
bibliography   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )


Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Florida, 1994.
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 253-270).
General Note:
General Note:
Statement of Responsibility:
by Elizabeth S. Moore-Shay.

Record Information

Source Institution:
University of Florida
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
aleph - 030580449
oclc - 31913489
System ID:

Table of Contents
    Title Page
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    Chapter 1. Introduction
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    Chapter 2. Review of literature
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    Chapter 3. Study 1
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    Chapter 4. Study 2
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    Chapter 5. Study 3
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    Chapter 6. Conclusions and future directions
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    Appendix A. Preliminary study interview schedule
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    Appendix B. Sample experimental questionnaire
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    Appendix C. Ad texts
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    Appendix D. Interview schedule for study 3
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    Biographical sketch
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Full Text







To Neil and Laura Jane


As my graduate education draws to a close, I would like to acknowledge the

support of a number of individuals. First, I would like to thank the members of the

marketing faculty at the University of Florida, both former and present who have

provided valued guidance over the years. In particular, appreciation is extended to

Professors Joel Cohen, John Lynch and William Wilkie who have generously shared their

time and expertise. I would like to thank the members of my committee, Professors

David Mick and Richard Romano, for their time and efforts regarding this project and

especially Alan Sawyer for his insight and support throughout my graduate education.

Special thanks go to Professor Pamela Richards for her help in discovering the joys of

qualitative research, and to Joan Levy for her friendship and transcription skills. Thanks

also go to the children who so willingly shared their thoughts, delights and frustrations,

and to the teachers and school administrators who supported this project.

My deepest appreciation is extended to Professor Richard J. Lutz, for his

invaluable guidance and unwavering support of this project and my professional

development. With a wisdom and generosity of spirit that is rare, he has challenged and

enriched my thinking, and helped to bring out the best in me.

Finally, I would like to thank my husband, Neil, my daughter, Laura, and my

parents for their boundless love and encouragement.



ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS ................................ ....iii

ABSTRACT ............................................. vi


1 INTRODUCTION .................................... 1

The Primacy of Product Consumption ...................... 4
The Nature of Children's Advertising ........................ 7
Research Purpose and Direction ......................... 13

2 REVIEW OF LITERATURE .......................... 20

The Pervasive Influence of Advertising .................... 25
Product Consumption: A Primary Source of Meaning
and Influence ................................ 34
Translating Product Meaning: From the Mundane
to the Magical ............................... 37
A Call for a Meaning-Based Perspective .................... 44
The Interaction of Advertising and Product Trial ................. 48
Prevailing Paradigms and Children's Reality .................. 55

3 STUDY 1 ....................................... 61

Research Approach ................................. 63
Method ......................................... 70
Research Findings .................................. 77
Discussion ....................................... 89
Conclusions ...................................... 93

4 STUDY 2 ....................

Conceptual Background and Hypotheses .................... 100
Method ........................................ 130
Analysis and Results ................................. 142
Discussion ...................................... 160
Notes .......................................... 165

5 STUDY 3 ...................................... 166

The Functions of Qualitative Inquiry ..................... 167
Methodological Pluralism ............................ 169
Overview ....................................... 173
Method ........................................ 175
Research Findings ................................. 185
Discussion ...................................... 217





C AD TEXTS ..................................... 244

D INTERVIEW SCHEDULE FOR STUDY 3 .................. 248

REFERENCES ....................................... 253

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ................................. 271


. 95

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy



Elizabeth S. Moore-Shay

April 1994

Chairperson: Richard J. Lutz
Major Department: Marketing

Multiple perspectives and methods are used to investigate the relationships

children (ages 7-11 years) perceive between advertisements and their consumption

experiences. While advertising's effects on children have been studied extensively,

rarely have researchers considered the broader context in which products are also

purchased and consumed. Products and their use are a focal point of consumer behavior

and the most readily available source of marketplace information to young consumers.

Combining both experimentation and depth interviews, this research examines whether

advertising influences children's interpretations of their product experiences. The hybrid

research design incorporates the precision and rigor of a causal analysis as well as the

rich insights of interpretive approaches. Three studies were conducted: a preliminary

phenomenological investigation, an experimental study of the interaction between

advertising and product trial and an in-depth qualitative investigation that replicates the

basic experimental framework. The experiment examines the relationships among

children's affective reactions to ads, brand perceptions and attitudes within a consumption

context. The qualitative studies focus on the advertising-consumption relationship from

the child's perspective. Drawing from grounded theory, this research reflects the view

that understanding of human phenomena must be grounded in the reality of events and

situations as they are subjectively experienced.

The preliminary study revealed that children focus extensively on the

entertainment value of commercial messages, sometimes at the expense of the brand

appeal. The centrality of executional dimensions in children's interpretations of

advertising was most evident among the older age group (10 to 11-year olds). The

experimental results were consistent with emergent patterns, indicating that advertising

does have the capacity to frame a child's consumption experience, though age-related

differences were observed. It was the older children who allowed their affective

reactions to advertisements to color their perceptions of usage experience. Reinforcing

the findings of the first two studies, the in-depth qualitative study revealed two distinct

perspectives on advertising-consumption relations. Younger children tended to view

advertisements from a more functional perspective, focusing primarily on the brand. The

older children seemed to approach advertising from the perspective of an art critic,

drawing extensively on advertising's creative properties and design.


Advertising is a pervasive factor in the lives of most American children. Within

the last decade manufacturers have dramatically stepped up their efforts to reach children

through new advertising media, sophisticated production techniques and creative appeals.

Television commercials, movies, video games and specialty magazines all carry a vast

and exciting array of persuasive messages targeted at a young audience (Pereira 1990).

Television is a particularly accessible and effective medium for reaching children. For

many, time spent in front of the television may equal or even exceed the number of hours

spent in school each week. Recent estimates suggest that children between the ages of

6 and 11 watch about 25 hours of television per week and are exposed to as many as

20,000-25,000 commercials in a single year (Raju and Lonial 1990; Weisskoff 1985).

Concerns about children's ability to fully comprehend and evaluate advertised

messages has stimulated substantial research and heated debate among scholars and

practitioners since the early 1970s. The controversy surrounding children's responses

to advertising has absorbed the attention of researchers from a number of academic

disciplines and political orientations. Critics assert that advertising to children is

inherently unfair because children lack the cognitive skills and life experiences needed

to resist persuasive product claims. Supporters argue, on the other hand, that children's

vulnerabilities are often overstated and that by providing product information, advertising

helps both parents and children make more informed choices.


Though the controversy continues, research evidence does suggest that children

may alter their preferences and behavior as a consequence of advertising exposure.

There is little doubt that children, especially young children, are drawn to the exciting

array of products manufacturers offer them. In attempting to understand the precise

nature of this influence, researchers have addressed a number of issues of both applied

and theoretical interest over the years. A substantial literature has accumulated (see

Adler et al. 1980; McNeal 1987; Raju and Lonial 1990 for reviews). A bibliography

published over a decade ago listed approximately 500 entries, of which over 200 were

research studies assessing the impact of advertising on children's consumer activities

(Meringoff 1980). Though research activity slowed during the deregulatory era of the

1980s, a small group of researchers has continued to raise important theoretical and

methodological issues.

Of fundamental interest to both researchers and practitioners alike is

understanding the specific nature of advertising's influence on children's attitudes and

behavior. The relative effectiveness of specific techniques or strategies used in

advertisements targeted at children has been examined across a variety of contexts and

with children of varying developmental skills or abilities. This is a research area that

subsumes a wide variety of substantive issues and methodological concerns. Questions

such as (1) do children desire the products they see advertised? (2) are they motivated

to ask their parents for them? and, (3) are they more likely to choose products they have

seen advertised than others? have guided a number of research studies over the last 20


years. Common to these investigations is the focus on advertising's role in the product

acquisition process.

In general terms, there can be little doubt that children attend to ads, try to

understand them and are often attracted to the products they see depicted. Not

surprisingly, clear age-related patterns have been detected in terms of children's belief

in or acceptance of advertised claims. Relative to their younger counterparts, older

children (10-13) tend to be much more skeptical of advertising (Bever, Smith, Bengen

and Johnson 1975; Robertson and Rossiter 1974; Rossiter 1977; Ward, Wackman and

Wartella 1977). They readily acknowledge that advertising does not always tell the truth

and are more likely to express negative feelings toward the institution of advertising

(Blatt, Spencer and Ward 1972; Bever et al. 1975; Robertson and Rossiter 1974).

However, these kinds of generalized indicators may overstate children's actual rejection

of specific advertisements and persuasive claims (Atkin 1980; Gorn and Goldberg 1977;

Rossiter 1979). Even a broad knowledge base and a generalized skepticism do not insure

immunity from well-crafted advertisements. Though as adults we recognize advertising's

persuasive character, we are still drawn to certain products through commercial messages

that touch our hearts and minds. Children are no different; when asked, they may

express a more adult-like view of advertising that bears little relationship to advertising's

actual influence on their responses to specific products or commercial messages. Though

younger children tend to be affected more strongly by advertising, older children who

presumably have the ability to discount an advertiser's message may not do so

spontaneously (Brucks, Armstrong and Goldberg 1988).


What emerges from the research literature is a view of children and their

responses to advertising that is seemingly contradictory. Though it is clear that by the

time children reach the age of 9 or 10 they are well aware of advertising's purpose and

are likely to express rather skeptical views of advertising, they may still be persuaded

to want products that are made to look intriguing, useful or fun. When given the

opportunity, they tend to choose advertised products over others and are not beyond

asking their parents for them on occasion. How children interpret or evaluate their

experiences once they actually obtain the products they have seen advertised is not at all


The Primacy of Product Consumption

Products are a primary focal point of consumer behavior, yet the impact of their

use on children's consumer learning has been virtually ignored. The most readily

available sources of marketplace information to children are the products they encounter

and their own consumption experiences. Consider how many opportunities children have

each day to observe the use of products by members of their family. However, even

very young children are not simply bystanders. Children learn a wealth of information

through their own product experiences. The taste, appearance, function and performance

of a product provide a great deal of information to a child who is learning what it means

to be a consumer in our society. Through consumption, children learn what products are

good and bad, whether advertising claims are truthful, what brands they prefer, and even

that products convey meanings apart from their functional properties. Children


develop evaluative criteria based on their product experiences and learn to compare

products to one another and to the advertisements that promote them.

While there is compelling evidence that a well-crafted advertisement can persuade

children that a product is desirable, we know little about how or when these perceptions

are altered once the product leaves the retailer's shelf. Given that a goal of advertising

is to stimulate not only an initial purchase but also repeat purchase behavior, the need

to understand the impact of consumption on children's product perceptions and attitudes

seems obvious. From the child's perspective, it is the benefits provided by a product that

are focal. The pleasure, disappointment, understanding and confusion that result from

product experiences are the basis for more enduring beliefs and attitudes about the

marketplace and its operation. How children perceive and evaluate the relationships

between advertising claims and their consumption experiences is an issue that touches on

the interests of marketers as well as public policymakers.

Concerns about advertising's capacity to foster unrealistic expectations of products

has long been an issue among consumer protectionists as well as the industry

representatives charged with regulating children's advertising. Both the Children's

Advertising Unit and the National Association of Broadcasters include specific provisions

in their guidelines discouraging the use of portrayals that might explicitly or implicitly

foster unreasonable expectations of product quality or performance (Children's

Advertising Review Unit 1983; National Association of Broadcasters 1977). Clearly,

these codes are based on the assumption that at least young children have difficulty

recognizing and discounting exaggeration in the context of persuasive messages. To what


extent advertising actually engenders exaggerated expectations that are subsequently

disappointed is unknown. Neither have researchers investigated situations where

children's product experiences actually exceed their expectations.

Though the dynamics of the advertising-consumption relationship have not been

examined empirically, researchers nevertheless have assumed that this relationship has

a significant impact on children's perceptions and responsiveness to persuasive attempts.

For example, it has been suggested that until children actually experience discrepancies

between products as advertised and as consumed, they are unable to fully comprehend

advertising's persuasive intent (Robertson and Rossiter 1974). Increased distrust or

skepticism of advertising has also been linked to children's negative experiences with

heavily promoted products (Ward 1972). Critics of advertising have suggested that

commercials may present information that differs from the child's actual experiences with

those products, causing confusion and potentially undermining his(her) trust in external

sources of information (e.g., Feldman and Wolf 1974). Collectively, these arguments

suggest that how children interpret and evaluate the relationship between advertising and

their product experiences is important not only in the context of a single purchase

decision but also in a much larger or long-term sense. Children's general attitudes about

advertising, as well as their perceptions of how the marketplace functions, may be

influenced by the many experiences they have had, both good and bad, with heavily

advertised products.

Within the research literature on adult consumer behavior, there is a growing

consensus that advertising's effects are felt not only at the time of exposure but


subsequently when the consumer comes into contact with a product. What a consumer

discovers through product consumption is not a mere reflection of objective reality but

an interpretation that may be influenced by the images and language of advertising

(Deighton 1984; Hoch and Deighton 1989; Hoch and Ha 1986; Puto and Wells 1984;

Wells 1986). Many everyday consumption experiences are open to multiple

interpretations. From the clothes we wear to the food we eat, product use is laden with

meaning that accrues from sources beyond its structural features or form (McCracken

1986). Even the simple act of eating a bowl of cereal may be subject to diverse

interpretations. The experience is sufficiently bland and potentially uninformative enough

to support a variety of assertions gleaned from other sources, such as advertising

(Deighton 1984). In these kinds of situations, advertisements have the potential to alter

the experience by suggesting what features should be noticed and remembered. They

may provide clues that consumers use to understand their feelings and reactions.

Advertisements seem to have the greatest capacity to reach into the product experience

when they are plausible and attractive, yet difficult to dispute directly. Well-executed

advertisements use striking images and language to enlarge a product's meaning and

value. Advertising claims are frequently more affective than factually based. This is

particularly true in the realm of children's advertising where fun, excitement and

adventure are overriding themes (Barcus 1980). How these kinds of advertisements may

influence children's interpretations of their product experiences is unknown. Researchers

interested in the interaction of advertising and evidence have confined their efforts to

understanding adult responses and processing strategies.


The Nature of Children's Advertising

To fully understand how children perceive the relationship between the products

they consume and the commercial messages that promote them requires an appreciation

for the special character of children's advertising and its potential to affect the

interpretation of product experiences. Advertisements targeted at children are frequently

as enchanting and captivating as the programs in which they are embedded. These ads

use special effects, sophisticated animation, and humor to entertain and pique children's

interest. Creative visuals depict action and events in a striking and memorable way.

Children's ads are rarely informational in the sense of rational appeals based on product

features (Barcus 1980). Objective product information emphasizing product ingredients

or materials, economic value, or design quality is rarely included in these advertisements.

Instead, persuasive appeals tend to focus on the hedonic aspects of consumption.

Merriment and fun are the dominant themes across product categories and stylistic

conventions. Fantasy is often used to convey excitement and adventure. Animated

figures interacting with real children, mysterious flights of fantasy, mythical kingdoms,

outer-space beings, and magical transformations of objects are widely used to promote

children's products.

In recent years, program-length commercials, host-selling and other techniques

using program characters to promote products have emerged in response to a 1984

Federal Communications Commission deregulation order. The promotion of toys and

other products associated with program themes and characters has become part of

well-coordinated and very successful marketing strategies. In 1990, for example,


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles generated approximately $400 million in retail sales from

the action figures alone (Pereira 1991). This figure does not include additional revenue

generated from the sale of licensed products such as turtle cereal, fruit juice, pajamas,

sheets, t-shirts, books and videotapes. The television program is a vehicle to provide

additional product exposure to the child audience, in the hope of stimulating additional

sales that in turn may help to sustain program popularity. Though the marketing of

products linked to television themes and characters is nothing new, the line between

commercial and program content has become increasingly blurred. Persuasive messages

are in some sense becoming more subtle, as programming, advertisements and the

products themselves flow into and reinforce one another.

Children's advertisements have become more elaborate, sophisticated and

penetrating in recent years. Advertisers rely extensively on the power of captivating

visuals and subjective claims to touch the hearts and minds of young consumers. It is

in the context of these kinds of persuasive messages that children must somehow interpret

and evaluate their product experiences.

How children relate what they see and hear in these advertisements to their

subsequent product experiences is not well-understood. Without the benefit of substantial

marketplace experience and mature processing strategies to guide them, children

somehow manage to make sense of the enticing array of persuasive messages and

products that permeate their everyday lives.

To understand how children interpret and evaluate these relationships requires a

sensitivity not only to children's cognitive skills and limitations but also to their unique


perspective on advertising and its place within their lives. Research strategies are needed

that reliably and accurately reflect children's particular needs and perspectives. In many

studies of children's media reception, adult responses or explanations have served as the

expressed or implied standard for performance (Anderson 1981; Dorr 1986).

Researchers have taken their own interpretations of televised content as the standard and

evaluated children's responses against that adult baseline. With this criterion, children's

understandings implicitly represent some sort of flawed approximation to the

interpretation an adult might provide, rather than a unique and valid perspective on the

world. To understand how children perceive the advertising-consumption relationship

will require a sensitivity to the concepts and categories children use to define their


The general paradigm that has been adopted by researchers to understand the

linkages between advertising and consumption incorporates key assumptions about

consumers that may not accurately reflect how children respond to persuasive messages.

Within this framework consumers are depicted as more or less logical thinkers who (1)

search out and manipulate information in order to make choices among goods and

services; (2) respond to advertising as a partisan source; and (3) treat advertising claims

as provisional hypotheses that are subsequently used to evaluate product experiences.

Each of these assumptions has a direct bearing on the way the advertising-consumption

relationship is conceptualized and measured. Violation of these assumptions may

suggest that alternative approaches are needed to understand children's unique and often

surprising responses. The model of adult processing that has developed provides both


important insight into the advertising-consumption relationship and a useful counterpoint

from which to understand children's reactions.

Current models of the advertising-consumption relationship assume that consumers

approach advertising with a certain amount of skepticism. The performance expectations

adults form as a consequence of advertising exposure are rather tentative because they

respond to advertisements as partisan sources of information. Adults both recognize and

act on the knowledge that advertising is inherently biased. Product claims are treated

merely as conjectures that may or may not prove to be accurate.

While this presumption of skepticism clearly holds for most adults, children are

much more likely to believe what they see in advertisements. Children enjoy

commercials and are often attracted to the products they see portrayed. Even as they

begin to acknowledge advertisers' motives, children may not spontaneously apply what

they know while viewing (Brucks et al. 1988). Without a reminder to critically evaluate

the contents of a message while viewing, children tend to focus their energies on the

product and the captivating way it is portrayed. Though children become increasingly

skeptical of advertising during middle childhood, this skepticism is relatively fragile.

They may express rather negative attitudes about TV advertising that bear little

relationship to an advertisement's actual influence on their attitudes or purchase

inclinations (Rossiter 1979). Difficulties may arise because children do not fully

understand how or why advertising works. Familiarity with the range of influence

strategies used by advertisers allows adults to take a more detached view of what they

see and hear. Children lack this experience and the critical eye it engenders. As a


result, they are more easily persuaded by advertising techniques that are readily

discounted by more experienced consumers. Without this knowledge to guide them,

children may find it more difficult to differentiate obviously true and obviously false

claims from those of a more intermediate or uncertain nature.

Emerging from the research literature is a view of the school age child who is

quite capable of discounting an advertiser's message but may not always be inclined to

do so. Though this may be troubling from a policy perspective, it is neither illogical nor

particularly surprising. Advertisements offer children an exciting and dazzling array of

product alternatives. Without economic responsibility or concern, children are free to

enjoy what they see before them. From the child's perspective, each new toy, cereal or

snack represents a fresh opportunity for pleasure or amusement. Advertisers tout these

benefits with humor and a singular charm. Without specific instructions or reminders

to discount what the advertiser has to say, children may be more inclined to simply sit

back and enjoy the special effects and flights of fantasy they see before them.

Concerns about children's ability and inclination to differentiate among ad claims

and discount them appropriately are critically important issues in terms of children's

advertising response. Children's greater proclivity to accept advertising claims may have

important implications for how consumption experiences are judged or evaluated. What

may be regarded as mere supposition by an adult may take on the trappings of fact

through the eyes of a young and inexperienced consumer. Under these circumstances,

consumption experiences may be shaped by attractive yet vague promises of

performance. The key to understanding children's responses to products and the


advertisements that promote them rests with the children themselves. Rather than

mapping their responses onto adult models, it is important to look at these relationships

in terms of the structure and units children perceive. There is much to be learned by

allowing children to tell their side of the story, through their own language and point of

view. Clearly, there is a need for research into the nature of children's expectations and

how they are brought into play in the context of consumption experiences. To be useful,

such research requires a sensitivity to the child's unique perspective of advertising and

how it works. Multiple research approaches are needed to learn about the

advertising-consumption relationship and its implications for children and their

understanding of the marketplace.

Research Purpose and Direction

The general paradigm that has been adopted by consumer researchers to

understand the linkages between advertising and consumption is firmly grounded within

the information processing framework. Of fundamental interest within this perspective

are the cognitive mechanisms that may be used to explain how consumers assimilate and

utilize information. Developmental researchers have adopted a similar theoretical and

methodological orientation to the study of advertising response. Though very little is

known about the role of consumption, the information processing perspective has

provided a number of insights into children's ability to select, manipulate and retrieve

information conveyed through advertising (e.g., Brucks et al. 1988; Costley and Brucks

1987; Roedder 1981; Roedder, Stemrnthal and Calder 1983; Wartella et al. 1979).

Without an appreciation for and sensitivity to these cognitive mechanisms, our


understanding of children's responses would certainly be limited. However, cognitive

explanations alone are not able to capture the range and complexity of children's

reactions to advertisements and products.

The broad purpose of this research project is to learn more about how children

perceive the relationships between the advertisements they see and the products they

consume. To understand fully how advertising affects children requires greater insight

into how the consumption experience is assessed and managed. Children's advertising

responses are embedded within a larger system in which products are also purchased and

consumed. It is through trial and experience that children have the opportunity to test

the validity and relevance of what an advertiser has said. Studying children's reactions

to advertising within the context of this larger embedding system brings to light

unanticipated factors and relationships. Consumer researchers with both theoretical and

substantive interests have stressed the importance of trying to identify key contextual

factors and their operation within larger embedding systems (Lutz 1991; Lynch 1982,

1983). Needed are research approaches that have the capacity to address advertising

response issues within this broader context.

To begin to address these needs, this research project incorporates both

experimental methods and more discovery-oriented depth interviews to understand the

substantive issues that define children's perceptions of the relationships between

advertising and their consumption experiences. Over the course of eighteen months and

interviews with approximately 160 children between the ages of 7 and 11, three studies,

designed to complement and enrich one another, were conducted.


The first study was a qualitative investigation with both substantive and

methodological aims. This portion of the project was designed to develop a preliminary

understanding of how children perceive and evaluate ad-product interrelationships and

to assess the viability of an inductive approach with elementary school children. The

depth and breadth of children's responses quickly put to rest any doubts about children's

ability or willingness to participate in the research in a meaningful way. Findings from

the preliminary study served as input to the conceptual development and design of an

experimental investigation as well as a source of hypotheses for subsequent qualitative


The second study extends children's advertising research by looking beyond

prepurchase activities to product use or consumption. Using advertisements specifically

intended for children and broadcast within the context of children's programming, the

experiment examines the interaction of advertising and evidence. At a micro-theoretical

level, the experiment addresses whether and how advertisements may influence children's

cognitive and affective responses in the context of product consumption. The

relationships among a number of variables previously neglected in the children's research

literature were examined, including attitude toward the advertisement, entertainment,

brand perceptions and attitudes. Though the experimental design allowed for the testing

of key conceptual relationships, it was not particularly well suited for discovering new

or unanticipated phenomena or relationships of significance. The discovery-oriented

design of the preliminary study had shown that there was much to be learned by simply

allowing the children "to talk." This approach enables the researcher "to learn more; be


surprised; to find out what one does not already expect, predict or hypothesize" (Mahrer

1988, p. 697). It is particularly well suited not only for approaching new topics but to

gain fresh slants on phenomena about which a great deal is already known, such as

children's responses to advertising.

Utilizing grounded theory perspectives and analytic strategies, the third study

represented a return to the field for a more in-depth qualitative examination of the ideas

and hypotheses that had been suggested earlier. The third study was designed to learn

more about how children think about advertisements and products in the context of their

everyday lives. Depth interviews were used to learn about children's systems of meaning

rather than those imposed by the adult world. Discovery-oriented in nature, the

grounded theory approach attempts to understand the world from the perspective of the

individual who lives, feels or experiences it. Rather than entering the field with

ready-made categories or interpretive schemes, the grounded theorist attempts to gather

rich descriptions that reflect the perspectives and experiences of the interviewees. By

obtaining extensive descriptions of specific events or situations the researcher acquires

material of sufficient depth and detail to construct a grounded theory, which is

inductively derived from the substantive phenomenon it represents (Corbin and Strauss

1990; Glaser and Strauss 1967).

Though interpretive modes of inquiry have gained increased acceptance among

consumer researchers, these approaches have not been applied to children's research

issues. Why this is the case is not entirely clear. Perhaps, it is due in part to the oft

cited concern that young children do not have the ability to answer questions accurately


because of memory and perceptual deficits. Young children, in particular, are viewed

as inaccurate and unreliable observers of their own consumption-related activities

(Goldberg and Gorn 1983; Peracchio 1990). As any parent or teacher will attest, older

children (7 to 12-year olds) are much better able to express their opinions, concerns and

feelings directly and without hesitation. It is interesting to note that some of the earliest

and still most widely cited studies within the children's advertising literature relied on

interviews to understand children's responses (e.g., Bever et al. 1975; Blatt et al. 1972;

Ward 1972; Ward et al. 1977). Though not phenomenological in orientation, these

studies provided initial insight into the ways children think about and relate to advertising

and other marketing stimuli. As research on children's advertising responses matured,

this type of approach was criticized for its exploratory character and largely abandoned.

In the ensuing years, a great deal has been learned about children's cognitive structures

and processes but very little about their consumption related experiences and perceptions.

The potential benefits of utilizing a grounded theory approach to understand

children's experiences as consumers are numerous. First, very little is known about how

children think about the relationships between the advertisements they see and the

products they obtain. Open-ended interviews are a useful tool for learning about how

children perceive these relationships, unfettered by adult biases and perspectives. It is

tempting yet misleading to view children as miniature adults who simply lack the

cognitive skills or sophistication needed to be effective decision makers. Among social

scientists and practitioners there is mounting criticism of research practices that fail to

adequately represent and reflect children's beliefs and practices (e.g., Goode 1986;


Rojcewicz 1987; Waksler 1986). Discovery-based research methods offer the

opportunity to strip away "adultcentric" interpretations of children's consumer activities.

Rather than translating children's experiences into adult categories or commonsense views

of the world, this approach attempts to understand the child's experience as it is.

Discovery-oriented research recognizes that children's consciousness differs from adults'

but views this as a positive phenomenon to be understood and respected. The child's

realm is depicted as natural, everyday or phenomenal rather than scientific or theoretical.

The qualitative investigation offers the opportunity to view the

advertising-consumption relationship through the eyes of a child. In combination with

more traditional experimental methods, a great deal can be learned about how children

evaluate what they consume. A hybrid research design brings to bear the strengths of

multiple approaches and perspectives (Lutz 1991). The potential contributions of such

a study are both substantive and methodological. From a substantive perspective, very

little is known about product use, though it is a critical element of the consumption cycle.

The investigation is designed to provide specific knowledge about how children perceive

and evaluate the relationship between the advertisements they see and the products they

consume. The ways in which advertisements may potentially alter children's product

experiences has important consequences both in an immediate sense and in terms of

advertising's broader impact on children and their understanding of the marketplace.

Methodologically, the investigation represents one of the first attempts within the

consumer literature to approach issues affecting children from a phenomenological

perspective. This approach offers the opportunity to question assumptions made about


children's perceptions of the advertising-consumption relationship that have implicitly

guided prior thinking and analysis. By combining experimental and phenomenological

methods within a single research project, this investigation has the capacity to capitalize

on the strengths and merits of both. What emerges is a richer and more detailed

understanding of a significant yet little understood facet of children's consumer



Few consumer issues in recent memory have stimulated as spirited and protracted

a dialogue as the question of how advertising affects children. Educators, academic

researchers, regulatory agencies, public policymakers, public interest groups,

broadcasters and advertisers and their ad agencies have all contributed to the complex and

often fiery debate about the impact of advertising in children's lives. Issues of social and

regulatory policy are at the heart of this controversy (Huston, Watkins and Kunkel 1989).

Though virtually all interested parties agree that children constitute a special audience

with distinct needs and vulnerabilities, there is substantial disagreement regarding issues

of fairness in advertising to children and its broader impact on the socialization process

(Armstrong and Brucks 1988; Kinsey 1987; Kline 1989; Liebert and Sprafkin 1988).

During the last twenty years, Americans have witnessed the rise and fall of the

Federal Trade Commission's proposal to ban children's television advertising, the advent

of program-length commercials, substantial fluctuation in the number of commercial

minutes the Federal Communications Commission allows during children's programming

and the latest innovation, Channel One (Condry, Bence and Scheibe 1987; Federal Trade

Commission 1978; Greenberg and Brand 1993; Kunkel 1988a, 1988b, 1991; Kunkel and

Watkins 1987; Mueller and Wulfemeyer 1992). It is within this social and political

context that research questions have been framed, methods chosen and knowledge


accumulated. The nature and depth of our scientific insight into how children respond

to advertising is derived from the research agenda that has been shaped in some measure

by this broader social context.

Concerns about children's ability to comprehend advertising's persuasive

character, evaluate specific techniques and strategies, and make appropriate product

choices have motivated the majority of research efforts since the early 1970s. To address

these issues, developmental-stage and information processing models have been utilized

to understand how children's cognitive skills in dealing with advertised information

evolve with age and accumulated experience. Without question, this research focus is

both important and necessary on social policy as well as economic grounds. However,

it is also important to recognize that it represents but a single perspective.

Fundamental concerns about children's ability to cope with advertised messages

have led to a rather narrowly defined research agenda. Researchers have tended to focus

on matters of public policy, to the exclusion of other issues and modes of thinking that

may be useful in furthering our understanding of children's responsiveness to marketplace

stimuli. Other potentially interesting questions about advertising and its role within

children's lives have simply not been posed because they lie outside our traditional

construal of the aims and methods of children's advertising research. At a very

fundamental level, a research agenda is a function of the social and political context that

produces it. A Zeitgeist prevails within a research community that tends to constrain

how issues are conceptualized and investigated. This is particularly true in the case of


children's advertising, where at issue are deep concerns about fairness and cultural

values, as well as appropriate business practice.

Guiding this research project from its inception is the notion that while a great

deal has been learned about children's advertising response over the years, the prevailing

paradigm is limited in its ability to capture the full range of issues that define

advertising's meaning and purpose in children's lives. Without doubt, tremendous insight

into the development of children's cognitive skills and their deployment during ad

processing has been gained. However, prevailing modes of thinking have the capacity

to capture only the outlines of a more complex and multihued picture. Kuhn (1962)

suggests that a research paradigm, however specialized, incorporates theory, application

and instrumentation that are accepted and adhered to by members of a scientific

community. Paradigmatic assumptions guide conceptualization, research design and

analysis. Indicating the maturing of a scientific discipline, paradigm-based research

offers the advantages of increased precision, specification and rigor. Basic premises and

fundamental relationships are established, thus allowing for detailed investigation.

However, paradigmatic research or "normal science" is limited in discovering radically

new phenomena.

An explicit and fundamental assumption of this research project is that broader,

more discovery-oriented perspectives that look beyond information processing and policy-

driven concerns are needed, to begin to capture the rich color and essence of

advertising's meaning in children's lives. What appear to be basic, substantive questions

about how children make sense of, interpret and use ads have not been asked because

they lie outside traditional modes of thinking and communication among researchers.

With the caveat firmly in mind that a single research project can only begin to

demonstrate the value of a broadened conceptualization, this investigation focuses on

perceived relationships between advertisements and product consumption. The approach

taken represents a departure from traditional models on three levels. First, it looks

beyond prepurchase issues. It is grounded upon the simple assumption that neither the

decision process nor children's attempt to construct product meaning end at the point of

purchase. Children's product-related thoughts and perceptions derive as much from their

direct experiences with consumption objects as from the advertisements designed to

promote them. To neglect this very powerful source of marketplace information

represents a tremendous oversight. From a child's perspective, it is the product and the

fun, excitement or disappointment it offers that ultimately matters. Second, a meaning-

based model of advertising is utilized to guide the research process (McCracken 1987).

This perspective explicitly recognizes that advertising is a reflection of the culture that

creates its form and content. An advertisement is not a fixed or neutral object but a

kaleidoscopic, cultural product containing different layers of meaning, ranging from the

obvious to the culturally interpreted. When children respond to advertising or other

types of marketplace stimuli, they are responding to products of a particular era and

social context (Kline 1989; Watkins 1985). Thoughts and feelings are generated

according to their emerging understanding of cultural conventions, beliefs and values.

The child is not simply extracting product information from an advertisement that (s)he

then stores in memory for use in subsequent decisions, but is an active participant in the


construction and communication of cultural meanings. Fully occupied in the process of

learning and negotiating their notions of self and community, children may use

advertisements as a window on the larger culture. To the child engaged in the process

of discovering what it means to be a child and a consumer, advertisements are more than

simply product information. They are rich sources of cultural knowledge and insight.

This perspective departs from the prevailing paradigm by viewing the child not just as

a passive recipient of information but as an active participant in the construction of

meaning. Children construct and shape meanings that are multifaceted, intriguing and

often complex yet may bear little relationship to adult interpretations. This research

project departs from traditional approaches by explicitly focusing on the child's unique

perspective on the advertising-consumption relationship. Though children's responses

legitimately reflect the situations and objects that they confront in daily life, relatively

little is known about their unique perspective. In many studies of children's media

reception, adult responses are used as the asserted or implied standard of performance

(Anderson 1981; Anderson and Avery 1988; Bever et al. 1975; Dorr 1986; Rossiter and

Robertson 1974). Researchers have utilized their own interpretations of televised content

as the standard and evaluated children's responses against it. With this criterion,

children's perceptions are implicitly regarded as some sort of flawed approximation to

the adult model, rather than a true and valuable perspective on the world. This research

is based on the assumption that children's reactions to the situations and objects they

confront in daily life are far more complex than theory often gives them credit (Denzin

1977). Until this complexity is recognized and incorporated into empirical studies of


children's consumer behavior, our images of consumer socialization will remain


The Persuasive Influence of Advertising

The investigation of advertising's effects on children has a relatively long and rich

tradition within consumer research. After over 20 years of research, the empirical

evidence distinctly shows that advertising influences young children's product awareness,

preferences and behavior. It is clear that children pay attention to ads, delight in the

flights of fantasy and fun they depict and are often attracted to the products they

promote. Of fundamental interest to researchers and marketing practitioners alike is

understanding the precise nature of this influence and the processes by which it occurs.

This is a research area that incorporates an array of specific substantive and theoretical

issues. Much of the research on children's responses to advertising can be cast in terms

of four major areas. These are (1) children's attention to advertising, (2) children's

comprehension of commercial messages, (3) advertising's persuasive impact on children's

product preferences and (4) the behavioral consequences of exposure, particularly on

choice and requests for advertised products (see Atkin 1980; McNeal 1987, Raju and

Lonial 1990, and Wartella 1980 for alternative classification schemes). Within this broad

categorization fall a number of studies that have been designed to test the relative

effectiveness of specific techniques or strategies used in advertisements targeted at

children. For example, the persuasive impact of product characters, premium offers,

disclaimers and the type of claims made have all been the subject of extensive research

study (e.g., Adler et al. 1980). Of primary interest here is the research that focuses


more generally on advertising's impact on the attitudes and behavior of school-age (5 to

12-year-old) children. This work provides the foundation necessary to begin to consider

how advertising might influence children's interpretations and evaluations within the

broader context of product consumption.

Research on children's beliefs in or acceptance of advertising has been focused

at two levels (1) their willingness to accept specific claims made about products and (2)

their more general attitudes about the truthfulness of advertising. As might be expected,

clear age-related patterns emerge. Older children (10 to 13-year-olds), tend to be much

more skeptical of advertising than their younger counterparts (Bever et al. 1975;

Robertson and Rossiter 1974; Rossiter 1977; Ward et al. 1977). They are quick to

concede that advertising does not always tell the truth and frequently express rather

negative attitudes toward the institution of advertising itself (Blatt et al. 1972; Bever et

al. 1975; Robertson and Rossiter 1974).

Underpinning research effort in this area is the question of when children

understand advertising's persuasive intent and profit motive. Long-standing concern

about young children's failure to recognize the persuasive purpose that is intrinsic to

commercial advertising led to a number of research investigations during the 1970s and

1980s (e.g., Blosser and Roberts 1985; Donohue, Henke and Donohue 1980; Macklin

1985, 1987; Roberts 1982; Robertson and Rossiter 1974; Ward et al. 1977). Though the

age at which children fully comprehend advertising's purpose has not been established

with certainty, there is substantial evidence indicating that by 7 or 8 years-old, most

children have at least a preliminary understanding (Roberts 1982; Robertson and Rossiter


1974; Ward et al. 1977; Wartella and Hunter 1983). The recognition of persuasive intent

is considered a basic developmental milestone by both researchers and policymakers.

Traditionally, it has been assumed that once children understand the persuasive purpose

of advertising they become more skeptical and are then capable of resisting its appeal

(Brucks, Armstrong and Goldberg 1988; Federal Trade Commission 1978; Robertson and

Rossiter 1974; Rossiter and Robertson 1974). Without the recognition that advertising

intends to persuade, children are presumed to accept advertising claims as truthful rather

than question them as adults often do. Young children are believed to be in need of

protection due to their inability to detect persuasive intent in advertising, making them

especially vulnerable to its appeals. Older children, on the other hand, equipped with

an understanding of commercial intent, begin to mistrust advertising and arm themselves

with "cognitive defenses" to resist its persuasive aims (Robertson and Rossiter 1974;

Rossiter and Robertson 1974). They are presumed to have less need for protection as

a consequence of their ability to comprehend advertising's persuasive function and erect

appropriate defenses against it.

However, for this enhanced awareness or knowledge of advertising to provide a

viable defense against persuasive messages, children must draw upon it while they watch

television commercials. Recent research suggests, however, that generalized attitudinal

measures may be only weakly related to children's actual rejection of specific

advertisements and message claims in a viewing context (Atkin 1980; Goldberg and Gomrn

1974; Gomrn and Florsheim 1985; Gomrn and Goldberg 1977; Rossiter 1979). Knowledge

of the intent of advertising is not sufficient. An exciting, funny or compelling


presentation may simply overwhelm any cognitive defenses that a child might bring to

bear. So, while older children may utter rather negative views about advertising in

general, these opinions may have little to do with their natural reactions while viewing.

To make sense of this apparent dilemma, researchers have turned to cognitive

developmental concepts and information processing theories. During middle childhood

and early adolescence, children gradually develop the ability to direct or control their

information processing strategies (Roedder 1981). However, this is a gradual process.

In the early stages, children will often be influenced by immediate, engaging product

presentations and tend to respond accordingly. Children of this age group (8-12 year-

olds), tend not to think critically about advertisements unless explicitly encouraged to do

so. They are unlikely to generate counterarguments spontaneously in response to an

advertisement, due to their inability to (1) focus attention on message arguments rather

than peripheral content and (2) retrieve knowledge relevant to the evaluation of these

arguments, without specific cues (Brucks et al. 1988). For the cuedd processor", the

organized retrieval and use of available information is possible only in the presence of

appropriate cues. Unless advertising knowledge is expressly activated, children tend not

to rebut advertised claims (Brucks et al. 1988). Of course, adults are also susceptible

to the persuasive power of an attractive portrayal. However, there is a critical

difference. While adults may choose to suspend their disbelief on occasion, they have

the capacity to manage their information processing strategies. For children, however,

even once they know that advertising is expressly designed to sell products, advertising


may still affect their established preferences because they lack the ability to control the

allocation of their cognitive resources (Roedder, Stemrnthal and Calder 1983).

This muddle of emerging competencies, skills and perhaps motivations makes this

age group a particularly interesting one to study. While they possess appropriate

background knowledge to assess advertised claims in a critical fashion, they must be

reminded to do so. Though aware of specific ad techniques and seemingly skeptical of

its approach, even older children are responsive to ad content, both central and

peripheral. While this duality of response can be accounted for in terms of cognitive

deficits, it is also important to recognize that this explanation implicitly assumes that

children's perceived meaning centers on brand evaluation and assessing the veridicality

of ad claims. That children may have a broader agenda in reading advertisements either

is not explicitly considered or is deemed irrelevant. Ads are not merely sources of brand

information but reflections of a playful world of fantasy, status and cultural norms. By

delimiting investigation to a set of researcher-defined response categories, it may be that

equally meaningful dimensions are neglected. The notion of counterargumentation is an

adult construction as is the a priori specification of peripheral content (e.g., Ross et al.

1981; Rossiter 1979). Unencumbered by the realities of economic obligation and with

$4.7 billion dollars to spend, American children may have little interest in generating

counterarguments in response to the fantasy and amusement that commercials offer

(Solomon 1992). The presumption that children view a selling motive as inherently

negative may simply be inaccurate. It is the assumption that children view commercial

aims as somehow duplicitous that underpins adult expectations that children not only


should but will erect defenses against advertised messages once they acquire the capacity

to do so. However, it is perfectly reasonable that a child will be fully aware of an

advertisement's aim, and interpret it as such, without any negative feeling or connotation.

There is no reason why recognition of advertising's persuasive purpose necessitates a

decline in a child's responsiveness to specific commercial messages.

Children's awareness of persuasive intent is an important issue not only because

of its link to the acquisition of cognitive defenses, but because a child's interpretation of

a particular advertisement depends on his(her) understanding of the nature and function

of advertising in general. Unlike other forms of mass communications a child

encounters, advertising transmits its sales plea through the symbolism of idealized

settings and situations. To make sense of these appeals, a child learns that ads use

dramatized episodes, characters and emotions to symbolize or represent real situations

(Robertson and Rossiter 1974). Before a child can fully grasp the meaning of a

commercial, (s)he needs to understand that the primary focus of the message is not

information but persuasion. Inherent in the content of the advertisement is a systematic

partiality or bias such that those features that enhance persuasion are emphasized and

those that impede it are de-emphasized. From this perspective, the key characteristic of

an ad is not simply that there is an intent to sell but that, in order to do so, the content

of the appeal is crafted in specific ways. If a child is aware of the purpose and form of

advertising as communications designed for commercial aims, then the imagery will be

interpreted within that broader context. Identifying a message as an advertisement helps

the child to draw on knowledge relevant to decoding the specific meanings of text and


images (Pateman 1983). How children bring this knowledge to bear in the context of

viewing is not well-understood. It is important to look beyond traditional schemes used

to categorize cognitive responses. Though the questions of whether and when children

generate counterarguments is critical, these schemes do not adequately capture the depth

and complexity of children's response. Until conceptual models are firmly grounded in

the reality of children's experiences and perspectives, understanding of advertising's

persuasive power is necessarily limited.

Researchers with an interest in advertising's persuasive effects have sought

behavioral as well as attitudinal evidence of its influence. Two types of behavioral

variables have been the focus of much of this research: the frequency of children's

product-related requests and their choice behavior in experimental settings. Correlational

measures have been used to assess relationships among a child's age, exposure to

advertising and the frequency of product requests to parents. Although the weight of

evidence seems to suggest that the frequency of children's product requests diminish with

age, the data are somewhat difficult to interpret (Galst and White 1976; Robertson and

Rossiter 1974; Robertson and Rossiter 1976; Rossiter 1979; Ward and Wackman 1972).

When product class differences are controlled for, the relationship becomes increasingly

murky. Not surprisingly, requests for toys decline with age while requests for clothing

and bicycles increase (Isler, Popper and Ward 1987; Ward and Wackman 1972).

Requests for heavily advertised products, such as snack foods and soda, that are relevant

to children of all ages do not appear to decline significantly as a child matures (Ward and

Wackman 1972). Collectively, the evidence seems to suggest that the frequency of


children's advertising-induced requests to parents declines slightly with age. When age

is controlled for, children who watch more television are more likely to make product

requests than children who spend less time viewing (Goldberg 1990; Robertson and

Rossiter 1977). It should be noted, however, that these findings are based primarily on

global indicators of advertising exposure rather than more difficult to isolate linkages

between specific advertisements and subsequent product requests. The impact of

advertising exposure on children's product choices has also been investigated in a variety

of experimental settings. Under controlled circumstances, a relatively consistent pattern

between advertising exposure and product choice emerges. Television commercials can

and do persuade children to select the products they see advertised. These results appear

to hold across age groups and in both laboratory and field settings (Goldberg, Gomrn and

Gibson 1978; Gomrn and Goldberg 1982; Resnik and Stern 1977). The impact of

advertising exposure on choice behavior is apparently not limited to the specific product

advertised, but may generalize across product categories. Goldberg et al. (1978) found,

for example, that exposure to commercials for highly sugared snacks and cereals led

young children (5 to 6-year-olds) to choose these kinds of sugared foods more readily

than children who had been exposed to pro-nutritional messages. A similar pattern of

findings was observed by Gorn and Goldberg (1982), who observed children's snack

choices (5-8 year-olds) over a two-week period. Though these studies have focused on

younger children (5-8 year-olds), there is evidence that advertising may influence the

choices of older children as well. Roedder, Sternthal and Calder (1983) found that as

a consequence of advertising exposure older children (9-13 year-olds) made product


choices that were inconsistent with their pre-existing attitudes, particularly when the

choice task was complex. Advertisements seemed to encourage children to select

products they saw advertised, instead of products they generally prefer but that were not

advertised in the context of the study. Fourth graders (9-10 year-olds), in particular,

tended to choose advertised products despite more favorable attitudes toward other

alternatives. They ignored their initial preferences, and focused instead, on the

immediate ad content in making their choices. Thirteen year-olds, on the other hand,

remained faithful to their initial preferences, regardless of the advertisement that they had

just seen. While eighth graders (13 year-olds) appeared to consider their attitudes toward

each product and then select the one they most preferred regardless of advertising, fourth

graders made their choices exclusively on the basis of their evaluation of the advertised

product. The adolescents resorted to this strategy only when the decision task was

complex, involving a large number of choice alternatives. Both of these age groups

possess at least a rudimentary understanding of advertising's purpose and the cognitive

defenses it presumably provides.

The causal links between advertising exposure and children's product choices have

been well-established under controlled conditions. These effects are much more difficult

to study and observe in the context of a child's every day life. Though the

generalizability of these results is an issue, the findings indicate that children can be

influenced not only to prefer advertised products but to seek them out when given the

opportunity to do so.


Product Consumption: A Primary Source of Meaning and Influence

Given the policy orientation that underpins research effort in this area, it is not

surprising that investigators have focused their attention on understanding advertising's

ability to shape children's product preferences, requests and choices. If advertisements

have the capacity to influence children's desire for particular products, then policymakers

have an unquestioned responsibility to insure that the contents of these communications

are fair, given the unique nature of the target audience. Both the processes by which

advertising affects children's judgments and the persuasive techniques that are most

effective are of primary interest. Implicitly, it is assumed that advertising exerts its

primary influence prior to a purchase decision and therefore investigation tends to focus

on variables that somehow affect children's initial product preferences. However, long-

standing conceptual models of consumer decision making recognize that the purchase

process ends not with choice but with product consumption, use and evaluation (Engel,

Kollat and Blackwell 1968). From the consumer's perspective, it is through consumption

that the significance of product benefits are expressed and enjoyed. Children respond to

advertisements, not in isolation but in the context of the experiences they have had, both

good and bad with heavily promoted products. Advertising and consumption are

interwoven, their relationship circular rather than linear. Children view ads, try products

and often view those same ads again, this time accompanied by newfound insight and

understanding. Advertisements are interpreted in the context of this ongoing stream of

increased awareness and experience. However, as researchers we know very little about

how children relate these everyday experiences to the captivating visuals, flights of


fantasy and mythical figures that tend to dominate children's advertising. Where this

investigation departs from traditional models of children's advertising response, is with

the explicit recognition that product consumption plays a central role in guiding

children's comprehension and interpretation of advertisements. What occurs once a

product leaves a retailer's shelf is as critical as what happens before.

How children characterize or interpret their product experiences is significant both

in terms of the immediate situation or product as well as with regard to their more

enduring notions about marketing activities and influence. Though children have ample

opportunity to learn about products through advertising, many commercial sources that

an adult might consult for additional information are relatively inaccessible to a young

consumer. For example, until they are functionally literate, children are denied access

to most information conveyed through the print media. Information on packages and

labels or in non-commercial media may be not only difficult to decipher but of little

interest to children. Children also lack information about price, one of the most

important sources of information in adult decision making (Barcus 1980; Meringoff and

Lesser 1980). Concerns about how best to allocate limited income are simply not salient

nor well understood until much later. While adults may ponder the opportunity costs of

their decisions, children's consumption experiences are characterized by aesthetic

enjoyment, playful activity and fun. Products can be evaluated and consumed without

the attendant economic responsibility or concern.

What may appear initially to be a simple issue of determining the veridicality of

advertising-induced expectations turns out to have much broader implications for the


child's understanding of marketplace behavior. On the one hand, product experiences

may serve as a kind of corrective to the type of exaggerated expectations advertisements

may sometimes foster. Any confusion created by an advertisement can be rectified when

a child has the opportunity to compare ad claims to the objective reality represented by

the product. On the other hand, when children's expectations are realistic, product

experiences provide evidence of advertising's reliability as a source of information and

ideas. In either case, the implicit comparison between the product as advertised and the

product as experienced provides the fledgling consumer with valuable information about

what advertising is and how it works. What may seem obvious to adults about what and

how advertisers communicate with consumers is novel information to children.

Advertising is a communications genre unlike any other that children come in contact

with, and they will attempt to make sense of it. Learning about advertising, its unique

characteristics and modes of expression is an important part of what children are doing

in responding to ads. Over time they begin to develop tacit knowledge or intuitive

theories about how advertising works (Wright 1986). Product experiences serve an

important role in this process not only as a sort of reality check but as the basis for

learning about marketplace interaction. Although children can learn a great deal through

advertising alone, it is the comparison of the ad to the product that provides the evidence

needed to evaluate what the advertiser has stated or implied. Children's broader

perceptions of marketers and marketing activity are grounded in the simple pleasures or

disappointments these experiences yield.


Translating Product Meaning: From the Mundane to the Magical

The associations children construct between advertisements and the products they

promote are fundamental to their emerging understanding of the marketplace. Without

the opportunity to contrast their own experiences with the idealized images conveyed by

advertisements, children would lose the most basic source of information they have

available about marketing activity and influence. However, the specific character of

these linkages are neither simple nor necessarily direct. To begin to appreciate how

children perceive the ad-consumption relationship, requires first, an understanding of the

nature of the task with which they are faced.

Broadly speaking, children encounter consumer products in one of two distinct

contexts. On the one hand, they may learn about a brand through their own direct

experiences. Sitting on a kitchen shelf, in a lunch box or sampled at a friend's house,

the brand may be part of a child's familiar, everyday world. The brand is acquired,

consumed and disposed of, through the ordinary course of day-to-day life. It exists in

the realm of the commonplace or conventional. Alternatively, children may be exposed

to a brand through the imagery of an advertisement. Here, the brand is located in a

figurative or symbolic world, explicitly fashioned to extend the brand's meaning and

appeal. The advertiser's task is to transport the brand from the world of the mundane

and familiar, to the more ephemeral symbolic realm (Young 1990). Through the

language and images of advertising, the brand is elevated from the ordinary or everyday

context of existence to one replete with fantasy, play and adventure. To depict the

product in its most appealing light, the advertiser seeks to move the brand from the realm


of the everyday, to a world imbued with appealing signs and symbols. Through the

advertisement, a broader context is crafted for the brand, one that not only positions the

brand within the marketplace but mirrors the desires and interests of a young audience.

The advertiser must not only select desired properties for the product among a wide

range of possibilities but successfully evoke intended consumer reaction in the narrow

frame of an advertisement. An advertisement is not a neutral entity but a fluid, cultural

construction. The potential for meaning resides at a number of levels from the obvious

to the culturally interpreted (McCracken 1987). The content of persuasive appeals shapes

the meanings brands ultimately acquire. Advertising is one of the primary mechanisms

through which cultural beliefs, assumptions and values are transferred to consumer goods

(McCracken 1986). The transition from brand in the world to brand in the ad is a

complex process, not only from the advertiser's perspective but from the receiver's

perspective as well.

How children interpret or perhaps reconcile these varying sources of brand

information is neither clear nor necessarily simple. The seemingly objective reality of

a consumption experience is juxtaposed against the symbolic experience of an

advertisement. Both of these experiences have the potential to shape or transform the

interpretation of the other. That product experience may affect a child's subsequent

responsiveness and reactions to an advertisement makes sense, intuitively. That an

advertisement may have the capacity to alter a child's interpretations of his(her)

consumption experience is both intriguing and potentially disturbing (Hoch and Ha 1986;

Puto and Wells 1984). Research that attempts to characterize the process by which


children integrate and internalize these disparate marketplace stimuli represents an

important first step towards understanding the likely consequences of ad-consumption


From the child's perspective, the transition requires the capacity to translate

product representations between disparate experiential and viewing contexts. The

advertiser takes the simple or mundane and envelops it with symbolic properties or

significance. To the extent that the consumption experience represents a kind of literal

reality, the depiction of the brand in the ad appears to require more figuratively based

interpretive strategies (Young 1990). Children's advertisers frequently employ fantasy,

hyperbole, humor and simple metaphors to create attractive brand images. Mythical

beings, magical transformations and whimsical flights of fantasy are the rule rather than

the exception. The development of an understanding of non-literal uses of language and

visual images is an important mediator of the meaning children assign to ads utilizing

these creative techniques. However, the process of learning to interpret media

communications on a figurative level is both complex and protracted (Young 1986). At

a very simple level, preschool children spontaneously generate creative metaphors,

playfully fusing literal reality and fantasy (Winner 1988). School-age children, on the

other hand, seem to approach communications from a much more literal perspective.

Messages tend to be strictly interpreted or taken at face value. Though an eight year-old

recognizes the discrepancy between the message and reality in an advertisement that

incorporates obvious exaggeration (s)he may not fully understand the communicator's

purpose in employing this technique (Young 1990). The advertiser is likely to be


regarded as having simply made a mistake rather than having intentionally selected a non-

literal execution. As children enter late childhood or early adolescence (approximately

11-12 years-old) their fascination with and use of figurative language seems to re-emerge

in a more sophisticated fashion (Winner 1988).

There is no single competency that suddenly allows children to fully appreciate

the use of non-literal portrayals in advertising or other types of communications. Rather,

a collection of interpretive skills gradually emerges which allow children to assess both

the form and content of a message as well as its source. The concept of persuasive intent

captures only a subset of the skills needed to achieve full "adult" comprehension of

commercial messages employing hyperbole, metaphor and visual imagery to persuade.

Children's understanding of the meaning of advertised messages also depends on their

capacity to (1) distinguish fantasy from reality, (2) differentiate between literal and non-

literal uses of visual and verbal message elements, (3) recognize that there is both a

source and an audience for the message who have distinct perspectives and motives and

(4) recognize that advertisements require different interpretive strategies than educational

or entertainment oriented messages (Roberts 1982; Robertson and Rossiter 1974; Young

1990). These emerging capabilities are rooted in children's expanding experience in

social and economic spheres as well as their information processing achievements.

At the most basic level, children need to be able to step outside their own point

of view and understand the point of view of another person before they can begin to

appreciate an advertiser's profit orientation (Faber, Perloff and Hawkins 1982). In

straightforward informational contexts, even very young children are able to mentally


represent the knowledge and beliefs of other people (Ackerman 1981; Pemrner 1988).

However, they may encounter interpretive difficulty when someone breaks with

conversational convention through non-literal or figurative uses of language. Until

children are ten to eleven years-old, they tend to be rather literal in their interpretive

strategies. In situations where there is a lack of simple agreement between what is said

and what is meant, young children have difficulty not so much in recognizing, but in

reconciling the apparent discrepancy. Children tend to assume that people say what they

mean, so that the possibility that someone might employ puns, irony or pretense may not

occur to them (Winner 1988; Young 1990). Given the symbolic character of advertising

and the frequency of non-literal executions, the literal character of young children's

comprehension strategies may have important consequences for how children reconcile

these images with the concrete day-to-day reality of the brand in a consumption context.

Though a fundamental shift in children's processing strategies and awareness of

advertising's selling intent seems to occur at around seven or eight years of age, the

evolution in children's interpretive strategies continues throughout the elementary school

years. While children as young as second grade (6 to 7 years of age) have the capacity

to recognize symbolic properties in consumer products, it is between fourth and sixth

grades (9 to 12 years) that children begin to suggest more symbolic interpretations of

marketing stimuli (Belk, Bahn and Mayer 1982; Belk, Mayer and Driscoll 1984). Rather

than simply reading ads as a series of events or incidents, children of this age group may

interpret message elements in terms of their symbolic properties, as reflective of cultural

meanings. While younger children may tend to focus on the perceptual qualities of an


advertisement or their emotional reactions to it, older children have the capacity to

comment on the ad as a cultural object. No longer drawn primarily to perceptual

features, older children begin to distance themselves from the immediate message and

think about, evaluate and judge it in a more reflective fashion (Ward et al. 1977; Young

1986, 1990).

One of the developmental accomplishments of the elementary school period is an

increasingly sophisticated approach to judging fantasy and reality in television programs

and print media (Kelly 1981; Winnick and Winnick 1979). The criteria older children

(10-12 year-olds) apply to judging reality are multifaceted and complex. While a seven

year-old tends to judge reality on the basis of outward appearance or format, and physical

possibility or impossibility, older children's assessments reflect a sensitivity to the inner

content of a message. Issues of possibility are considered not only in terms of physical

phenomena but in relation to social and psychological reality as well (Kelly 1981; Young

1990). Plausibility on a number of dimensions enters the judgment equation, making a

child's appraisal of what constitutes reality, like an adult's, increasingly complex. The

consequences of possessing multiple criteria for judging fantasy and reality in an

advertising context remain unexplored. While this enhanced sophistication might be

expected to aid comprehension, its likely impact on persuasion is not as clear. Whether

older children might entertain a broader array of plausible hypotheses regarding the

meaning of the ad, and its links to the brand, warrants future research attention.

What does seem apparent, is clear developmental change in the breadth and depth

with which children interpret and evaluate media content during middle childhood.


Extending what are initially simple concepts of selling intent and advertising technique,

a host of interpretive skills emerge that allow older children to construct meaning on a

number of levels ranging from the articulation of basic facts to their cultural significance.

A gradual shift in children's perspectives emerges; from a point of view embedded in the

textual features of an ad and the world it portrays, to a more detached perspective in

which the perceiver begins to step outside the ad to think about it in a broader and more

critical fashion (Desmond 1985; Young 1990). Among older children, deeper and

socially meaningful levels of meaning may be extracted that are not directly expressed.

Inferences about situations and their significance, characters' motives and values are

readily drawn by children (5th-8th graders) in response to television programming

(Collins 1983). However, relatively little is known about how children use their

newfound interpretive abilities in the context of television advertising and inferred

relationships to product consumption.

Where children's responses are concerned, many uncertainties remain. How

children perceive the relationships between the advertisements they see and the products

they consume is not well-understood. The way an adult is likely to respond to an

advertisement differs from what might be expected from a child in several important

respects. Adults are not only more skeptical than children but much more likely to act

on this knowledge as they interpret and evaluate advertisements. They recognize that the

utility of advertised information varies widely. Ads are perceived to be more or less

believable depending on the nature of the claims made. Adults readily recognize puffery

and appeals to emotion and are more skeptical of ad claims that are difficult to verify.


They rely on their knowledge of advertisers' influence tactics to evaluate advertising

claims and adapt their performance expectations accordingly. When an advertiser's

message can be easily and inexpensively verified before purchase, adults are more likely

to assume that what the advertiser says is true. On the other hand, when product claims

can be evaluated only by purchasing and using a product, adults tend to be much less

willing to believe what they see advertised (Ford, Smith and Swasy 1990; Smith, Ford

and Swasy 1990). Claims that have a high probability of truth are differentiated from

those of a more uncertain character and evaluated on that basis. Children, on the other

hand, may not readily appreciate nor be concerned with the quality of information

provided by advertisers. Though they may articulate adult-like attitudes about

advertising, these generalized indicators may bear little relationship to how they respond

to specific messages or persuasive claims. Whether children judge the veracity of ad

claims, recognizing the difference between claims that are easily verified and those that

are not, is not as clear. The question is one of performance as much as capacity.

Claims that are plausible and attractive yet difficult to verify may be more readily

believed and confirmed through a pleasant consumption experience.

A Call for a Meaning-Based Perspective

Children's advertising research clearly highlights the need to embed understanding

in the context of how children of various ages comprehend and evaluate persuasive

messages. There is no question that children's ability to process information conveyed

through advertising differs as a function of their relative experience and cognitive

sophistication. Serious inquiry must take into account children's emerging skills,


proclivities, and the contingencies in which they operate. Theories of cognitive

development have provided useful frameworks for both conceptualization and empirical

efforts investigating children's responses to advertising. Paradigmatically, an

information-centered young consumer is assumed. Advertisements are viewed primarily

as purveyors of brand information. Age-related changes in children's ability to store,

manipulate and retrieve information are examined in terms of their impact on children's

comprehension of advertised claims and attitudes toward the brand promoted. Insights

gleaned from these studies provide the necessary basis for understanding how children's

judgments and processing strategies evolve. However, while this research provides depth

of insight into the functioning of information processing variables, it sacrifices breadth

of insight into the broader cultural and affective context in which children think about

advertisements and consume products.

In this investigation, a meaning-based model provides the basic framework for

examination of children's perceptions of the advertising-consumption relationship.

Insight into how children construe these relationships is sought, within the general

constraints imposed by developmental capabilities for acquiring, retaining and utilizing

marketplace information. The meaning-based approach, focused at a broader level than

information processing approaches, expressly recognizes the cultural context of

consumption (McCracken 1987; Watkins 1985). Investigation of consumer experience

originates from the position that individuals live and consume in a meaningfully

constituted world, that has been structured by the beliefs and values of a culture.

Advertisements and consumer goods each play a key role in the transmission and


expression of these cultural norms and values (McCracken 1986). Through their

anticipation, choice and consumption, products are a prominent source of meanings that

individuals draw upon in constructing notions of self, status and community. This

process of negotiating and refining conceptions of self and the social world is an ongoing

developmental process throughout the life-span. Movement through the life cycle,

changing circumstances, as well as evolving needs and preferences each bring about re-

evaluation and refinement. Children, actively and primarily engaged in the process of

defining their sense of self and society, may be particularly responsive, within the

general constraints imposed by information processing capabilities, to the meanings

contained in consumer goods. These are not meanings in a deep, philosophical sense but

useful ideas about the structure, expectations and values of the culture in which they live.

The central developmental task of childhood is to learn what it means to be an adult, in

all its complexity and nuance. Consumer goods, in their acquisition and use, are a key

source of cultural material and insight for the child.

Advertising is also implicated in the transmission and expression of cultural

meanings. It is the channel through which meanings are transported from the world of

everyday existence to consumer goods. Advertising, in a sense, captures cultural

meanings and invests them in consumer goods (McCracken 1986, 1987). It makes

accessible to children expressions of the culture in which they are learning to live and

contribute. As active participants in this process, children learn about the contents and

range of cultural meaning that exist in consumer goods (McCracken 1986). The picture

of the world as conveyed through advertising shapes or influences the picture of the


world that is constructed through childhood. Children attend to advertising in search of

meaning, things that can be used in the process of constructing emerging definitions of

the self, the larger community in which they live and the marketplace arena. They

search not only for product information but for insight into what it means to be a child,

and what a child becomes. Research grounded in a meaning-based approach, explicitly

adopts this more inclusive perspective on children's advertising response. It provides the

conceptual foundation necessary to begin to address issues that look beyond purely

cognitive construals of how children make sense of the advertisements and products that

permeate their lives.

Where cognitive processing models may fall short, is in their failure to consider

that the individual who is processing information is immersed in a highly structured and

meaningful environment. In viewing an advertisement, consuming a product, or

comparing the two, a child is a recipient not just of information but of meaning. How

(s)he interprets and evaluates these experiences is a consequence of the cultural

understanding (s)he brings to bear, as well as her(his) information processing capabilities.

Meaning is created and confirmed through the process of interpretation, definition and

interaction (Reid and Frazer 1980). Without benefit of substantial marketplace

experience and fully mature processing strategies, children unravel, shape and construct

meaningful interpretations of their consumption related experiences. Though these

constructions may sometimes bear little relationship to adult explanations, they represent

a valid database for furthering scientific insight. What do not seem to exist in any

substantial way, are investigations documenting how children's natural responses to


marketplace stimuli represent a successful adaptation to the condition and environment

of being a child. Minimal data on children's perspectives of their consumer experiences

is available, a perspective that only becomes accessible if researchers are willing to

suspend belief in traditional notions of children as in process, cognitively limited and

lacking real understanding. Much like an ethnocentric bias in anthropological study, the

interpretation of children's behavior exclusively in adult terms, severely limits the scope

of scientific understanding. To understand how children make sense of their experiences,

requires a sensitivity not only to their cognitive skills and limitations but to their unique

perspectives on the marketplace and its impact on their lives. Their perceptions,

judgments and opinions provide valuable information not obtainable through any other


The Interaction of Advertising and Product Trial

Though researchers have traditionally focused on advertising's prepurchase impact

on consumer behavior, there is growing consensus that advertising's effects may be

detected not only at the time of exposure, but later, in the context of product use (Aaker

and Stayman 1992; Deighton 1984; Deighton and Schindler 1988; Hoch and Ha 1986;

Levin and Gaeth 1988; Marks and Kamins 1988; Olson and Dover 1979; Puto and Hoyer

1990; Puto and Wells 1984). Though conceptual perspectives and aims differ,

researchers agree that an advertisement may help to cultivate associations with a product

experience, so that the experience is different than it would have been without exposure

to the ad. Advertising may engender feelings that are linked to the experience of using

the product, so that it becomes more fun, exciting, or intriguing than it would otherwise


be (Aaker and Stayman 1992; Puto and Wells 1984). Alternatively, advertised claims

may be construed as hypotheses that consumers subsequently test out in the context of

using a product, shaping their interpretations and evaluations (Hoch and Ha 1986).

Irrespective of whether cognitive or affective explanations are sought, there is clear

evidence, at least among adult consumers, that advertisers have the ability to reach into

the consumption experience and influence how it is perceived and evaluated (Aaker and

Stayman 1992; Deighton 1984; Deighton and Schindler 1988; Hoch and Ha 1986; Levin

and Gaeth 1988; Marks and Kamins 1988; Olson and Dover 1979).

Whether, and to what extent, advertising actually affects product use depends on

the character of the consumption experience itself. When product performance is easily

and unambiguously judged, advertising is easily discounted. In this situation, adults are

unlikely to rely on advertising to direct the interpretive process (Hoch and Ha 1986).

However, there are many consumption occasions when the indicants of product

performance are neither obvious nor easily assessed. Typically, product quality is not

solely a function of a product's concrete attributes but of more intangible, subjective

properties as well. Questions of product quality or value are often not unequivocally

resolved through product consumption. When a product experience is potentially

ambiguous or open to multiple interpretations, advertising may exert a significant

influence on consumers' assessments of quality and enjoyment. Though adults recognize

that advertisements are partisan sources, they may develop tentative expectations on the

basis of ad claims that are difficult to verify directly (Deighton 1984). Many

commonplace product experiences are supportive of multiple interpretations. From soft


drinks to the latest in hip-hop fashions, product use is laden with meaning that accrues

from sources beyond its physical form (McCracken 1986). In these types of situations,

advertisements have the capacity to alter the consumer's experience by suggesting what

features should be attended to and remembered (Deighton 1984, 1988). Ads may offer

clues that consumers rely on to interpret their feelings and perceptions.

As a relatively new area of inquiry, research investigation into the effects of

advertising on consumption naturally reflects many unresolved conceptual and

measurement issues. One of the clear challenges in this area is to develop methods that

effectively capture advertising's experiential influence. New, non-traditional approaches

are required to isolate these effects, their consequences and determinants (Aaker and

Stayman 1992; Puto and Wells 1984; Wells 1986). Continued conceptual clarification

and refinement is also needed to promote understanding. Ambiguity surrounding the

precise nature of advertising's impact on consumption is evident in the terms and

methods used to investigate this topic (Deighton 1988).

Most of the research investigating the relationship between advertising and

product experience can be identified with one of two conceptual approaches (1)

transformational advertising or (2) the experiential learning or "hypothesis-testing"

approach. Though the explanatory bases for these models clearly differ, they retain

important commonalities. Both suggest that advertising can influence what consumers

think about in the context of consumption. Both seem to cast advertising's persuasive

power in terms of its ability to direct consumer conclusions or inference (Deighton 1986,

1988). Both suggest that the consumption experience changes as a consequence of


advertising exposure. Precisely how these changes are hypothesized to occur, however,

differs across the two approaches.

The hypothesis-testing model adopts an information-centered orientation, focusing

on how advertising influences what consumers learn from their product experiences

(Hoch and Ha 1986). Claims made by an advertiser may affect how consumers judge,

interpret and evaluate their product experiences. According to this model, consumers

treat advertised claims as tentative hypotheses or expectations about product performance.

From an adult's perspective, advertisers are viewed as partisan sources who lack full

credibility. Before adults are willing to accept a claim made by an advertiser, they seek

some sort of independent evidence or corroboration. Either product consumption or a

search for additional information provides the opportunity to test a hypothesis engendered

by an advertisement. How the ad-based information and experiential evidence are

integrated depends on the characteristics of the decision environment and the consumer's

competence within it (Hoch and Ha 1986). The hypothesis-testing model implicitly

assumes an experienced if not infallible consumer. Even as adults, processing may be

distorted by confirmatory biases and overconfidence (Deighton 1984; Hoch and Deighton

1989). Unless the consumption experience provides unambiguous evidence about product

quality, adults tend to confirm their original expectations (Hoch and Ha 1986). By

helping consumers to make sense of their product experiences, advertising can influence

what consumers come to believe about the products they consume.

The "transformational" model, on the other hand, focuses more directly on

advertising's affective consequences. It suggests that advertising can shape a


consumption experience by inextricably attaching feelings and impressions to a brand so

that the consumer's experience is fundamentally different than it would have been in the

absence of ad exposure (Puto and Wells 1984). The feelings and thoughts evoked by the

advertisement become so closely tied to the consumption experience that the brand cannot

be recalled apart from the ad. In effect, the ad "transforms" or alters the experience of

consuming the brand by helping the consumer to understand and appreciate their feelings.

Not to be confused with transformational argumentation, which is a form rather than a

consequence of advertising, transformational effects occur when an advertisement

influences what consumers notice, attend or react to during product consumption

(Deighton 1988; Deighton, Romer and McQueen 1989; Wells 1986, 1988). Persuasion

is a function of the audience's willingness to enter into the story, to suspend disbelief

temporarily and allow the advertiser to set the agenda. The advertisement's persuasive

power derives not from its ability to change consumers' beliefs directly but in its capacity

to tell consumers what to think or feel, its ability to frame the consumption experience

(Deighton 1988).

Where the concept of transformation seems to depart most clearly from the

experiential learning approach, is in the former's explicit inclusion of affective influences

(Puto and Hoyer 1990; Puto and Wells 1984; Wells 1986). Not only can advertising

influence what consumers attend to and what product expectations they might develop,

but what feelings are evoked in the context of a consumption experience. When

researchers focus on transformational effects, it is the ad-induced feelings brought

forward into the usage context, that are of primary interest.

This emphasis on advertising's emotional impact has led some researchers to

equate incorrectly, affect-based or image advertising with the transformational concept.

However, transformational effects are not intrinsic to an advertisement but are defined

by consumers' perceptions of message contents. An advertisement may have

transformational aims, but not effects, if consumers fail to construct linkages between the

message and their consumption experiences. An advertisement may have the capacity

to stir powerful emotions that are never directly associated with the experience of

consuming the brand. In that situation, the ad may be persuasive but it is not

transformational. Though ecologically correlated with emotional or dramatic executions,

transformational effects may occur in connection with informational appeals as well

(Aaker and Stayman 1992; Deighton 1988). The key is the advertisement's capacity to

alter the experience, whether the appeal is emotional, informational or both.

The finding that adults may rely on advertising claims to interpret their product

experiences is surprising and perhaps even disconcerting. What has been assumed to be

beyond the realm of marketing's influence may often be well within its reaches (Hoch

and Deighton 1989). Marketing managers seemingly have the capacity to reach into the

consumption experience and alter its meaning and value. Current research approaches

have provided key insights into the scope and character of advertising's influence on

consumers' interpretations of their product experiences. Though the primary emphases

of the transformational and hypothesis-testing models differ, these approaches clearly

complement and enhance one another. Both models implicitly recognize the interplay of

affective and cognitive factors in consumers' interpretations of advertising-consumption


relationships. However, neither explanation fully captures the influence of both. The

learning or hypothesis-testing model draws almost exclusively on cognitive concepts and

processes to conceptualize the interaction between advertising and product evidence.

According to this approach, advertising can exert substantial influence on what

consumers learn from their product experiences. Of primary interest, is the process

underlying advertising's impact on consumers' beliefs and product evaluations. The

transformational approach, on the other hand, focuses on the ad's capacity to create

affective associations that alter the consumption experience. It is the advertisement's

ability to create, modify or intensify the feelings consumers experience while using the

product that has captured researcher attention and interest. While the transformational

approach emphasizes affective consequences, it seems to draw implicitly on the logic of

the hypothesis-testing model as well. A central tenet of the transformational model is

that advertising helps to direct consumers' attention and interpretive strategies in the

context of product consumption (Wells 1986). That the ad helps the consumer to

interpret his(her) consumption related thoughts and feelings, is compatible with the

learning explanation offered by proponents of the hypothesis-testing model. Both of

these approaches provide a useful perspective on the relationship between advertising and

use experience. Neither approach is incompatible with the observation that

advertisements often evoke both cognitive and affective responses, particularly in the

realm of children's advertising where brand information is typically conveyed through

the filter of lighthearted, creative and playful appeals.


It is in the context of children's advertisements, products and common experiences

that the utility of these models now needs to be assessed. Effective children's ads use

striking imagery and language to enlarge a brand's meaning and value. To transport a

brand from the realm of everyday life to a more attractive and symbolic context,

children's advertisers frequently rely on fanciful and imaginative executions.

Advertisements may have the greatest potential to affect a child's product experience

when they are plausible and engaging, but elusive and difficult to dispute directly. Not

only is the product experience potentially ambiguous, as researchers have suggested (Ha

and Hoch 1989; Hoch and Ha 1986), but the advertisement itself is cast in such a way

that its content can be construed along multiple, equally credible paths. Whether, and

how children draw on these intriguing but beguiling formats in the context of their

experiences is not clear. Researchers with an interest in this topic have focused their

efforts on understanding adult processing strategies. Though current conceptualizations

provide insight into how advertising may help children interpret their consumption

experiences, the validity of these models can't simply be assumed but must re-examined

in the context of children's lives.

Prevailing Paradigms and Children's Reality

The theoretical models that have been developed to study the relationship between

advertising and product experience embody several key assumptions about how adults

respond to marketer-controlled sources of information (e.g., Deighton 1984; Hoch and

Deighton 1989). Within this general framework, consumers are characterized as skilled

but pragmatic thinkers who: (1) search for product information in order to make choices


among consumer goods; (2) typically respond to advertising with skepticism because of

its inherently partisan character; and (3) treat advertised claims as tentative expectations

to be assessed through additional information search or product experience. Because

these assumptions underpin current conceptualizations of the relationship between

advertising and use experience, their validity in the context of children's responses is an

important issue.

Like children's advertising research, current models of the advertising-

consumption relationship presume that ads are evaluated primarily in terms of the

information they provide about a product's features and performance. Advertisements

make claims about products, and if the claims are judged to be reasonable, they may be

used to make sense of subsequent product experiences. These claims are treated as

tentative expectations to be examined through subsequent experience or additional

information available in the marketplace. Predisposed to respond skeptically, adults treat

advertised claims as mere conjectures that may or may not prove to be correct. Only

when the decision environment is ambiguous do advertisements influence how these

experiences are interpreted or judged (Ha and Hoch 1989; Hoch and Deighton 1989;

Hoch and Ha 1986; Wells 1986). Children, on the other hand, are more likely to accept

ad claims, are often drawn to the products they see depicted and tend not to respond

skeptically unless reminded to do so (Adler et al. 1980; Brucks et al. 1988; Roedder et

al. 1983; Ward et al. 1977).

Whether children treat advertised claims as provisional hypotheses that are

subsequently used to evaluate the products they obtain, is not clear. Conceptual models


of the advertising-consumption relationship seem to assume that by exposing consumers

to advertised information a set of clear expectations about a product will be formed.

Though children between the ages of 7 and 12 have the cognitive capacity to form

specific expectations about product performance, the precise nature of product

performance claims is not always obvious in children's advertisements. While

informational ads intended for adults frequently provide attribute information in a clear

and concise manner, children's advertisements tend to embed performance claims in

imaginary or fanciful scenes. Though these creative executions may be quite persuasive,

they may not serve as a basis for the formation of specific performance expectations.

The hypothesis-testing model, in particular, rests on the assumption that advertisements

provide concrete, accessible information about a brand that consumers can easily draw

upon as they form tentative expectations about its performance. Though this is certainly

true of informational appeals, it does not accurately reflect ads that employ

transformational argumentation (Deighton 1988; Deighton et al. 1989; Wells 1986,

1988). Informational appeals are those that attempt to educate and persuade through

concrete, well-substantiated performance claims. Explicit benefits are presented and

when effective, consumers accept or believe message arguments. Transformational

appeals, on the other hand, rely on stories, drama, vivid examples and emotion to shape

product meaning and value (Deighton et al. 1989; Wells 1988). With these executional

styles, the brand's appeal may be richer, more abstract and difficult to reduce to a single

theme. Here, persuasion is not the result of solid argumentation but compelling example,

the capacity of the ad to draw the consumer into the situation or story (Deighton 1988).

In the realm of children's advertising, transformational appeals are quite common.

Even the most information laden commercials targeted at children typically retain

transformational properties, so that the distinction, in practice, does not reflect mutually

exclusive categories. Because children's ads frequently rely on whimsy and tales of

adventure to persuade, the link between the message and specific performance dimensions

may not be clear. When Cap'n Crunch and his crew through great ingenuity and effort

rescue the crunchberries from their foes, "the soggies", what expectations about the

product might a child be likely to generate? Clearly, there is information about the

cereal's crunchiness and its ability to remain so with time, but even this simple idea has

to be extracted from a narrative structure that embeds notions about the triumph of right

over wrong, skill over ignorance, and teamwork, in an attempt to enhance the product's

perceived value. To transcend a commonplace event such as eating a bowl of cereal, the

advertiser creates a world of excitement and adventure. The brand may acquire added

value and meaning through this process. However, the consumer's ability to translate

advertised claims into specific hypotheses about performance may be compromised.

Children may be less likely than adults to generate clear expectations about product

performance, not because they are cognitively ill-equipped but because of the way

children's advertisements are designed and executed. Both the development of relevant

hypotheses by the young viewer and the testing of these expectations in a usage context

may be complicated by the creative strategies commonly adopted by children's

advertisers. Though at some level, the meaning creation process requires that children

forge links between the advertisement and the consumption experience, these links may

not necessarily take the form of hypotheses. Both the hypothesis-testing model and

children's advertising research, more generally, clearly reflect an information-oriented

approach to studying persuasive effects.

Implicit within the research literature is the assumption that children think about

advertisements primarily in terms of the product related information they provide.

Researchers have studied whether children understand and are persuaded by advertised

claims, while paying relatively little attention to how children spontaneously relate to the

advertisements they encounter. Children's responses to advertising may be governed by

contingencies that have little to do with hypothesis-testing or the verification of ad

claims. Rather than thinking about advertisements purely in terms of their information

value, children may also be inclined to base their responses on affective dimensions that

have little to do with product claims. An ad's capacity to elicit emotion or feeling among

young viewers certainly plays a more important role in the persuasion process than

traditional approaches to studying children's advertising response represent (Wartella

1984). To the extent that transformational ads are most persuasive when they charm,

entertain or captivate attention, an exclusive reliance on cognitive concepts and theory

may paint a rather narrow picture of advertising's influence and meaning in children's

lives. With its greater emphasis on the affective dimensions of ad response, the

transformational model offers a perspective on the advertising-consumption relationship

that is more closely aligned with the unique style and character of children's advertising.

However, this paradigm is of less value in understanding the ad-consumption relation in

terms of its broader implications for children's understanding of the marketplace.


Alternative approaches that focus attention at a more molar level are also needed

to address basic substantive questions. From a child's perspective, how focal are the

links between advertisements and consumption? What are the categories of meaning that

children draw upon in thinking about advertisements and their product experiences? How

are these categories embedded in children's larger conceptions of what advertising is and

how it works? Only through acknowledging the validity of children's perspectives can

these questions be answered. By allowing children to tell their side of the story, through

their own language and point of view, real insight can be gained. Rather than

constraining investigation to "adultcentric" models, it is important to adopt a more

inclusive perspective, one that reflects children's categories, culture and experience.

Without doubt, there is need for research into children's expectations and their potential

impact on product experience. However, to understand fully children's consumption

experiences requires a broader research agenda, one that begins to look beyond policy-

driven applications and reflects an openness to new methods and perspectives. Drawing

on a meaning-based model of advertising experience, this set of studies departs from

traditional approaches to children's advertising response. Insight into how children make

sense of the advertisements and the products they consume, is sought, within the

constraints imposed by their developmental abilities to process marketplace information.

Until the validity of children's unique perspectives is incorporated into the theories that

guide empirical research, our collective insight into children's experiences and the

consumer socialization process remains incomplete.


Though children's responses to advertising have been the focus of numerous

research investigations, rarely have these investigations explicitly considered the broader

context in which products are also purchased and consumed. Examining children's

reactions within this larger embedding system opens the door to new insights, concepts

and relationships. At the same time, it poses new conceptual and methodological

challenges. That product consumption affects how children think about advertisements

is obvious; how best to study the nature and scope of its influence is not nearly so clear.

What little research investigating advertising-consumption relationships exists, has

focused on adult populations and processing strategies (e.g., Deighton 1984; Deighton

and Schindler 1988; Hoch and Ha 1986; Puto and Wells 1984). Adult skills and breadth

of experience is presumed, serving as the basis for continuing conceptualization and

measurement. Still in its infancy as a research area, significant methodological

challenges remain, particularly with respect to advertisements with transformational alms

(Wells 1986). Traditional recall and attitude measures may not fully capture

advertising's more subtle impact on consumers' product experiences (Puto and Wells

1984). Until new research techniques and procedures evolve, understanding of

advertising's capacity to shape a consumption experience is necessarily limited.

Questions about how to approach the study of advertising-consumption

relationships are magnified considerably when the consumers are children. Not only are


questions about measurement at issue, but at a more fundamental level, the conceptual

fit of current models in terms of children's experiences and abilities also warrants careful

reflection. Whether the hypothesis-testing model, which presumes a fully literate

information-centered consumer, is relevant to how children attach meaning to

advertisements and products is not clear. Intuitively, this approach, derived from a

cognitively driven explanatory framework and tested in the context of informational

advertising, does not seem to mirror either children's proclivities or the ads designed to

reach a young audience. Even the transformational model, which expressly calls into

play affective dimensions and a broader array of advertising formats, has not been

subjected to empirical testing among either adult or youth populations. Empirical

examination of the transformational concept has focused exclusively on the measurement

of the construct rather than its impact in judgment or choice contexts (e.g., Aaker and

Stayman 1992; Puto and Hoyer 1990; Puto and Wells 1984). The elusiveness of

advertising's transformational properties and the inadequacy of traditional research

methods may explain why this intriguing concept remains largely unexplored. At this

juncture, existing conceptualizations of the interaction between advertising and product

experience can best be characterized as very useful but tentative tools for understanding

children's responses. Whether they map onto children's reality or are sufficiently broad

enough to capture the range and complexity of children's thoughts and feelings is an

empirical question, or, more accurately, a series of empirical questions. The legitimacy

of these conceptual frameworks in the realm of children's media experience can not

simply be assumed. Understanding must be grounded in the reality of children's


everyday encounters with products and advertisements. Without this grounding, the

authenticity and value of research conclusions would be compromised.

Research Approach

In the first phase of this research project, a qualitative investigation with both

substantive and methodological aims was carried out. This study was designed to

develop a preliminary understanding of how children conceive of the relationships

between advertisements and products, and to evaluate the validity of phenomenological

interview research methods with school aged children. Discovery-oriented research

approaches which enable the researcher to remain true to the perspectives of respondents,

offer the opportunity to gain substantive insight into how children assess and manage

their consumption experiences. Because the context of consumption is so little

understood, initial research aims for this project were open-ended and broadly focused.

Uncertainty about the relevance of adult-derived models and the heretofore neglect of

consumption issues within the area of children's research, led to the choice of an

inductive research approach focusing on the generation of conceptual categories and

relationships. Rather than beginning with a theory and attempting to test it, the research

began with the substantive area and what is relevant to that area was allowed to emerge

(Denzin 1988; Kvale 1983; Lincoln and Guba 1985; McCracken 1988; Thompson,

Locander and Pollio 1989; Strauss and Corbin 1990).

Without insight into the primary factors that motivate and shape children's

marketplace perceptions, researchers may run the risk of creating abstract representations

that have little basis in real-world events (Wells 1993). This hazard may be particularly


enticing in developmental research studies where the temptation to adopt adultlike

performance standards abounds (Anderson 1981; Dorr 1986; Rust and Hyatt 1991).

Though children have been the focus of numerous research investigations, rarely have

they been asked to share their own, unique accounts of the commercial environment.

When asked to describe their experiences, their responses are coded into theoretically

derived developmental categories established prior to data collection (e.g., Bever et al.

1975; Rossiter and Robertson 1974; Ward et al 1977). The substantive import of their

subjective perceptions tends either to be lost through the coding process or simply

discounted. To approach children from a phenomenological orientation requires that

researchers recognize that children have their own perspectives and strategies for dealing

with the world that surrounds them. Children interpret the world differently than adults

not simply because they have not yet learned to process information "properly" but

because they view the world in their own terms.

Two alternative views of children, one as hapless victim of marketer tactics and

the other as savvy consumer, are reflected in the research literature. At the extremes,

children's advertising is either powerfully seductive or so uninspiring as to simply be

ignored. Though these views oppose one another, both reflect researcher driven views

of how children respond to advertising. So ingrained are conventional views of children,

that it becomes difficult to set aside what may amount to cultural presumptions and

biases. The idea that children's perspectives may differ, at least in part, because the

world they encounter is populated by people, situations and objects with which adults

have little contact, is rarely acknowledged. From this world, they construct a reality that


is a rational, ordered and organized response to the condition of being a child (Fine and

Sandstrom 1988; Goode 1986).

The notion of "constructed realities" which recognizes the contribution of the

individual in creating a meaningful view of the world is a central premise of naturalistic

inquiry (Hirschman 1985; Hudson and Ozanne 1988; Kvale 1983; Lincoln and Guba

1985; Morgan and Smircich 1980; Thompson et al. 1989). Ontologically, the

constructivist position asserts that reality is created in the minds of individuals. At all

stages of the life-cycle, people are engaged in the creation of a meaningful view of the

world and their relation to it (McCracken 1987). The meanings derived from or ascribed

to objects, events or media are not intrinsic to the tangible entities themselves, but a

product of the individual's interpretation. Reality is constructed by the perceiver in order

to make sense of oneself, and to organize a belief system that will serve as a guide to

action. The assumption that reality is not objective but rather subjectively defined, has

important consequences for the design and conduct of research. Because each individual

views the world from a unique vantage point, understanding of human phenomena must

be grounded in the reality of how events and situations are subjectively lived or

experienced (Thompson et al. 1989). Rather than discounting or disregarding children's

subjective perceptions and experiences, these become the central focus of study.

How children make sense of their marketplace experiences is patterned by socially

organized ways of perceiving and acting upon the world. Children of a given social and

historical context have a set of interests and everyday experiences in common, that both

distinguish and unite them. That children constitute a special audience as a consequence


of their cognitive limitations is widely acknowledged. That children share what might

be considered a separate culture replete with norms, conventions and meaning that also

affects their interpretation of advertisements is a more novel concept (Fine and Sandstrom

1988; Goode 1986; Young 1990). Communications scholars have adopted the notion of

interpretive communities to differentiate media recipients along shared lines of interest

and usage (e.g., Anderson and Meyer 1988; Lindlof 1988). An interpretive community

is a specific audience group united by common experiences, affiliations and concerns that

shape their interpretation of media content. Though the notion of interpretive

communities has not yet been extended to investigations of children's media response,

it offers an intriguing counterpoint to traditional models. Much like an interpretive

community, a separate "kids' culture" generationally transmitted by children to other

children may play an important yet unrecognized role in children's interpretation of

advertising. Challenging conventional wisdom, a small group of social scientists and

educators have argued that critical observation of children reveals an interpretive

competence, creativity and honesty that is often masked in empirical research and broad

based models of the socialization process (e.g., Goode 1986; Waksler 1986; Young

1990). As cultural outsiders, adults may have only limited access to, and superficial

knowledge of, the norms and values that structure meaning creation. This is evident

even in the gestures and words children use in day to day interactions. As adults, we

may sometimes assume that we know what children mean, when, in fact, our perceptions

are filtered through the lens of adult expectations, mores and common sense. From a

marketing perspective, the potential for disaster in the design of communications certainly


exists; but, at a more fundamental level, our adult presumptions may lead to erroneous

conclusions about what children intend and understand. The epistemological implication

of this unique brand of ethnocentrism is that the research community has in large

measure failed to encounter children as children, to enter their world and render it

understandable from the perspective of the "natives".

Traditional advertising effects research implicitly reflects an objective orientation

to ad processing and comprehension (Mick 1992). Meanings are contained in the

message, and with the acquisition of sufficient decoding skill and experience with the

genre, children eventually unlock the message housed within. Meanings are intrinsic to

the message and intended by the advertiser. Research questions focus on children's

emerging ability to extract key message elements and their subsequent persuasive impact

(e.g., Liebert et al. 1977; Linn, de Benedictis and Delucchi 1982; Meringoff and Lesser

1980; Roedder et al. 1983; Ward 1972, 1980). Within the children's advertising

literature, the objective orientation has wide appeal, both theoretically and pragmatically.

Measurement procedures that establish children's accuracy or inaccuracy in decoding

advertising messages are quite useful in grappling with traditional areas of concern and

interest. Objective measures, easily developed and administered, can be used to mark

and subsequently predict key developmental transitions. Concerns about

miscomprehension as well as issues of fairness can be resolved; and the individual level

impact of specific regulatory proposals can be assessed. However, this perspective tends

to disregard receiver-based meanings. The child's point of view or subjective experience

is lost, except where it happens to coincide with the researcher's. Close-ended questions


about ad claims and recall measures leave little room for respondent perceptions or

reaction. What constitutes an appropriate response is determined a priori by researchers

who adopt their own interpretations of ad content as the baseline and evaluate children's

responses against it.

In contrast, the subjective orientation to advertising reception recognizes that

children actively and selectively impose meanings to understand more completely, their

world and themselves. These meanings are not fully bounded by the text of an

advertisement but are negotiated through the lens of the child's prior experience, both

personal and cultural (Jensen 1987; McCracken 1987; Mick and Buhl 1992). According

to reader response or reception theory, meaning is not an immutable property of a text

but the product of the text structure and the individual, interacting within a specific

interpretive context (Allen 1987). When a child views a television commercial, the

explicit message contents serve as a kind of blueprint to structure understanding, but text

is by nature, incomplete. Coherent interpretation rests on the child's capacity to draw

upon his(her) unique experiences and background knowledge to fill in gaps left vacant

by the text (Collins 1983). Within the boundaries established by (his)her level of

cognitive sophistication, the young viewer infers concepts, intentions, actions to make

sense of even simple narrative messages (Anderson and Pearson 1984; Durkin 1989;

Flood 1981; Trabasso 1981). Derived from the explicit contents of a message, these

inferred relations may range from very simple, straightforward connections needed to

establish coherence, to personalized elaborations that draw upon the receiver's self-


knowledge and experience (Alba and Hutchinson 1987; Mick 1992). According to this

perspective, it is the child who is the final arbiter of advertising meanings.

Qualitative inquiry is particularly well suited for discerning the categories

consumers use to interpret specific media and consumption experiences (Jensen 1987;

Lannon and Cooper 1983; McQuarrie and Mick 1992; Mick and Buhl 1992). Consumer

researchers have turned to qualitative modes of inquiry to study a wide range of

consumer issues and phenomena. Drawing on ethnographic, semiotic and

phenomenological traditions, these research efforts have helped to broaden the scope of

consumer research and provide insight into substantive consumer behavior topics (e.g.,

Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf 1988; Hill and Stamey 1990; McQuarrie and Mick 1992;

O'Guinn and Faber 1989; Wallendorf and Arnould 1991). Though each of these

traditions is distinct, they share a fundamental interest in the perspectives of those being

studied. The tie that secures these traditions within the qualitative paradigm is a direct

concern with experience as it is "lived", "felt" or "undergone". The primary aim of

qualitative investigation is to understand experience as nearly as possible as its

participants feel or perceive it. Methods of inquiry are diverse, depending on the

specific research issue. However, in-depth interviews or participant observation are

widely employed in sociology, anthropology and education to understand people's

perceptions of their everyday world. An interview methodology offers the opportunity

to gain insight into the child's subjective experience of advertisements and the products

they promote. It may represent the only means for attaining this type of understanding

(Hughes 1989; Tammivaara and Enright 1986). Within the consumer literature,

researchers have focused their efforts on issues that impact adults. These kinds of

approaches may also be fruitfully applied to furthering our understanding of how children

perceive and evaluate marketplace stimuli.



The primary objective of the first study was to develop a preliminary

understanding of how children think about the relationship between ads they see and

products they consume. A secondary objective of the initial investigation was to evaluate

the viability of using depth interviews in research with school-aged children. Though

consumer researchers have been critical of the use of interview methods in research with

children, these criticisms are primarily focused on their use with very young children

who are not yet able to articulate their thoughts and feelings clearly (Goldberg and Gorn

1983; Perrachio 1990). For many years, open-ended interviews have been widely used

with school-aged children by educators and psychologists for both clinical and research

purposes (Barker 1990; Bierman and Schwartz 1986; Garbarino and Stott 1989;

Greenspan 1981; Hughes 1989; Parker 1984; Tammivaara and Enright 1986). The depth

and breadth of children's responses quickly put to rest any concerns about their ability

and willingness to participate in the research in a meaningful way. Twenty-two children,

between the ages of seven and eleven were interviewed. Reflecting an "emic" approach,

the interviews were loosely structured, open-ended and designed to discover significant

meanings from the perspective of the children. Flexible in nature, the interviews

encouraged children to recount their own product-related experiences. With few


exceptions, the children readily described a variety of experiences, both good and bad,

with heavily promoted products. Specific ads and products were also introduced into the

interview process to enhance understanding of the meaning creation process. The

primary data for the study were the verbatim transcripts of these interviews. It is from

these transcripts that conceptual relationships are suggested. Findings from this study

served as input to the conceptual development and design of the experimental

investigation as well as a source of a priori themes for subsequent qualitative inquiry.

Research Process

Emergent design. In this initial investigation, the research design was allowed

to emerge or unfold, rather than constructed a priori. Given the existence of multiple

realities, it is inconceivable that enough could be known ahead of time about children's

subjective experiences to design the research well (Lincoln and Guba 1985; Glaser and

Strauss 1967; Strauss and Corbin 1990). A design emanating from the investigator's

perspective would have seriously compromised the overall intent of the research inquiry.

In these early phases, the inability to predict how children would respond and the

substantive issues that would emerge, clearly called for an open-ended research approach

(Lincoln and Guba 1985). When the research design is emergent, subsequent

methodological steps are based on those that precede them. Data collection and analysis

are not separate but interrelated processes (Corbin and Strauss 1990; Glaser and Strauss

1967; Strauss 1987). Each interview takes into account all that has been learned before,

and uses it to direct succeeding observations and interviews. Salient questions,

provisional hypotheses and gaps are identified and pursued as the research progresses.


The systematic and sequential nature of data collection and analysis allows the researcher

to capture all potentially relevant aspects of the phenomenon, while discarding those that

are not repeatedly present in the data (Glaser and Strauss 1967; Corbin and Strauss

1990). As the inquiry proceeds, the design becomes more focused as salient concepts

begin to emerge, hypotheses develop and theory begins to be grounded in the data


Field notes. Throughout the study, detailed field notes were written, summarizing

the progress and conduct of the research. These field notes are of three types: additional

data, methodological issues, and analytic memos. Detailed are initial theoretical

assumptions, the project's emerging design and hypotheses, a summary of each interview

both in terms of process and content, as well as preliminary interpretations of data. To

minimize the potential impact of investigator bias, it is imperative that researchers specify

in detail their assumptions, methodological decisions and the progress of their analysis

on an ongoing basis. These field notes as well as the interview transcripts themselves,

were reviewed on a weekly basis by two independent auditors. One of these auditors

was a researcher with extensive qualitative research experience, the other was an expert

in the field of consumer research. Their questions and reactions were noted, reviewed

and discussed on a weekly basis throughout the data collection and analysis phases of the


Interviews and sampling procedure. Over the course of the study, twenty-two

individual in-depth interviews were conducted. Informants were children between the

ages of 7 and 11, many of whom were acquainted with the author through volunteer


school activities. This familiarity encouraged their participation and candor, while

providing valuable background knowledge for interpreting the interview data. A

purposive rather than a representative sampling procedure was used; in keeping with the

aim of maximizing phenomenological insight rather than facilitating generalization across

people (Corbin and Strauss 1990; Lincoln and Guba 1985; Strauss and Corbin 1990).

Within the grounded theory framework, it is the representativeness of concepts not of

persons that is critical. Since the ultimate aim is to build a theoretical account that

specifies the nature of ad-consumption relationships, its forms, and consequences,

samples are drawn which will best illuminate this relationship (Glaser and Strauss 1967;

Strauss and Corbin 1990). Informants were chosen on the basis of their ability and

willingness to offer substantive insight into the ad-consumption relationship. The

children were quite interested in the topic, knowledgeable and highly motivated to

participate. The respondents seemed to enjoy the interviews thoroughly, particularly the

product samples and the rare opportunity to watch television in school. Most approached

the interviews as a fun experience yet with a seriousness of purpose in that they wanted

to be clear and thorough in educating the nice but unenlightened adult researcher.

Eighteen of the participants were in fourth and fifth grades and four were in

second grade. By this time, they are relatively articulate and have had substantial

experience with the advertisements targeted at them. Initially, the study was to be

centered on the experiences of older children (9 to 11-year-olds), however as patterns

began to unfold, it became clear that comparative data was needed to begin to define the

limits of the emerging explanation. Making comparisons helps the researcher to guard


against bias by challenging provisional concepts with new data. A basic operational

strategy common to both grounded theory research and other forms of naturalistic

inquiry, is to seek systematically the widest variation in the phenomenon under

investigation. Through careful, ongoing comparison and the deliberate search for

negative case examples, the consistency of provisional concepts is assessed (Glaser and

Strauss 1967; Lincoln and Guba 1985; Strauss and Corbin 1990). Greater precision is

achieved as comparisons warrant the subdivision or elimination of original concepts.

Concepts and categories must earn their way into the emerging explanation through

repeated observation and demonstration of their relationship to the phenomena in

question. In this study, insight into the experiences of the younger children was initially

sought as part of the researcher's obligation to seek negative instances or data that would

be most likely to disconfirm the evolving theory (Wallendorf and Belk 1989). Though

age-related differences began to emerge even with such a small sample size, the available

evidence in this study provides little more than a suggestion of how these differences

might be manifested.

The interviews ranged from 45 to 75 minutes, depending on the child's interest

level and schedule. Several of these interviews were conducted over two sessions, which

proved quite interesting as the children would often return wanting to add something they

had "forgotten to say the other day". The informants were free to describe their

reactions to particular ads and products and typically recounted a range of experiences.

The format of the interview was flexible so as to allow informants to discuss their

personal experiences, feelings and reactions. The interviews were rather loosely


structured so as to permit lines of inquiry that allowed the child's perspective to emerge

(see Appendix A for a copy of the interview schedule). This type of interviewing has

been adopted successfully in many studies with adults, but has rarely been used to study

children's media reception. When children's advertising researchers have adopted an

open-ended interview format, they have tended to apply predetermined coding schemes

or theoretical models that mask children's substantive interpretations and conclusions

(e.g., Bever et al. 1972, Rossiter and Robertson 1974; Ward et al. 1977). Adult models

of thinking may influence the substantive conclusions that are drawn about children's

assimilation and use of commercial content. In many studies of children's

comprehension of television, the expressed or implied criterion for understanding is the

adult explanation or the formal, literate meaning of a message that fully socialized

members of a society might offer. Researchers have often used their own interpretation

of televised content as a standard and evaluated children's perceptions against it

(Anderson 1981; Dorr 1986). Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that

children frequently "fail" to understand an advertisement the way an adult might. With

this as the baseline, children's interpretations implicitly represent a flawed approximation

to the reading an adult might provide, rather than an equally valid point of view. A

loosely structured dialogue permits exploration of how children perceive advertisements,

reflect on them and relate their contents to their own consumption experiences, ideas and


Data analysis. Research conclusions are based on the verbatim transcripts of

these depth interviews. These transcripts are the data from which conceptual


relationships are discovered, clarified and provisionally verified. The ultimate objective

is the development of an inductively derived substantive theory, grounded in the reality

of children's experiences with ads and products. The research findings constitute a rich,

tightly woven explanatory theory of the phenomena under investigation, rather than a set

of loosely related themes (Glaser and Strauss 1967; Strauss and Corbin 1990).

Systematic analysis techniques and procedures give the research process the precision and

rigor necessary to establish the trustworthiness of the findings (Lincoln and Guba 1985;

Wallendorf and Belk 1989).

Coding, is the fundamental analytic process in grounded theory research (Corbin

and Strauss 1990; Strauss 1987; Strauss and Corbin 1990). There are three major types:

(1) open coding (2) axial coding and (3) selective coding. Open coding is the interpretive

process by which data are initially broken down and conceptualized. Specific incidents,

events and actions are compared, provisional concepts are identified and their properties

dimensionalized. Open coding stimulates generative and comparative questions to guide

subsequent data collection. In axial coding, conceptual categories are related to one

another, and the relationships tested against data. In this phase of the analytic process,

contextual factors, antecedent conditions and consequences are specified, enhancing the

precision of the evolving explanatory network. Selective coding is the final step of the

analytic process. In this phase, the central phenomenon or "core category" is identified

and systematically related to other categories, validating those relationships and isolating

those that need refinement. Ultimately, a richly textured, well-integrated theoretical

formulation is derived, one that closely approximates the everyday reality it represents.


As the first phase of the research process, the findings of this preliminary study

represent provisional concepts and categories, rather than a fully articulated grounded

theory. The primary objective of the initial set of interviews was to learn what was

relevant and irrelevant, significant and trivial in the realm of children's product related

experiences. As is characteristic of the open coding phase of the analytic process, a

variety of generative and comparative questions arose, guiding the conceptual

development and design of studies two and three. The findings from this study provided

a rich source of hypotheses, questions and issues for subsequent inquiry.

Research Findings

The original aims of this research were embedded in a theoretical perspective that

views advertising as a vehicle for communicating cultural information and values. From

an adult's perspective, children's advertisements seem to be filled with messages about

friendship, acceptance, social status and family relationships. Part of the initial focus

was to understand how children respond to these kinds of themes in commercial

messages. Early interviews quickly revealed that these sorts of symbolic elements were

not necessarily focal in children's minds. Questions about the characteristics or motives

of the characters in commercials drew confused responses. However, the children

seemed to have relatively strong opinions about the quality of particular advertisements

and a clear understanding of their intent or purpose. When asked to evaluate the

commercials, the children were able to focus on specific elements and describe how and

why these features were effective or ineffective. What seemed to become clear was that

children, of this age group had developed some pretty clear ideas about advertising as


a communications genre. Children naturally try to make sense of the world around them

and advertising is very much a part of their everyday lives. By the time they reach the

age of 10 or 11 most American children have seen tens of thousands of commercials.

Evidence of this exposure was apparent almost immediately. Most of the children

interviewed were well-aware of the content of recently broadcast children's commercials.

With little invitation they sang jingles, pantomimed, mimicked dance steps, described in

detail particular advertisements or even the evolution of entire ad campaigns.

Three consecutive strategies for the use of concrete props or stimuli, were adopted

in this set of preliminary interviews (1) advertisements alone, (2) advertisements followed

by product samples and (3) product samples followed by advertisements. In each of

these cases, the stimuli were used primarily as tools to encourage children to draw upon

their own experiences with ads and products, rather than as an end in and of themselves.

These particular approaches arose as a consequence of the nature and substantive content

of the children's responses in early interview sessions. Careful steps were taken

throughout the research process to ensure that the interviews remained open and

reflective of the child's perspective rather than being directed by the researcher through

the interview structure. The evolution of the interview strategy was documented in

extensive field notes kept throughout the research project.

Initially, children were shown advertisements and asked to describe what they

noticed, liked, disliked and any other reactions they might have. This approach

prompted a range of responses, focusing on the form and content of the ads as well as

their perceived reliability. These early interviews provided a logical transition point from


the traditional research focus on prepurchase issues. Incorporating actual commercials

within the interviews, provides a very different pattern of response than that obtained by

asking children to talk about advertising in a more abstract sense, a strategy that has

often been employed in research with children (e.g., Bever et al. 1975; Rossiter and

Robertson 1974; Ward et al. 1977). With real ads, the children are exposed to all the

excitement and creativity of the commercials in the context of the interview. The

children respond to a concrete stimulus and all that it conveys during the interview. This

is a positive feature of this approach in that it seems to force mixed feelings and

uncertainty to the surface. When children talk about advertising in general rather than

in specific terms, they tend to be fairly negative or skeptical. However, when they

watch specific ads they may be singing along, laughing or enjoying the cinematic

techniques that merge fantasy and reality. This approach to interviewing thus seems to

help tap into both the positive and negative aspects of children's perceptions of


One of the things that was immediately striking in the first interviews was that

children's responses to the advertisements seemed to have little to do with their

perceptions or attitudes about the products advertised. Advertisements were perceived

to be funny or stupid, silly or cool, but not necessarily, informative or uninformative.

Rather than being evaluated as information sources about what a brand contains or how

it works, ads were evaluated primarily in terms of their entertainment value. However,

the initial interview strategy may have inadvertently encouraged children to reflect on the

ad's capacity to amuse or entertain. By asking children to view and then "tell me what


you think" about specific advertisements, they are essentially invited to critique the ads

on whatever dimensions they deem most relevant. To the extent that this interview

strategy somehow directs the child's focus to creative aspects of the commercial, this

approach may have inspired children to assume the role of art critic. To the extent that

this is true, a more explicit focus within the interviews on the nature of the relationship

between ads and products might be expected to deflect attention away from the ad's

executional elements.

To highlight directly the relationship between advertising and consumption,

products were introduced into the research process. Children were shown commercials

and given products to sample, such as a cereal, fruit snack or cookies. With few

exceptions, the children were highly involved, clearly enjoying the opportunity to try the

products and talk about their reactions. The ad-product pairs typically prompted a

number of comparisons to other products and commercials, prior experiences with a

range of products as well as probable reactions of friends or parents. With the inclusion

of product samples, the content of the interviews began to shift slightly, drawing more

extensively on children's prior experiences both as consumers and shoppers.

Based on both children's advertising research and early studies of advertising-trial

interactions, it was anticipated that children's reactions to specific brands would be

affected by having seen advertisements for them (e.g., Goldberg, Gomrn and Gibson 1978;

Gomrn and Goldberg 1982; Hoch and Ha 1986; Marks and Kamins 1988; Robertson and

Rossiter 1976; Roedder et al. 1983; Smith 1993). Though it wasn't clear how this

influence might manifest itself, it seemed reasonable to assume that children would


compare the performance of the product to claims made in the ad. However, when asked

about their reactions to the products, their responses typically were only superficially

related to advertised claims. Though most of the children did not have previous

experience with these products, many spontaneously mentioned that they had seen

commercials for them. They readily described the contents of these commercials, though

their comments again tended to focus on the ad themes or execution rather than specific

attributes of the product. The children talked at length about what they perceived to be

funny or entertaining yet had relatively little to say about the brand's specific features or

benefits as depicted in the ad. Their reactions to the brands, on the other hand, were

dominated by sensory characteristics such as taste, texture, smell and appearance. What

seemed to emerge was a picture of children's reactions to advertisements that had little

to do with what they felt and believed about the products they consumed. It began to

seem as though children view the products and the advertisements that promote them as

quasi-independent entities. This pattern of findings seems to conflict with both intuition

and previous research findings.

Both experimental and survey research provides clear evidence that advertising

influences children's preferences and behavior. Children may alter their brand

preferences as a consequence of advertising exposure, request the products they see

advertised and choose advertised products over others when given the opportunity to do

so (Goldberg and Gorn 1974; Goldberg et al. 1978; Gorn and Florsheim 1985; Gorn and

Goldberg 1982; Robertson and Rossiter 1976; Roedder et al. 1983). Though children

grow increasingly skeptical of advertising as they mature, they may still be persuaded by


specific advertisements they see or hear. Given this pattern of findings, the seemingly

weak links between advertising and product related responses seemed puzzling. If

children are persuaded by an advertisement they must have some expectations about the

characteristics and benefits the product has to offer. However, it is not clear from

existing research what the nature of these expectations are or how they might influence

the interpretation of subsequent product experience. Though the dynamics of the

advertising-consumption relationship have not been examined empirically, researchers

have assumed that this relationship has a significant impact on children's perceptions and

responsiveness to persuasive attempts. For example, it has been suggested that until

children actually experience discrepancies between products as advertised and the

products they obtain, they are unable to fully comprehend advertising's persuasive intent

(Robertson and Rossiter 1974).

If, as the research community has assumed, children spontaneously compare their

product experiences to the images conveyed by advertising, it is surprising that more of

these direct comparisons were not evident in the interviews. On the one hand, it might

be argued that these are implicit comparisons that somehow simply haven't been or can't

be articulated in an interview format. Though this eventuality can't be ruled out entirely,

a variety of questioning strategies have been employed to get at these relationships.

Further, the children have been able to articulate their opinions and feelings on other

equally difficult issues. Perhaps the more likely explanation is that these comparisons

are neither complex nor specific. Children have expectations about the products they see

advertised but they are simple and often tentative. In really listening to what the children


were saying about the brands, it became clear that they view advertisements as pretty

straightforward messages, with common themes and exhortations. Questions about what

the advertiser was trying to communicate drew initial responses such as "It has honey in

it and they want you to buy it". When after viewing a commercial, children were asked

what people could learn about the product by watching it, their answers reflected multiple

versions of "not very much". A second grader was able to state it quite succinctly when

he said "They all say they are the best since 1983. They all say they are good". For

this young boy, his understanding of what advertising is, leads him to entertain only the

most tentative kind of expectation. Given the nature of children's advertising and the

thousands of commercials children come in contact with, his reaction makes a great deal

of sense. Industry research suggests that young children understand products as entities,

tending not to focus on specific attributes (Rust 1986). Product quality is not perceived

in a dimensional fashion, either a product has it or it doesn't. This perspective may be

due in part to the way advertisers communicate with children. Advertisements targeted

to children are frequently entertaining and delightful, yet contain little more than vague

and subjective promises of performance. Many of the claims made are as simple as "it

tastes good", "it has honey", "it will make you strong", "everybody wants it", "you'll

do anything to get it" or "eating is an adventure" expressed in any number of

entertaining and captivating ways. It would be difficult given the content of these ads

to develop very fine-grained expectations about a particular brand. So, in that sense it

is not surprising that children have difficulty relating their understanding of a commercial

to their consumption experience. The experience of trying a product is dominated by


specific features, a cinnamon taste, how it smells, whether it contains sugar or

marshmallows and how fast it gets soggy. The experience of the ad, on the other hand,

occurs at the level of: is it good or bad entertainment?, is it fantastic or real?, and

sometimes, can I relate to the characters or not?

The link between the brand conveyed through the imaginative and fanciful world

of advertising and its reality in the everyday world, may be forged not so much on the

basis of specific expectations about performance but on a much more diffuse basis,

drawing extensively on the ad's affective appeal as well as the brand's overall perceived

value. Given the content of these ads, it would be difficult to develop detailed

expectations about a particular brand. In this situation, it is not surprising that children

may approach advertising primarily as a source of entertainment and amusement rather

than as a source of brand information. Further, most ads with which they come in

contact, are for products in which they have little interest or likelihood of obtaining. Not

surprisingly, the interviews suggest that these ads are neither likely to be ignored nor

processed deeply in terms of the brand information they convey. Instead, they may best

be characterized as a repository of cultural insight and expression to be mined by a young

inexperienced audience, as well as a source of entertainment and diversion. The

information centered perspective which has dominated the study of children's advertising

response may not fully capture this possibility. Dominated by issues involving children's

cognitive abilities and limitations, it fails to consider children's broader interests, motives

and the everyday world in which advertisements are encountered.


Emerging from the initial interviews is a perspective of advertising that highlights

its role as an entertainment vehicle as well as a source of brand communications.

Though at best preliminary, the evidence does suggest that children's reactions to

commercials encompass a rich, multi-dimensional array of form and content dimensions

that are only tangentially related to the brand advertised. The older children, in

particular, talked extensively about the creative merging of fantasy and reality within

specific advertisements, the predictability of actors' portrayals, specific features that

make a commercial funny or not, and specific strategies used to attract viewer attention

and interest. What the implications of this finding are and whether it will continue to

hold as more interviews are conducted remains an open question. Though researchers

clearly recognize that children are entertained by commercials, this fact seems to have

little bearing on how children's responses are conceptualized or measured. What is

interesting is that this finding was not predicted or hypothesized a priori. The

phenomenological interview allowed the discovery of what may or may not prove to be

an important facet of the way children think about the advertising-consumption

relationship. Adult models of the advertising-experience interaction would have

suggested a much more information-centered consumer than children may turn out to be.

Using research techniques such as the constant comparative method, the

significance of this type of result can be subjected to rigorous analysis and evaluation

(Glaser and Strauss 1967). As major concepts and categories are developed, they are

immediately challenged. Negative instances are sought and additional data are collected.

For example, as the entertainment dimensions of advertising surfaced in the interviews,


a search for negative or qualifying evidence began. On a substantive level, questions

were shifted to thinking about circumstances when executional elements might be less

focal. From a methodological perspective, the interview structure was altered in order

to minimize any directive influence of the structure itself. Rather than beginning the

interviews talking about advertising, the interviews were instead oriented around

children's experiences with products, their likes, dislikes and perceived involvement in

shopping. Shifting the focus away from advertising to consumption was designed to

illuminate how these kinds of products fit into children's lives.

To begin the interviews, children were asked about what they like to eat for

breakfast. From this very simple question, a variety of topics were raised ranging from

their feelings about bad product experiences to the impact of peers, siblings and

advertising on what they know and like. They talked about their brand preferences and

loyalties, how they learned about new products, why they liked brand name products

more than generics, as well their own and others' criteria for choosing particular brands.

They talked about using brand names as a cue to quality, how premiums might be used

to promote sagging sales, loyalty to specific brands and store preferences. With the shift

in focus, family members were mentioned more often. The children were well aware

of their siblings' and parents' preferences as well as their criteria for choosing particular

brands. They readily took family members into account in describing what they like and

why. Within this group, there was a great deal of variation in terms of their level of

participation in the family shopping and decision making. In a few cases, children were

active participants in virtually all shopping expeditions. One fourth grader described how


he gets his own shopping basket and then goes off on his own to choose cereals, snacks,

sodas and fruit drinks within loose guidelines that his mother has established. Most of

the children interviewed indicated that they accompany their parents to the grocery store

on a fairly regular basis, but that it did not necessarily mean they had substantial

influence on the brands chosen. Whether and how their experiences as a shopper and

consumer are influenced by advertising can not be determined on the basis of this

preliminary study. However, these interviews did provide some initial insights worthy

of further exploration. The understanding of how children interpret and evaluate

advertising can only be enriched by a deeper appreciation of their role as both shopper

and consumer.

One of the primary issues in the third wave of interviews, was to determine

whether and how children would talk about advertising in the context of products they

like and dislike. Without exception, children raised the issue of advertising's impact at

some point during the conversation. Though consumption tends to be viewed as the most

important source of information about frequently purchased packaged goods, family

members, friends and advertisements were readily mentioned. In these interviews,

advertising was viewed more critically. Though the participants discussed things that

they thought were funny or entertaining about advertisements, they tended to focus as

well on advertising's capacity to "trick" or "fool" people. Perhaps thinking about their

product preferences first establishes a different mind set, a "logical or rational" young

consumer. In their interpretations of ads, the children seemed to think more about the

brand and what is said about it, than its capacity to entertain or its stylistic features. In

these discussions, the format of the commercial (e.g., technical sophistication, animation,

music, camera angles) played less prominent a role. Instead, more attention was paid

to whether the commercial did an effective job of portraying a product accurately. They

made global comparisons between the quality of the product based on their own

experiences and claims made about it in an ad. For example, comments such as "They

say it's so perfect but I've tried it and it tastes yucky", were common. So while they did

directly compare the commercial to the product, these comparisons tended not to be in

terms of specific attributes but more in terms of their overall evaluations.

As the interview strategy evolved, the relative importance and attention paid to

particular lines of questioning shifted. Given the focus on advertising's entertainment

value evident in the initial data, subsequent interviews were designed to probe the

meaning and limits of these findings. The use of concrete props proved to be a valuable

tool in encouraging children to draw upon their own experiences with ads and products.

While advertising's creative side remained a distinct focus of attention, the accuracy of

the product portrayal began to assume a more prominent position in the third interview

wave. When the children were asked to share their reactions in the context of products

with which they had had substantial usage experience, their perspective shifted to

incorporate both informational and executional dimensions. Use of the brands and ads

within the interview aids the investigation of what appear to be context-dependent

relationships. To explore the limits of the observed patterns further, initial interviews

with younger children were conducted. Inclusion of the younger group was not planned

at the outset of the study. However, the somewhat counterintuitive content of the early


interviews suggested the need for continued comparison and contrast.

Based on these preliminary interviews, there appears to be great diversity among

the younger children, making any conclusions relative to the older group problematic.

However, these age related differences promise to be quite interesting and worthy of

further investigation. The younger children clearly recognize advertising's selling

purpose yet use this knowledge in very different ways. The younger children seemed to

focus to a much greater extent on the products and how they are portrayed in

advertisements. They appeared to be much less focused on the execution of the ads,

judging them instead on the basis of the product depicted. They were much less

concerned about deception though this varied across children. Their evaluative criteria

appeared relatively simple and their understanding of what advertising is, more vague.

Clearly, these age related patterns warrant investigation. Interviewing the younger

children is more difficult, yet it provides a counterpoint which helps to clarify how the

older children view the relationships between products and advertisements.


What has become apparent over the course of this study is that children between

the ages of 7 and 11 recognize that advertisements have a clear purpose and mode of

communication. The older children, in particular, can appreciate ads as entertainment but

they know they are not real and can discount them on that basis. From the perspective

of at least the older children, commercials don't provide much in the way of product

information. They accurately recognize that kids' commercials have the capacity to

entertain, bore or amuse them while saying little about the product or its features. They


know that commercials exaggerate product performance and can readily identify puffery

in the context of an ad. They know that cereal can't make them powerful, strong or even

feel good all day. By the time they reach the age of 10 or 11 children recognize that

commercials are designed to attract their attention and pique their interest. They

understand that advertisers employ all kinds of techniques to make their products appear

inviting to children. They recognize when commercial messages are specifically created

with a young audience in mind. They know that advertisements targeted to adults are

much more likely to rely on real product information and specific nutritional claims to

persuade. They expect children's commercials to be entertaining and are harshly critical

when they are not.

Perhaps because they realize that commercials are more fantastic than real, they

develop only relatively simple product expectations on the basis of advertising exposure.

It was evident from the first interview that the children were taking great care to separate

fact from fiction. Teasing out what was believable and what was not was clearly an

important component of how the older children responded to what they saw. It appeared

as though they were attempting to categorize ad elements as if to test out their new found

understanding of advertising's unique communicative form. They may decide that they

might like to try a product on the basis of an ad without having any real specific


While some of the children seem to be bothered by advertising's potential to

deceive, others appear to be much less concerned. It is as if it is so obvious to them that

commercials aren't real that they find it difficult to believe that anyone would accept


them as truth. However, they are generally quick to point out that they have had to learn

on their own about how advertising works and that younger children might easily be

fooled. Though all of the older children evaluated advertising in terms of its

entertainment value, some of them were quick to describe what they perceived to be

advertisers' "tricks". It was in relation to their descriptions of products they had prior

experience with, where this became most apparent. They were quick to point out when

an advertisement was making claims that they perceived to be false. In most cases their

descriptions were derived from product experiences they had had outside the context of

the interview. The children were clearly using their prior experience with a product to

evaluate subsequent ads they came in contact with. Comparisons between a consumption

experience and the claims made in an ad were more often made when a child had a

strong dislike for a product. When a product proves to be disappointing, subsequent

advertisements are judged rather harshly. These kinds of experiences promote a certain

skepticism on the part of the young consumer. However, it is important to remember

that many experiences children have with products are positive. Advertising seems to

reinforce both positive and negative experiences. When a child likes a product,

additional advertising may serve not only as a reminder to buy it but may actually

promote greater positive feelings toward the product. Once a positive attitude is

established, new advertising and additional product experiences may tend to be viewed

with a less critical eye. Advertising may promote a kind of loyalty once a child has a

positive experience with a product. There were several occasions when the children

actually defended their preferred brands and talked about how the ads for competitors


were stupid or boring. It was both surprising and interesting that most of the children

seemed to have relatively well-defined brand preferences.

The older and most sophisticated children were much more likely to separate their

reactions to a product from their reactions to the advertisements promoting it. However,

this separation was more readily accomplished when the product was liked rather than

disliked. When a product is disliked, advertisements for it tend to be discounted as well.

However, when a product is evaluated positively, advertisements seem to be judged on

the basis of their capacity to entertain or amuse. Some of the children readily cited

examples of products that they thought were much better than the advertisements seemed

to show. However, these kinds of distinctions were reserved for the most articulate and

experienced of the interviewees. Though the younger children are something of an

enigma at this point, one thing that seems to clearly emerge is that their reactions to

products and ads are much more closely linked. While older children may have the

capacity to sort of distance themselves from the product in viewing an ad, younger

children seem to judge ads more strictly in terms of product performance.

The fact that products may either confirm or disconfirm a child's expectations

makes the issue of truth a complex one. When product experiences are negative, ads

may be perceived as lies or simply mistakes. One second grader explained that a cereal

company was unaware that its product was bad because no one who worked there had

ever tasted it. What this example illustrates is that even when an ad doesn't mesh with

experience, it doesn't necessarily mean that children will assume deliberate deception.

The developmental literature indicates that the capacity to infer someone else's motives

may not be evident until the later elementary years. Though children can cite examples

of being disappointed, it is important to remember that much of what they see is true at

some level. Many of the products they consume, they like. When they see

advertisements for these products and an animated character says they taste good, the

children perceive the commercial to be true. If an advertisement says that a cereal

contains honey and nuts and it has these ingredients, the commercial is considered true

and accurate. The older children may evaluate the truth of an ad at multiple levels. For

example, they may argue that an advertisement is true because the cereal does taste good

but false in the sense that it can't make you more strong or powerful as it promises to

do. The younger children, on the other hand, are much less likely to go beyond an

initial global assessment of truth. Though advertisements are not always true, from the

child's perspective they often are, at least at some level. Because much of what children

see they perceive to be true, it is not surprising that they are not as obviously skeptical

as they have the capacity to be. Children are not motivated to dislike the things they see

advertised. Advertisements present products in a creative and entertaining way, and

children are oriented to respond to them positively. Unlike adults, they are relatively

unconstrained by economic realities, at least in terms of their desires and reactions.


This study seems to raise fundamental questions about how children perceive the

relations between advertisements and the brands they promote. Rather than viewing

advertisements simply as purveyors of brand information, these children revealed a

broader, more-inclusive perspective that has executional elements at its core. While