Children's Attributions of Intent in Television Commercials (Abstract)

Thomas Robertson, University of Pennsylvania
John R. Rossiter, University of Pennsylvania
[ to cite ]:
Thomas Robertson and John R. Rossiter (1974) ,"Children's Attributions of Intent in Television Commercials (Abstract)", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 01, eds. Scott Ward and Peter Wright, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 118-119.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1974    Pages 118-119


Thomas Robertson, University of Pennsylvania

John R. Rossiter, University of Pennsylvania

[Funding for this project has been provided by company and foundation grants from the following sources: Leo Burnett, Inc; Mattell; Kellogg; Nestle; Management and Behavioral Science Center of the University of Pennsylvania; and NSF Grant 1G-73-2.]

What factors mediate the persuasive impact of television commercials on children? The present study identifies two types of attributions children make about the apparent purpose behind commercials --- persuasive intent and assistive intent --- and demonstrates their centrality in determining the child's degree of responsiveness to commercials.

The sample comprised 289 boys selected from the first, third, and fifth grades within the Philadelphia area Catholic School System. Sampling was conducted in five schools chosen to represent a broad social class profile. The data reported here are based on personal interviews with the children concerning their understanding of and reactions to television advertising. Parents were also interviewed to obtain family data and to gauge their awn reactions to products and advertising directed toward children. Poen ended responses were coded by three independent judges who received modal agreement reliability levels of 95.5 to 100%; those responses not achieving modal agreement were eliminated from the analysis.

The results indicate that the tendency of children to attribute a persuasive intent motive to commercials is highly age dependent (r = .41; p .001). By fifty grade 994/o of the children perceive commercials as intentionally persuasive, compared to 87% and 53% for the third and first graders respectively. Parental education is also a significant contributor to persuasive intent recognition (r = .19; p .001). In contrast, the tendency to attribute an assistive function to commercials reaches a peak among third graders (68%) then returns to its former level (about 55%) among fifth graders. Also, first borns, or children with older siblings, attribute assistive intent to a greater extent than other children (r = .13; p .001). Two other social factors, parent-child interaction and child's level of peer integration, were non-significant correlates of intent attributions.

As part of the analysis, certain cognitive factors were isolated as antecedent variables. Significant correlations were found between attribution of persuasive intent and the child's ability to discriminate between commercials and programs; to recognize the existence of a source or sponsor behind the commercial message; to perceive an intended audience for the message; to be aware of symbolic devices employed in the commercial; and to cite personal experiences of discrepancies between products as advertised and their counterparts in reality. On the other hand, attribution of assistive intent was found to depend only on a basic recognition of sponsor and audience concepts.

Finally, results demonstrated that attribution of persuasive intent produces lower belief in commercial messages (r = -.16; p .001), diminished liking of commercials (r = -.12; p .001), and a significantly reduced tendency for the child to want every product he sees advertised (r = -.32; P .001). Attributions of assistive intent in contrast, tends to increase the child's belief in the message (r = .16; p .001), and his liking for commercials (r = .08; p .05), although it is not associated with his consumption motivation. In the situation where the child attributes both persuasive and assistive motives to commercials, the persuasive intent attribution is of much greater relative importance in determining his response tendencies.

This study thus supports the centrality of the child's ability to recognize persuasive intent in commercials as a critical determinant of his consumption motivation. The strong age-dependency of persuasive intent attribution suggests that it is a fundamental cognitive learning process, possibly related to intelligence but relatively unaffected by social learning from parents, siblings, or peers.