Consumer Socialization: Initial Study Results (Abstract)

Scott Ward, Harvard University
Daniel Wackman, University of Minnesota
[ to cite ]:
Scott Ward and Daniel Wackman (1974) ,"Consumer Socialization: Initial Study Results (Abstract)", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 01, eds. Scott Ward and Peter Wright, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 120-125.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1974    Pages 120-125


Scott Ward, Harvard University

Daniel Wackman, University of Minnesota

[This research was supported by the Office of Child Development (Grant OCD-CD-380).]

[Scott Ward is Associate Professor, Harvard University Graduate School of Business Administration, and Research Associate, Marketing Science Institute. Daniel Wackman is Associate Professor, University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communications and Director, Communication Research Division.]

The general objectives of this research were twofold: (1) to gather data relevant to various regulatory issues in the area of promotion and children; and (2) to provide data useful in the conceptualization and execution of consumer education programs for pre-teenage children. More specifically, we sought to identify age-related kinds and levels of attitudes, skills and knowledge which are relevant to children's developing patterns of consumption behavior. Additionally, we hoped to understand the relative influences of family and mass media on aspects of consumer socialization, and the mechanisms by which learning takes place.

Our theoretical perspective is heavily influenced by two diverse traditions in the field of child development. First, our conceptualization of "consumer socialization" draws on Brim's notions (1960, 1966) which suggest that socialization is a life-long process of acquisition and modification of various sets of skills, knowledge, and attitudes, relevant to effective functioning in the social environment. Second, various cognitive developmental theorists -most notably, Piaget (1951, 1955) -- provide useful concepts for analysis of children's understanding and information processing of stimuli relevant to developing patterns of consumption behavior. Of particular interest in this research are the differences between preoperational and concrete operational children. The former category, generally associated with ages 2-7, suggests that children focus on few attributes of objects or situations in making judgments, and focus largely on perceptual attributes. Concrete-operational children, on the other hand (roughly ages 8-12) use more dimensions in making judgments, and are not so bound to perceptual stimuli.

In summary, our conceptualization of consumer socialization suggests that children's learning is influenced by stage in cognitive development; that learning occurs which is relatively directly related to consumption behavior, or indirectly related, as a consequence of purposive or incidental learning, much of it in the family and via mass media; and with consequences for behavioral and cognitive patterns in both the short- and long-term. Finally, we suggest that the most useful framework for the study of consumer socialization is an information-processing view. Evaluation of regulatory proposals, as well as derivation of consumer education programs, should be evaluated in terms of their impact on children's patterns of information processing, rather than solely in terms of normative patterns of consumer behavior, characteristic of most contemporary "consumer education" programs (Diamond, 1973).


Data were gathered from 615 mother-child pairs in the Boston and Minneapolis metropolitan areas. Data were also gathered from fathers, via a self-administered mail questionnaire. The children were selected through a simple random sampling procedure from class lists (kindergarten, third and sixth grades) in each city. Respondents in Boston were generally lower SES (55% response rate) and respondents in Minneapolis were generally upper-middle SES (87 response rate.

Children were personally interviewed by extensively trained female interviewers in each city; mothers were interviewed personally, and filled out an additional self-administered questionnaire. Personal interviews lasted an average of one hour with both mothers and children; in both interview schedules, a majority of items were open-ended. Interviewers were trained by a child psychologist, and training included observation and evaluation during instrument pre-testing. Intercoder reliability on the open-ended questions was 90%.


In the initial analyses, data from the children's questionnaires were analyzed, as were some data from the mother's questionnaires. In the full report, [S. Ward and D. Wackman, Effects of Television Advertising on Consumer Socialization. Marketing Science Institute Research Report, 1973.] data are presented in the following areas:

I. Mother's consumer goals for their children, and methods of teaching

II. Children's cognitions relevant to consumption behavior

A. Cognitive responses to commercials and advertising

1. Understanding the nature of commercials

2. Truthfulness of commercials

3. Affective attitudes toward commercials

4. Children's attitudes toward commercials

5. Mother's attitudes toward commercials directed toward children

B. Product knowledge

C. Knowledge of product brands

D. Money use knowledge

1. Price knowledge

2. Children's norms for using money

3. Materialism

III. Children's consumer behavior

A. Children's use of money

B. Children's purchase influence attempts

IV. Summary and directions for future research

For purposes of this abstract, illustrative findings regarding children's consumption-related knowledge and behavior are presented.


Data on children's attitudes toward commercials are generally consistent with findings in previous research (Ward, 1972; Wackman and Ward, 1973). Children in the concrete operational stage of cognitive development exhibit greater understanding of commercials' intent, are more skeptical of advertising claims, and are somewhat more negative in their overall evaluations than younger children (preoperational developmental stage). It appears that one reason for increasing skepticism toward commercials may be due to disappointment when advertised products are used. Children were asked if they ever found that something they saw advertised on tv "wasn't as good as you thought it would be." Thirty-eight percent of the kindergarten children indicated this had happened to them, vs. 65% of the third graders, and 75% of the sixth graders.

Another aspect of children's consumption-related cognitions concerns their knowledge of sources of product information. When asked how they would find out about new clothing to wear, and new snack foods, older children are more likely to indicate mass media advertising than younger children. Older children recognize that media--especially television--are more useful as an information source about snack foods, than about new things to wear (Table 1). Conversely, younger children cite perceptual experiences (looking around the store) as a means of finding out about new products. With age, it appears that children learn to use media to become aware of new products.


Two aspects of children's consumer behavior were included in these initial analyses: norms for using money, and intra-family purchase influence attempts.

Regarding money use, children's disposable income increases with age, and children in each age group use their money in much the same ways, although older children are somewhat more likely to spend and to save for a long-term period of time than younger children. These behavioral patterns are quite consistent, regardless of social class, sex, or how they receive the money (through an allowance or through other sources). However, children's behavior is not consistent with the norms they hold for using money, at least as norms were measured in this study, ("spending," "save--short term," and "save--long term.") Data in Table 2 indicate that there is only slight consistency between the norms children have for using money and their behavior. Only among sixth graders is there a statistically significant relationship between norms and behavior of all three types of norms, but even among these sixth graders, correlations are rather low.



A second aspect of children's consumer behavior is the frequency and type of requests they make within the family for product and brand purchases. Children and their mothers were asked how often children requested food products, other grocery store products (e.g. shampoo, toothpaste, cleanser); ar.d child products (games, records, etc.). Correlations of mother's and child's responses ranged between .28 and .32, so their responses were averaged to increase the reliability of the various purchase influence attempt scales. In general, the data show decreasing purchase influence attempts with age, for products and for brands. For some products, such as clothes or records, purchase requests are made more o.ten by older children, but for the types of products requested relatively frequently by all three age groups (food products) younger children make these requests r.ore frequently, and are also slightly more likely than older children to specify brands.



Clearly, the decreasing overt requests with age for food products probably reflects mother's awareness of their child's favorite products and brands, raking overt requests unnecessary.

The data also show that children who ask for one type of product are more likely to ask for other types of products, and for specific brands (Table 3).



In summary, the data presented here are a small part of a much larger research effort, but they are suggestive of the kinds of findings relevant to our conceptualization of consumer socialization in terms of sets of developing attitudes, knowledge and skills by which children learn to process information and deal with the consumer environment. In future analyses, we will examine intra-family interaction patterns, in an attempt to understand relative influences of media and family behavior on consumer socialization, and we will attempt to identify the processes by which various kinds of consumer knowledge and skills are learned, in order to determine which kinds are learned most effectively in the family, or via mass media. Such information will be useful in the design of consumer education curricula.


Brim, O. G., Jr. Personality development as role-learning. In I. Iscoe and H. W. Stevenson (Ed.) Personality development in children. Austin: University of Texas press, 1960.

Brim, O. G., Jr., & Wheeler, S. Socialization after childhood: two essays. New York : Wiley, 1966.

Piaget, J. Principal factors in determining evolution from childhood to adult life. In D. Rapaport (Ed.) Organization and pathology of thought. New York: Columbia University Press, 1951.

Piaget, J. The child's construction of reality. London: Routledge, 1955.

Diamond, S. Consumer education: state of the art. Boston: Harvard University Graduate School of Business Administration. Working paper, 1973.

Ward, S. Children's reactions to commercials. Journal of Advertising Research, 1972, 12, 37-45.

Wackman, D. & Ward, S. Children's information processing of television commercial messages. Paper presented at American Psychological Association, Montreal, Canada, August, 1973.