A Pilot Study of Children's Consumer Decisions, and Parental Response's to Purchase Requests (Abstract)

Andre Caron, Harvard University
[ to cite ]:
Andre Caron (1974) ,"A Pilot Study of Children's Consumer Decisions, and Parental Response's to Purchase Requests (Abstract)", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 01, eds. Scott Ward and Peter Wright, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 523-528.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1974    Pages 523-528


Andre Caron, Harvard University

[This research was supported by grants from Radio Canada, and Marketing Science Institute.]

[Andre Caron is a doctoral student in the Human Development Program at Harvard.]

This is a report of initial analyses of an extensive research proJect which seeks to understand certain aspects of the relative influences of mass media and interpersonal sources on children's product desires, and parental decision-making regarding their children's product desires. Previous research has shown that the frequency with which children request their parents to buy various products and brands decreases with age, but parental yielding increases with age (Ward and Wackman, 1972). However, this earlier research does not examine the sources of children's product desires; moreover, possible differences in asking and/or yielding behavior are not analyzed. From a public policy point of view, such analyses are important.

The present research proJect is an attempt to trace children's product desires, from initial idea, to interpersonal influence to have parents purchase the product, to parental responses, initial verbal response, and ultimate behavioral response. While our interests at this point are primarily empirical, our working hypotheses were influenced in a general way by previous writers who have argued for a "two-step" view of mass communications effects. Our data are relevant, in that they shed some light on the effects of parents and peers which may mediate mass communication effects. We analyze, for example, the extent to which children cite mass media and other sources of product desires, and the kinds of responses made by parents which serve to positively or negatively reinforce mass media influences.

The various relationships investigated in the overall study are displayed in this pictorial model:



Data were gathered from a total of 84 mother-child pairs, from an initial random sample of third graders (n=54) and fifth graders (n=52) in Montreal. An attempt was made to sample from two different socio-economic areas--"middle social class (average family income $9,000) and "upper" social class (average family income $13,000). Essentially, the procedures were as follows: approximately 4 weeks before Christmas, children were asked to write a letter to Santa, telling him what they wanted for Christmas. Information sources were ascertained by asking children to tell "where they got the ideal' for each gift they requested of Santa. Meanwhile, mothers were trained to unobtrusively record each Christmas gift request during a 7-day period, and to note their verbal response (if any) to the child. Also during this period, we conducted a content analysis of television commercials directed to children in these age groups. Following the Christmas vacation, we ascertained the specific gifts which children received.


Mothers registered a total of 360 requests during the seven-day period; of these 117 were also made to Santa, and 317 were made exclusively to Santa (total requests = 677).

Children requested much the same kinds of items (to Santa, parents, or both) regardless of age or social class. Most requested were "non-interactive" toys (23% of all requests). These are dolls, models, etc., which children normally play with alone. Second-most requested were sports items (18%), followed by competition toys (e.g., slot-racing sets, 14%) and clothing (13%).

Across all requested gifts, children most often cited television as the source of the gift idea, followed by "friends" (Table 1). Minor variations to these patterns were observed by social class and by sex, but older children were considerably more likely to cite television as the idea source, and considerably less likely to cite friends, than younger children. Older children were also more likely to cite "catalogues," suggesting that they have learned to use mass media as a source of product ideas. This age-related finding is similar to the patterns found for kindergarten, third, and fifth grade children, when asked how they would find out about new products (Ward and Wackman, 1973)




Data in Table 2 show that younger children asked for more gifts than older children; however, their "conversion" rate (i.e., receiving specifically requested gifts) was not as high as for older children. More important are the social class differences. Middle-class children requested more gifts than upper class children, and they directed more requests to Santa only, than upper class children. Middle-class children directed far fewer requests to parents alone, or to parents and Santa. This might suggest that middle class children fantasize more than upper-class children, or are perhaps more intimidated at the prospect of directing purchase influence attempts at their parents; they prefer to cast their lot with Santa instead. On the other hand, they receive more gifts, requested or not, and are slightly more likely to convert requests to gifts than upper-class children.




When children asked for specific items as Christmas gifts, parents most often responded in neutral terms, (e.g., "we'll see"). This finding was reasonably consistent. regardless of the specific item asked for, although requests for clothing and books and records were somewhat more likely to elicit positive responses. Data in Table 3 show few age differences, although middle class parents were more likely to respond negatively, than upper-class parents.



In terms of actual gifts purchased for children, data in Table 4 show the percentage of requests which were fulfilled, and those which were not. For example, 28% of the middle-class children's requests were fulfilled, (i.e., the specific gift was received), and 72% were not fulfilled. The percentage of gifts requested and received is somewhat higher for upper-class children. For both groups of children, requests made to both Santa and parents ("common requests" in Table 4), were most likely to be fulfilled. This finding probably reflects the intensity of children's desires. That is, there may have been qualitative differences in the requests of children, and the more intense desires may have been reflected in the child's asking both Santa and his parents for the particular item. Further analyses of the frequency of requests for various items should be useful in determining if this is in fact the case.




Our current analyses are focusing on the mix of various items received by children in different groups--primarily, social class groupings. We will be interested in determining, for example, if middle-class children, who receive more gifts than upper-class children, but whose specific requests are less frequently fulfilled--receive more "functional" kinds of gifts, such as clothing, books, etc. This would indicate a high degree of parental mediation of purchase influence attempts in these families.

Further analyses will also be conducted in an effort to relate content of commercials--including stylistic variables--and patterns of interpersonal relationships, as determined by sociometric data, to children's product desires and subsequent parental behavior.

Aside from the small sample sizes, an obviously limiting factor is that the differences between our age and social class groupings are not clear cut. The income variations are not that great, and neither are the age differences. High proportions of third- and fifth-graders are probably in the concrete operational stage of development, although at different ends of the developmental continuum. Consequently. our age-related differences are not great.

In spite of these limitations, however, we hope that the data hold promise for permitting relatively detailed analysis of processes mediating mass communications effects, in the context Of the specific circumstances which form the context for this study.


Ward, S. & Wackman, D. Children's purchase influence attempts and parental yielding. Journal of Marketing Research, 1972, August.

Ward, S. and Wackman, D. Effects of television advertising on consumer socialization. Marketing Science Institute research report, 1973.