Perceptions of Children's Television Advertising: an Empirical Investigation of the Beliefs and Attitudes of Consumer, Industry, and Government Respondents

James D. Culley, University of Delaware
This paper summarizes the findings of a study investigating the beliefs and attitudes of six key respondent groups regarding issues surrounding television advertising and children. The six groups included in the study are: spokesmen for Action for Children's Television (ACT); the presidents and top executive officers of advertising agencies creating and producing children's television commercials; top executives in companies advertising heavily on children's television programs; members of the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communication Commission, and key members of Congress; college students; and adult members of the general public. The paper reports respondent attitudes towards (1) increased regulation, (2) self-regulation and government regulation, (3) the techniques used in children's television commercials, (4) the effects of television commercials on children, and (5) the future of children's television advertising.
[ to cite ]:
James D. Culley (1975) ,"Perceptions of Children's Television Advertising: an Empirical Investigation of the Beliefs and Attitudes of Consumer, Industry, and Government Respondents", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 02, eds. Mary Jane Schlinger, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 879-890.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1975      Pages 879-890

PERCEPTIONS OF CHILDREN'S TELEVISION ADVERTISING: AN EMPIRICAL INVESTIGATION OF THE BELIEFS AND ATTITUDES OF CONSUMER, INDUSTRY, AND GOVERNMENT RESPONDENTS

James D. Culley, University of Delaware

[James D. Culley is an Assistant Professor of Business Administration at the University of Delaware. The majority of the work described in this paper was completed while the author was a doctoral student at Michigan State University.]

This paper summarizes the findings of a study investigating the beliefs and attitudes of six key respondent groups regarding issues surrounding television advertising and children. The six groups included in the study are: spokesmen for Action for Children's Television (ACT); the presidents and top executive officers of advertising agencies creating and producing children's television commercials; top executives in companies advertising heavily on children's television programs; members of the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communication Commission, and key members of Congress; college students; and adult members of the general public. The paper reports respondent attitudes towards (1) increased regulation, (2) self-regulation and government regulation, (3) the techniques used in children's television commercials, (4) the effects of television commercials on children, and (5) the future of children's television advertising.

It has been said that much of the current controversy regarding television advertising and its effect on children is the result of ineffective communication between broadcasters, researchers, and critics of television broadcasting (Ward, 1972). Each of these interest groups pursues the subject with markedly different assumptions concerning the issues and with erroneous or incomplete perceptions of how the other parties involved view the same issues. The result is a series of "dialogues that never really happen" (Bauer & Greyser, 1967).

Although there exists a large number of studies focusing on the general public's attitudes towards advertising as a marketing tool, in only a few cases has an attempt been made to deal with areas of specific concern to those interested in children's television advertising. Moreover, a survey of the literature revealed practically no attitude studies of the key people involved in the creation, [When children's television is referred to in this report, it means regularly scheduled network programs for which children make up the largest percentage of the viewing audience. "Children" designates any individual aged 12 or younger. Most network programs on Saturday and Sunday from 8:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and The Captain Kangaroo Show weekdays on CBS would, therefore, be considered children's television shows.] production, research, and evaluation of advertising directed at children. Yet, these people are among the best sources of information on the various issues involved, the ones most likely to influence and to be influenced by policy decisions in the area, and the expert opinion leaders for much of the general public on the subject.

The purpose of this research study was to present an objective examination of the attitudes and co-orientation ability of seven key respondent groups towards the major issues surrounding the subject of children's television advertising. The seven groups included in the study were:

Action for Children's Television Spokesmen (ACT). This Boston based consumer group has had considerable success in petitioning the Federal Communication Commission and the Federal Trade Commission for changes in present policies regarding children's television advertising. ACT has also been successful in raising money for research on the subject of children's television and children's television advertising and in influencing public opinion on the major issues involved with children's television advertising. A judgment sample of sixty ACT spokesmen was selected for the survey by the founders of ACT; eighty-five Percent of the samPle completed the survey.

Advertising Agency Executives. Much of the criticism of children's television advertising has to do with the techniques and the content of commercials aimed at children. In this study, 107 presidents and top executive officers of twenty-four advertising agencies that create, produce, and buy broadcast time on children's television programs were sent copies of the survey. Sixty-six percent completed the questionnaire. In gathering preliminary data for the study, personal interviews were also conducted with the top executives at ten of the twenty-four agencies included in the final survey.

Top Advertisers. There is a great variety of products advertised on children's television, but most fall into one of four categories: toys, cereals, candies, and other food items. In this study, seventy-five copies of the final questionnaire were mailed to the presidents and top executive officers of thirty firms sponsoring shows, or frequently running commercials, on network children's television. Forty-five percent of the sample mailed back usable questionnaires.

Members of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), and Key Members of Congress. A judgment sample of forty-nine congressmen was included in the government sample. These congressmen were selected because of their expressed interest in and voting record on consumer causes. In addition, fifteen commissioners and top staff officers of the FTC and the FCC were included in the sample. Sixty-six percent of the government sample responded to the survey, but only thirty-four percent of the sample sent back completed questionnaires. (Note: special care should be taken in interpreting the responses of the government sample for two reasons. One, only those congressmen considered "consumer oriented" by their colleagues were included in the sample. It was felt that these congressmen would be most likely to draft legislation in the area and be opinion leaders for others on the subject of children's television. Two, only a small percentage of the respondents in this sample sent back usable questionnaires.)

Members of the Network Review Boards. Major gatekeepers for all commercials destined for airing on network television are the network review or continuity boards. Though the number of people on these boards is small, the board members hold a major position in determining what is or is not acceptable for showing on the networks. Thirteen review board members from the three major networks were mailed copies of the survey, but only six responded. Due to the small size of the sample group and the low response rate. no statistical analyses were attempted.

College Students and the General Public. Several months after the first five respondent groups were surveyed by the author, Professors Frank N. Pierce and Leonard J. Hooper of the University of Florida surveyed random samples of Gainesville, Florida townspeople and college students using portions of the author's questionnaire.

A mail questionnaire was used as the major research instrument for the initial survey. Personal interviews by trained student interviewers were used to gather data for the Pierce-Hooper survey.

The initial survey was divided into two major sections. The first section contained twenty-nine Likert-type attitudinal items designed to test the variance within and mean difference between the responses of the surveyed groups on major issues regarding children's television advertising. The second section of the questionnaire was designed to measure three relationships between the various respondent groups: the amount of cognitive overlap, or similarity in attitudes of the respondents; the perceived cognitive overlap, or extent to which each respondent thought his beliefs were the same as other participants completing the survey; and the accuracy of the respondents in estimating the position of other respondents on issues involving children's television advertising.

Pierce and Hooper designed two similar questionnaires for their study of student and general public attitudes towards television advertising and children. Both questionnaires contained over seventy items. Over one-third of the items were demographic in nature such as how long the respondent lived at his present address, the respondent's age, political party preference etc. Eleven items centered on the respondent's attitude toward advertising as an element in the marketing mix. The remaining twenty-nine items were taken from the first section of the author's study.

Six general hypotheses and twenty-two research hypotheses were included in the author's initial study. All the general hypotheses and seventeen of the research hypotheses concerned the following topics: (1) the need for regulation of children's television advertising; (2) the method of regulating children's television advertising; (3) the effects of television commercials on children; (4) the techniques used in commercials aired on children's television; (5) the products advertised on children's television; and (6) major proposals regarding the future of children's television advertising. Five research hypotheses concerned the ability of the individuals involved with children's television advertising to interact effectively on the issues involved.

Two mailings of the initial survey were made. The first mailing was made June 12, 1973. The follow-up mailing, sent to all respondents failing or refusing to complete the initial questionnaire, was made one month later. The Pierce-Hooper interviews were conducted in late April and early May, 1974.

T-tests, analysis of variance tests, and Duncan range tests were the basic statistical tools used in the analyses.

MAJOR FINDINGS

Although six major issues were covered in the survey, thirteen of the twenty-nine items in the survey loaded heavily on two dimensions: the regulation dimension and the advertising as a profession dimension. The study findings relating to these two dimensions and the findings relating to the co-orientation section of the survey are the subject of the remainder of this paper.

The Regulation Dimension

The issue of whether there should be more regulation of children's television commercials divided the respondents into two distinct groups, All of the ACT sample, over ninety percent of the government -sample, and over sixty-five percent of the student and townspeople samples agreed that television advertising to children should be more regulated than it already is. Sixty-six percent of the agency sample and eighty-five percent of the advertiser sample disagreed with the item: "television advertising to children should be more regulated than it already is.

All six respondent groups agreed that special regulation of children's television advertising was required because of the nature of the viewing audience. There were significant differences, however, in the strength of their agreement. Over fifty percent of the Hooper-Pierce sample and over eighty percent of the ACT sample indicated "strong agreement" with the item. Less than ten percent of the industry samples indicated "strong agreement."

[Scores of 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 were assigned to the 5 response categories from Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree. Mean scores therefore could range from 1.0 to 5.0. The higher the mean score, the more group disagreement with the item as stated.]

ITEM 1:

TELEVISION ADVERTISING TO CHILDREN SHOULD BE MORE REGULATED THAN IT ALREADY IS.

ITEM 15:

CHILDREN'S TELEVISION ADVERTISING REQUIRES SPECIAL REGULATION BECAUSE OF THE NATURE OF THE VIEWING AUDIENCE.

Who should regulate? Items 4, 16, and 18 on the survey referred specifically to the issue of how to regulate television advertising directed at children.

Over sixty percent of the respondents in the industry samples favored self-regulation. A majority of the student and townspeople samples agreed. The government sample favored self-regulation but over sixty percent of the sample felt the trade association guidelines in use today have done little to improve the quality of children's television advertising.

Over seventy percent of the agency sample and all of the advertiser sample felt the trade association guidelines have helped improve the quality of commercials aimed at children.

Seventy percent of the ACT sample felt that commercials to children should be regulated by the government instead of by advertisers.

ITEM 4:

COMMERCIALS TO CHILDREN SHOULD BE REGULATED BY ADVERTISERS THEMSELVES.

ITEM 16:

THE TRADE ASSOCIATION GUIDELINES IN USE TODAY HAVE DONE LITTLE TO IMPROVE THE QUALITY OF CHILDREN'S TELEVISION ADVERTISING.

ITEM 18:

COMMERCIALS TO CHILDREN SHOULD BE REGULATED BY THE GOVERNMENT.

The matter of numbers. Over half of- all six respondent groups felt there are too many commercials on shows children watch. There were significant differences, however, in the strength of their agreement. For example, ninety-three percent of the ACT respondents and fifty percent of the government respondents marked "Strongly Agree" on the item. Only twelve percent of the agency sample and none of the advertiser sample marked the "Strongly Agree" category.

Eighty-nine percent of the ACT respondents favored banning all commercials from children's television programs. Less than half the student, townspeople, agency, advertiser, and government samples agreed.

ITEM 6:

THERE ARE TOO MANY COMMERCIALS ON SHOWS CHILDREN WATCH.

ITEM 22:

ADVERTISING ON CHILDREN'S TELEVISION PROGRAMS SHOULD BE BANNED COMPLETELY.

The Advertiser and His Product: Are they Good?

Six of the 29 items in the study seemed to center on the respondents' reactions toward advertisers as basically honest or laudable persons, and toward their product (the television commercial directed at children) as an honorable and ethical business practice. Agreement with any of these statements, whether held strongly or lightly, is taken to mean that the person interviewed identifies more closely with the stance of the television advertiser than he does with the stance of those organizations who oppose current practices. The respondent who agrees for whatever reasons is more a supporter of the status quo and less fearful of the results of television commercial consumption by children than is his disagreeing counterpart.

The student and townspeople samples saw fit to reject a pro-advertiser position rather strongly in four of the six statements presented to them. They did agree with that stand twice, but each time by slight margins and once not even half of those who held opinions were in agreement. Scores ranged from a low of 19 percent agreement on the least favorably regarded statement to a high of 53 percent on the most favorably regarded one. The average amount of agreement--35 percent over the half-dozen statements--was far outweighed by the 56 percent of the populace who disagreed. Nine percent were neutral.

The question of truth. Not one respondent of the ACT sample, less than ten percent of the government sample, and less than twenty percent of the student and townspeople samples felt children's television commercials present true pictures of the products advertised. Over sixty-five percent of the advertiser sample and over seventy-five percent of the agency sample felt that they do.

Over eighty percent of the industry respondents felt that advertisers make a sincere effort to present their products truthfully. Less than half the student, townspeople, ACT, and government samples agreed.

ITEM 8:

MOST CHILDREN'S TELEVISION COMMERCIALS PRESENT A TRUE PICTURE OF THE PRODUCT ADVERTISED.

ITEM 19:

MOST ADVERTISERS ON CHILDREN'S TELEVISION MAKE A SINCERE EFFORT TO PRESENT THEIR PRODUCT TRUTHFULLY.

The question of taste. Fifty-three percent of the Pierce-Hooper survey respondents agreed that most television commercials aimed at children are in good taste. Only one-third of the student and townspeople samples disagreed. Over seventy percent of both industry samples also agreed with the item.

At the other extreme on the taste dimension stood the ACT and government samples. Not one of the ACT respondents and only fourteen percent of the government respondents felt that commercials aimed at children are in good taste.

ITEM 11:

TELEVISION COMMERCIALS AIMED AT CHILDREN ARE USUALLY IN GOOD TASTE.

Advertising as a marketing tool. Sixty-five percent of the agency respondents and seventy-one percent of the advertiser respondents felt that commercials help develop a child's ability to make good consumer decisions. Less than five percent of the ACT sample and less than twenty-five percent of the townspeople, student, and government samples agreed.

ITEM 2:

ADVERTISING HELPS DEVELOP A CHILD'S ABILITY TO MAKE GOOD CONSUMER DECISIONS.

Advertisers as professionals. Over seventy percent of the student, townspeople, ACT, and government samples agreed with the statement: "Most advertisers on children's television are not really concerned about kids; they just want to sell their products.

Less than half the townspeople, student, ACT, and government samples felt advertisers were trying their best to provide what the public wants.

ITEM 26:

MOST ADVERTISERS ARE GOOD PEOPLE TRYING THEIR BEST TO PROVIDE WHAT THE PUBLIC WANTS.

ITEM 27:

MOST ADVERTISERS ON CHILDREN'S TELEVISION AREN'T REALLY CONCERNED ABOUT KIDS. THEY JUST WANT TO SELL THEIR PRODUCT.

The Co-orientation Abilities of the ACT. Agency. Advertiser. and Government samples

The initial mail survey was divided into 2 sections. The first section centered on the twenty-nine attitudinal items discussed up to now. The second section of the survey dealt specifically with the co-orientation abilities of the ACT, Agency, Advertiser, and Government samples. [Nine of the twenty-nine items used in the first section of the survey were repeated in the second section of the questionnaire. Respondents were asked in the co-orientation section to respond as if they were someone else. For example, those in the ACT sample were told to respond as if they were spokesmen for firms advertising on network children's television or spokesmen for the major network continuity boards.]

The first relationship measured in this section concerned the amount of cognitive overlap, or similarity in attitudes of the various respondent groups.

On twenty-three of the twenty-nine items in the survey, the mean response of the two industry samples differed significantly from that of the ACT respondents. The items in which the direction of the mean scores of the industry and ACT respondent groups were the same are:

There are too many commercials on shows children watch. (The agency, advertiser, and ACT respondents agreed.)

Commercials often persuade children to want things they don't really need. (The agency and ACT respondents agreed.)

Performers should be allowed to sell products on children's television shows. (The agency, advertiser, and ACT respondents disagreed.)

Simulcasts (permitting 2 or more networks to run the same program at the same time) would help improve the quality of children's television programming. (The agency, advertiser, and ACT respondents disagreed. However, nearly seventy percent of the ACT respondents marked "uncertain" on this item. It is doubtful whether the ACT respondents had heard of the simulcast proposal before.)

Children's television advertising requires special regulation because of the nature of the viewing audience. (The agency, advertiser, and ACT respondents agreed.)

It is up to the parents to regulate children's television viewing behavior. (The agency, advertiser, and ACT respondents agreed.)

The advertiser and agency respondents differed significantly in their attitudes on only four of the twenty-nine Likert-type items. In each case, the direction of agreement was the same: only the expressed strength of the responses differed. For example, on the statement, "Most advertisers on children's television aren't really concerned about kids, they just want to sell their products," both the agency and advertiser respondents expressed disagreement. However, while thirty-eight percent of the respondents from the advertiser sample expressed strong disagreement with the item, only twenty percent of the agency respondents did. A two-tail T-test comparing the sample means of the two groups did not support the hypothesis that the samples were drawn from the same population.

The other three items in which tests of the differences between the mean scores of the industry respondents were significant are:

"Bunching" commercials before or after a program would significantly lessen the impact of the advertiser's message. (The respondents in the advertiser sample expressed stronger agreement than the respondents in the agency sample.)

The trade association guidelines in use today have done little to improve the quality of children's television advertising. (The respondents in the advertiser sample expressed stronger disagreement than the respondents in the agency sample.)

Television commercials lead to an increase in parent-child conflict. (The respondents in the advertiser sample expressed stronger disagreement than the respondents in the agency sample.)

The second relationship measured in the co-orientation section of the survey dealt with the accuracy of the respondents in estimating the position of other respondents on the items included in the co-orientation section of the survey. Five different data sets were used in testing respondent accuracy: the ACT respondents' estimates of the agency position, the agency respondents' estimates of the ACT position, the advertiser respondents' estimates of the ACT position, and the government respondents' estimates of the ACT position.

Only the data from the ACT respondents' estimates of the agency position supported the hypothesis that the accuracy of each respondent group will be relatively low in estimating the position of other groups on issues relating to children's television advertising.

The third relationship measured in the co-orientation section of the survey dealt with the perceived cognitive overlap or extent to which each respondent thought his beliefs were the same as other participants completing the survey. The actual position of the agency sample differed significantly from its perception of the ACT position on all nine co-orientation items. But there was no significant difference between the actual agency position and its perception of the network position on six of the nine items.

The actual position of the advertiser respondents differed significantly from their estimate of the ACT respondents' position on all nine items. But there was no significant difference between the agency respondents' position and their perception of the network respondents' position on six of the nine co-orientation items.

The position of the ACT respondents differed significantly from their estimate of the network respondents' and agency respondents' positions on all nine co-orientation items. The position of the government respondents differed significantly from their estimate of the ACT respondents' position on four of the nine co-orientation items. The position of the government respondents differed significantly from their estimate of the network respondents' and agency respondents' position on eight of the nine co-orientation items.

Implications of the Study

In recent years, government and business spokesmen have advocated a dialogue between key government, industry, and consumer groups to reduce friction and advance the general good. Yet, such a dialogue never happens. Rather, what passes for dialogue in form is only a sequence of monologues in fact, wherein each spokesman merely grants "equal time" to others and pretends to listen while actually preparing his own set of comments (Bauer & Greyser, 1967; Ward, 1972).

The findings of this study indicate that the lack of effective interaction between government, industry, and consumer spokesmen, at least regarding children's television advertising, is not due to a lack of understanding. The various groups included in the study do understand each other's positions on most issues remarkably well.

The findings indicate the critical need for industry spokesmen to establish an effective dialogue with government representatives and consumer spokesmen, particularly spokesmen for Action for Children's Television, if they hope to continue operating with the relative freedom they now enjoy. On almost every issue in the survey, the government respondents were on the side of the ACT respondents and not the side of the industry--a fact that has serious implications regarding present public opinion and potential legislation on the subject.

Although the study data supported most of the research hypotheses, the significant differences in attitude between the surveyed groups and the small amount of variance in attitude within the surveyed groups is probably a more significant finding than the fact that the hypotheses were supported. The difference in attitudes between the industry respondents and the ACT and government respondents is so large that no publicity campaign or goodwill effort on the part of the industry is likely to have much effect on either group--at least not in the immediate future.

REFERENCES

Bauer, Raymond A., & Greyser, Stephen A. Thinking ahead: The dialogue that never happens. Harvard Business Review, 1967, 45, 2-12, 186-190.

Ward, Scott. Kids TV-marketers on hot seat. Harvard Business Review, 1972, 50, 16-18ff.

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