The Influence of Task Demands on Outcomes: Preliminary Findings and Theoretical Implications to Advertising Research Involving Children

M. Carole Macklin, University of Cincinnati
ABSTRACT - The focus of this paper is on the importance of task design when measuring young children's short-term memory for television commercials. Developmental psychologists found that the failure to perform a task may stem from problems with the task itself rather than from developmental limitations. Preliminary work in advertising research concurred with the importance of task appropriateness. Results from nonverbal measures, as compared to verbal recall ones, generally indicated better remembering by 4-and 5-year olds (N=35) of brands, attributes, and incidental information.
[ to cite ]:
M. Carole Macklin (1983) ,"The Influence of Task Demands on Outcomes: Preliminary Findings and Theoretical Implications to Advertising Research Involving Children", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, eds. Richard P. Bagozzi and Alice M. Tybout, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 277-282.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, 1983      Pages 277-282


M. Carole Macklin, University of Cincinnati


The focus of this paper is on the importance of task design when measuring young children's short-term memory for television commercials. Developmental psychologists found that the failure to perform a task may stem from problems with the task itself rather than from developmental limitations. Preliminary work in advertising research concurred with the importance of task appropriateness. Results from nonverbal measures, as compared to verbal recall ones, generally indicated better remembering by 4-and 5-year olds (N=35) of brands, attributes, and incidental information.


Especially during the 1970s, developmental psychologists seriously questioned many of Piaget's assumptions of child development as an all-or-none process (for review, please see Gelman 1978). The traditional Piagetian perspective suggested child development to be largely biologically shaped and occurring in discrete, fixed stages (for an introduction, please see Flavell 1963).

Central to questioning by developmental psychologists, task demands made on children are the focal issue of this paper. It is suggested that researchers consider the demands of a task in terms of age-appropriateness because the demands made may, in and of themselves, influence outcomes. The failure of young children to perform a task may stem from general problems with the task itself rather than from developmental inabilities to perform the task. Therefore, conclusions made about processes in child development may be false when differential abilities to perform the task are not considered.

Important works from developmental psychology will be reviewed suggesting the importance of task design on subsequent outcomes. Advertising research on children will then be considered that complements many psychoLogists' concerns. Research by the author will be presented that concurs with the notion that difficulties experienced by the young child on recall tasks may result from demand characteristics of the task and/or lack of expository skills of the child. Other modes of responses are needed to assess young children's comprehension of and memory for television commercials.


During the 1970s, developmental psychologists illustrated that by redesigning traditional Piagetian tasks, different implications about young children's abilities may be drawn In particular, the "egocentric" nature of the young child received attention. According to traditional Piagetian thought, young children (properitoneal stage: two to seven years) are marked by 'egocentrism"; that is, limited perspective-caking abilities. Because young children tend to focus on only one element of an object (centrate), they fail to understand that others have a different view of the physical and social environment (Flavell 1963) A classic demonstration of egocentrism by Piaget and Inhelder was an experiment in which children were seated on one side of a disPlay portraying three mountains of unequal heights and asked to take on the perspective of a doll. Children under the age of seven or eight indicated that the doll saw what they themselves saw; therefore, they were egocentric (Piaget and Inhelder 1956).

In a series of experiments, Borke reasoned that could vary if the experiment were redesigned to include stimuli with which young children were familiar (Borke 1971, 1973, 1975). In the revised version, Grover, a character from Sesame Street, moved around the mountain display. All children did well at predicting Grover's perspective Thus, Borke's results indicated the important effect of varying task familiarity.

Mounting evidence further pointed to the importance of task difficulty. Shatz and Gelman argued that, in a communication task measuring egocentrism, it seemed only fair to ask children to talk about what they might know (Shatz and Gelman 1973). Those researchers have found that with age-appropriate designs, properitoneal children need not appear egocentric (Shatz and Gelman 1973; Gelman and Shatz 1977). Further studies also concluded the importance of task design when studying for the presence or absence of egocentrism (Hoy 1975; Sachs and Devin-1976; Mossier, Marvin and Greenburg 1976).

Brown also questioned the assumption of egocentrism. but her emphasis was on order tasks requiring the reconstruction of narrative sentences (Brown 1975). According to traditional Piagetian thinking, unidimensional-focusing (centration) was reported to limit a child's ordering of events. Because reconstruction of order presupposes reversibility of thought and because reversible operations are not possible for children who focus unidimensionally, young children are simply not able to reconstruct order (Piaget 1969). However, Brown questioned whether the failure to retell a story reflected a true failure to comprehend and thus reproduce order in narratives or whether it reflected a lack of expository skills (Brown 1975) Brown used three response modes to test for children's memory for the order of events in a story. She found that kindergarten children (mean age 5 years) had difficulty recalling order but could reconstruct and recognize the correct order She concluded that the task of retelling the story verbally presented the difficulties articulated by Piaget about the child Brown maintained that such difficulties were the result of "demand characteristics of recall tasks and/or his immature expository powers" (Brown 1975, p. 164).

A review of these key works suggests that the reconsideration of egocentrism as a fixed element in young children was appropriate because a variation of task provided for different implications about the child. Furthermore, an underestimation of abilities is Possible when the demands of the task and/or the language abilities required by the task exceed age readiness. Advertising research on children will now be examined to ascertain correspondent findings.


Works focusing on television advertising effects on children suggest that task design is an important consideration in minimizing cursory age differences and maximizing the potential to detect true developmental differences. Three research thrusts will be reviewed.

Noting biases favoring verbal memory at the expense of visual representations, Rossiter specifically addressed the issue by using a drawing task (Rossiter 1975). Rossiter found that. as compared to recall, a task requiring retrieval of visual information produced different indications of a child's favorite cereal. Rossiter further indicated that additional information (ranging from 8% to 44% of brand preferences) was obtained through non-verbal measures (Rossiter 1975, p 526) This finding suggested that children may acquire and store in memory a data representation that may not be accessible through verbal retrieval.

Second Wartella, Wackman, and Ward (1978) specifically raised the verbal/nonverbal issue. In interviews with kindergarten and third grade children, these researchers included both recall and recognition measures after a single exposure to a TV commercial for chocolate candy. Not unexpectedly, recall measures of product type, brand name, and product attributes suggested that third graders demonstrated better episodic memory than did kindergartners For example, 10 out of 12 third graders recalled the brand name, whereas only 3 out of 18 kindergartners sid so However, frequencies dramatically increased (by the kindergartners) for the correct responses on a corresponding recognition measure for those who failed the previous test. For brand name. 9 kindergartners showed recognition while the remaining 2 third graders succeeded Therefore on this task, both types of measures provided for 67% succussfulness by the younger children and 100% for the third graders. Their work concurred with the importance of task design.

Third. Donohue, Henke, and Donohue (1980) argued that research investigating children's understanding of the intent of commercials suffered from the lack of consideration of children's language facility. When the researchers redesigned the traditional, recall approach by offering the children a pictorial choice for a method of response, the researchers challenged the previously accepted notion that young children do not understand specific commercial content By pointing either to a picture of a shopping scene or a picture of a child watching TV, 75% or the two-three year olds selected the correct response. The authors warned researchers against relying on verbal facility as a methodological tool for determining television's effects on young children.


Given the potential impact of task design on research outcomes the author specifically investigated young children's short-term memory for three commercials selected to represent a range of message complexity The author's research was similar in approach to the preliminary work reported by Wartella, Wackman, and Ward (19;'S) Common to their work, the current research also included both recall and recognition measures for memory of brands and primary attributes. The current effort was different in several ways, however.

First. the project was more extensive in terms of number (3) and nature of stimuli (one animated and two conventionally-produced with actors). Second, the product domain was extended within the food category to include a commercial for candy, cereal, and sugarless gum. Third, the types of nonverbal measures were expanded to include the following: selection of a specific advertised product from an array of items, selection of a drawing or object from alternatives presented, and/or nonverbal demonstration of information presented in the commercial (Please see the Appendix.) Based or reasons to be described, the fourth distinction was the inclusion or only younger children, "limited processors" as described by Roedder (1981) Wartella, Wackman, and Ward (1978) presented findings about the third graders that were in accord with previous work about older children's increased ability to recall commercial content (Blatt Spencer, and Ward 1972; Ward, Reale. and Levinson 1974; Rubin 1974; Ward, Wackman, and Wartella 1977; Hendon, McGann, and Hendon 1978).

These trends were in accord with the theoretical position held by developmental psychologists who have postulated that free-recall tasks require the use of strategies for both encoding and retrieving of stimuli (mnemonics), whereas recognition memory tasks may require little strategic intervention (Kintsch 1970) A dominant view in developmental psychology has been that young children are deficient in the use of mnemonic strategies (Flavell, Friedrichs, and Hoyt 1970). As Flavell (1970) described mediational deficiencies refer to the inability of younger children to employ learning strategies to improve remembering. Furthermore, support has been indicated that for tasks which do not require deliberate mnemonics, such as recognition memory for long sequences of items, preschool children can perform successfully (Brown and Scott 1971; Brown and Campione 1972; and Brown 1972) Therefore, in response to advertising young children (approximately 7 years and under) should be more successful on recognition tasks that do not require deliberate mnemonic strategies than on recall ones. It was hypothesized that nonverbal, recognition memory tasks would provide for more successful performance by the 4- and z-year olds than the verbal, recall ones. Theoretically. both the 4- and 5-year olds should show increased performance on the nonverbal measures. Implicitly, the author's research posits recognition memory for products, product attributes, and specific actions/information viewed in commercials as tasks not requiring deliberate mnemonics. (i.e., strategies for both encoding and retrieving of stimuli).


Children aged 4 and 5 years (range = 4 years 1 month to 5 years 10 months) were individually interviewed at two suburban day care centers in Cincinnati Ohio The groups were homogeneous in terms of socio-economic background (parents were highly-skilled blue-collar, white-collar or professional; middle to higher-dual income). Overall, the sample was similarly distributed on sex (20 boys and 15 girls) but unequally represented in terms of race (30 white and 5 black)

The stimuli consisted of exposures to a series of professionally-made television commercials which the children had not seen previously. One for candy was animated and featured an unfamiliar chocolate bar unavailable for purchase. The other two commercials, one for cereal and one for sugarless gum, featured familiar products available in the Cincinnati area. These latter ads featured child and adult actors enacting story themes and had not been commercially televised for at least 2 1/2 years prior to the study. Two of the commercials were clearly aimed at children, but the one for sugarless gum was also focused toward the parent, and, consequently, was considered the most complex in terms of presentation

The experimenter led the children individually into 3 small room at the day care center where video equipment was set up, All testing materials were kept out of the children's view prior to immediate questioning. The experimenter conversed for a few moments with each child to help the child adjust to the experimenter, the video equipment, and the setting. The experimenter then told each child that she/he would watch some television commercials and would be asked some questions after each commercial. Each child was asked to pay close attention to the commercials and to try to remember what she/he watched. The order of the commercials was rotated.

After one exposure to a single commercial, the experimenter asked the child freely to recall exactly what happened in the commercial (Please tell be about the commercial you just saw. What happened in the commercial? What did you just see on TV - tell me all about it? Probe: Is there anything else you can tell me? Anything else?) When the child finished with her/his free recall, cued-recall questions whose order was rotated (brand name, product category, and purpose of exposure) were asked that also required verbal answers. These cued-recall questions were designed to direct the individual's memory search (Kobasigawa 1977). Finally, nonverbal measures were administered last. All of these consisted of multiple-choice, recognition-type questions with no verbalization required. (Please see the Appendix.) With an activity session taking approximately twenty minutes, each child's responses were recorded on written interview sheets by the experimenter. The coding or the responses was completed and checked for accuracy by one graduate and one undergraduate student in business administration.


Support is generally indicated for the hypothesis that nonverbal tasks are better than recall tasks in providing for more successful responses by young children to questions involving shore-term memory for TV commercials Figure 1 illustrates that, with the exception of four year olds' poor recognition of chewing gum. the percentages of actual product recognition are higher than the free and cued recall for the familiar products advertised Because no differences on age were hypothesized, possible explanations for this exception will be discussed. In general, however, the three positive slopes indicate that recognition memory for products viewed in commercials may not require mnemonic strategies. In addition the higher levels for product recognition concur with the previous indication that kindergartners do better on recognition measures than recall ones (Wartella Wackman and Ward 1978). Table 1 presents results from Z- and t-rests of the product-recognition selections being different from chance (c-tests were performed separately on the 4 and 5 year olds to preserve information) Table 1 indicates that in three instances, the children's selection of products advertised was greater than at a chance level.





Because no age differences were anticipated on the recognition measures, the 4 year olds' mixed performance is worthy of further exploration. No statistically significant differences between the :- and 5- veal olds are indicated for free-recall of cereal (t = - 09, df=33 prob. = n.s.). cued-recall of cereal (t = -1.26, df=33, prob = n.s ), or product recognition of cereal (t = -1.08, df=33, prob. = n.s.). Although the four boxes were the same size, each was rich with specific color, logos, and product pictorial On the other hand, 5-year old children performed statistically better than the 4-year olds on the three chewing gum measures: free-recall (t = -2.14, df=33, prob. < 05), cued-recall (t = -2.37, df=33, prob. < 05), and product recognition (t = -6.08, df=33, prob. < .001)

In contrast to the increased successfulness by children on cereal measures the sugarless gum commercial featured a product which provided no cues in terms of distinctive color, logos, or product pictorial The four alternatives were similar in terms of color (red), lettering (black), and size differences between the 4- and 5-year olds on gum may be explained in terms of encoding difficulties experienced by the younger children When one considers that most of the 4-year olds could not read or write, one is not surprised by the failure of the children to recognize a name on the product in the absence of additional cues In contrast, almost all of the 5-year olds could write their names and some short words because such exercises were included in the day care's program for that age group. Therefore, in light of the 5-year olds' training and abilities, one might expect the 5-year olds to better recognize words (statistically-significant from chance recognition by 5-year olds: t = 6.02, df=16, prob. < 001).



A further illustration of the 4-year olds' confusion in recognizing the product's name is offered in Table 9 It- shows that a greater number of 4-year old children selected the major competitor's product (statistically-significant selection from chance: t = 1.91, df=17, prob. < .05). One child actually picked both the advertised gum and the major competitor's product stating, "it is one of these." This comment suggests that the children may employ eliminating strategies when recognition memory fails.



Ackerman and Emmerich (1978) presented recent evidence that young children (4 and 7 year olds) employed a reasoning-by-exclusion elimination strategy when recognition memory failed. On a two-step pictorial paired associates task, children were presented with new response items one of which had not been paired with previous stimuli. If a child used an elimination strategy, she/he would select the novel item that had not previously been paired. Ackerman and Emmerich found that both the 4 (44%) and 7 (66%) year olds used an elimination procedure. They characterized this strategy as one that qualified as a legitimate mnemonic response strategy They wrote the following, "Unlike most mnemonic retrieval strategies, elimination is not a method of searching memory for the correct response. It is, instead a method of eliminating clearly incorrect alternatives" (Ackerman and Emmerich 1978, p. 292). For the current study, when the 4 year olds did not recognize the gum, they may have experienced difficulty not only in remembering the correct brand, but also in eliminating the incorrect alternatives.

Results from short-term memory of attributes of the product and for action/information at the beginning or end incidental to the product also indicate the importance of the retrieval task. The trends demonstrated in Figures 2 and 3 concur with the notion that nonverbal tasks indicate greater memory for message information than do recall ones. Additionally, measures for incidental information contained in the middle of the two commercials were taken Increased successfulness was likewise indicated (4 year olds' recall to recognition = 5 6 to 61.1:' cereal: 0; to 33.3% gum; 5 year olds' recall to recognition 23.5% to 76.5% cereal; 0% to 82.3% gum) Please see Table 3.



Table 3 illustrates partial support for correct multiple choice answers being selected as a level greater than chance with seven of the eight ;-tests indicating statistical significance. Furthermore, the table illustrates that the 5-year olds performed better than the 4-year olds; however, only one difference was statistically significant In regards to the 5-year olds only one multiple-choice response was not answered at a level greater than chance. Designed to be difficult, this multiple choice task required the children to translate the term, "sugarless" into which substance was missing from the gum: sugar, flavoring, or cinnamon. Children simply pointed to their response (the positions of the bowls of substances were rotated). The experimenter asked: "Which of these did the commercial tell you was not in the gum?"

Overall, the results presented in Table 3 indicate that recognition measures, as opposed to recall ones may provide for an indication of more successful short-term remembering by young children.


This preliminary work suggests concern for task design is indeed appropriate when measuring young children's short-term memory for brands, attributes, incidental information/action advertised on television. With the exception of the 4-year old's failure to correctly recognize a familiar gum, the children indicated better recognition remembering for actual products as compared to recall measures of brand name (Figure 1). In addition, a greater percentage of children showed recognition memory for primary attributes and incidental action/ information presented in the ads (Figures 9 and 3).

The major findings in this paper support the need for strong consideration of task design. Multiple response modes used in this study provide for different indications of short-term memories. As Roedder asserted (1981), recognition tests make retrieval simpler and should be considered especially when examining differences in storage across greater age categories.

However, future work is needed on retrieval strategies used by young children. On the stimulus side of future research, manipulations of cue information are needed such as color, logos, and product pictorials. A greater range of types and complexities of products and ads would also be beneficial. Response-side manipulations also beg future investigations to determine if young children employ elimination procedures when failing to recognize from among nonverbal, recognition choices. The use of elimination strategies may explain differences between the 4- and 5-year olds performances on recognition measures. Additionally, future work should empirically test whether retrieval instructions can assist the young child even though his/her mediational deficits are not expected to be overcome (Flavell 1970).



The research findings concur with a reconsideration of appropriate theoretical perspectives explaining children's cognitive activity. As developmental psychologists challenged the strict Piagetian approach, advertising researchers must consider stage theory's limited explanatory power as to how and why children process information within the limits described (Calder, Robertson. and Rossiter 1975) The current findings suggest that unidimensional focusing in response to advertising is not mandatory due to a structural characteristic like centration The results from the nonverbal response mode suggested children may grasp multiple aspects about the object, the ad. Thus design of the task may be a critical factor in measuring memory These indications concur with other recent theoretical considerations of the child's processing of commercials described earlier in this paper (Rossiter 1975: Wartella, Wackman, and Ward 1978- Donohue, Henke and Donohue 1980; Roedder 1981) As developmental psychologists have recently found, traditional thinking about the young child may alter when task design reflects age readiness.



Free Recall

Tell me what you just saw on TV What happened in the commercial--tell me all about it? Probe: Is there anything else you can tell me? Anything else?

Cued Recall

Brand: Can you tell me the name of what you just saw on TV? Tell me the name of what someone can buy in a store?

Nonverbal Measures

Brand recognition

Child asked to point to brand advertised. Four alternatives presented with order rotated across subjects.

Primary attribute

Unfamiliar candy: slow-to-chew attribute. Child asked "Show me how you eat an apple? cereal? candy?" "Okay, child's name, show me how the cowboy ate in the commercial.'r Observe. Ask, "How did the cowboy eat?" "Did he eat like always, harder, softer, faster, slower?" (Order rotated across subjects)

Familiar gum: sugarless attribute Child asked to point to bowl holding substance that was absent from gum. "Which of these did the commercial tell you was not in the gum?" Rotated order: sugar, cinnamon, flavoring.

Familiar cereal: holes for milk flow Child asked, "Which of these goes through the holes as shown in the commercial on TV?" Order of bowls rotated: milk, sugar, water.

Incidental Information: (not central to product)

Unfamiliar candy: end action of cowboy leaving town.   Child asked to illustrate what tov cowboy did at end of commercial. Plastic figures set up as in commercial. 'What does the cowboy do after he eats his candy?" Prompt, "Show me." "Does he stand there, lie down, sit, walk up, walk away, move sideways?" Rotate order.

Familiar gum: end tooth fairy is someone who cares about teeth.   "The little girl on TV asked her mom who the tooth fairy was. Her mom said that it was someone who cared about which?" Rotated objects: teeth money (25c) or being a good child, an angel.  : middle who recommended sugarless gum. "The commercial said that four out of five people recommended sugarless gum." Recommended means they thought it was good. Who were these people? Rotated pictures: dentist doctor policeman.

Familiar cereal: beginning who came to town.   "Pick out who just came to town." Rotated drawings: milkman, mailman, or farmer.    :middle dog chewed up newspaper. "What did the dog just chew up?" Rotated objects: newspaper, bone, slipper.


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