Consumer Satisfaction Among Children

Thomas S. Robertson, University of Pennsylvania
John R. Rossiter, New South Wales Institute of Technology
Scott Ward, University of Pennsylvania
ABSTRACT - The consumer satisfaction of children is probed in this study. The focus is on CS/D toward toys among 6-11 year-olds. The research examines age, television exposure and parent-child interaction effects on children's CS/D.
[ to cite ]:
Thomas S. Robertson, John R. Rossiter, and Scott Ward (1985) ,"Consumer Satisfaction Among Children", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 279-284.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 279-284


Thomas S. Robertson, University of Pennsylvania

John R. Rossiter, New South Wales Institute of Technology

Scott Ward, University of Pennsylvania


The consumer satisfaction of children is probed in this study. The focus is on CS/D toward toys among 6-11 year-olds. The research examines age, television exposure and parent-child interaction effects on children's CS/D.


The objective of this paper is to examine some aspects of consumer satisfaction and dissatisfaction (CS/D) among pre-teenage children. In spite of the fact that the volume of CS/D research has grown in recent years Hunt (1983) compiled a bibliography of 610 entries in the area in 1982 - only limited attention has been paid to CS/D phenomena among children (Atkin 1975a; Goldberg and Gorn 1978). This is particularly surprising, since children's satisfaction with advertised products would seem to be a logical dependent variable in research examining the effects of television advertising on children, as well as in more general investigations of consumer socialization processes.

Children's patterns of CS/D would seem to underlie the concerns of many critics of advertising to children. A familiar criticism by consumer advocates is that children's products do not match the expectations generated by marketing promotion to children, particularly television advertising. Feldman and Wolf (1974), for example, elaborate the critics' concern that: "Commercials sometimes seem to magnify the benefits of particular toys . . . This encourages false expectations. When these are deflated. . .the child is frustrated."

Critics have also argued that children's disappointment or dissatisfaction with products leads to parent-child conflict and children's frustration, particularly when purchase requests are denied (ACT 1971). However, research has not explicitly examined the extent to which children are satisfied or dissatisfied with products, much less whether request denial is related to broader patterns of dysfunctional intra-family conflict.


Two main approaches to conceptualize CS/D are evidenced in the research literature. One approach conceptualizes satisfaction as a function of the discrepancy between a consumer's expectations about the product and obtained product performance (Day 1977; Oliver 1977). This "disconfirmation of expectations" paradigm has been derived from adaptation level theory, assimilation contrast theory, and from various psychological consistency theories. Although the underlying mechanisms differ somewhat, the CS/D process is similar: consumers compare actual performance of a product to their expectations about performance, and if performance is less than expected, consumer dissatisfaction results; if expectations are met or exceeded. satisfaction results.

Various criticisms of the disconfirmation of expectations paradigm have been advanced. These include its focus on product-specific evaluations as the primary determinant of satisfaction, as opposed to more general cognitive responses to consumption experiences. Another criticism is whether the model holds under various levels of involvement (LaTour and Peat 1979).

Recently, Westbrook and Reilly (1982) advanced the "value -percept disparity" hypothesis in an attempt to improve upon the disconfirmation of expectations model. Their approach broadens the evaluation process to include other cognitive processes following purchase and broadens the concept of expectations to include not only expectations about the product, but expectations relative to all experiences associated with product purchase.

Although extended discussion of these streams within the CS/D field is beyond the scope of this paper, it is important to assess their implications for CS/D among children. Two issues would seem to be particularly important. First, adult paradigms of CS/D assume a reasonably clear and coherent set of product expectations. Children may have less extensive and well-formed expectations, owing to age-related differences in their information-processing abilities, and to their more limited experience with products. Second, adult CS/D models posit a single consumer who perceives, buys, and then evaluates - or more generally experiences -- a product. In the case of children, most product desires must be channeled through purchase requests to one or more parents. The introduction of parent-child relationships into the CS/D process may mean that children's expectations and satisfaction levels are influenced by the nature of parent-child interaction. Following Westbrook and Reilly's reasoning, this would suggest that conceptualization of CS/D for children must take into account the broader experience of product acquisition and consumption, such as to include not only evaluations of products versus expectations, but also the role of parent -child interaction.

It may be, for example, that a child's satisfaction with a product is shaped not only by his/her product evaluations, but also by the feelings and cognitions generated by the parent-child interaction preceding and following receipt (or non-receipt) of the requested product. A boy may be delighted with a bicycle he persuaded his parents to buy for him, not only because the bike exceeds his expectations, but also because he feels successful in negotiating its purchase. Conversely, the boy may feel keen disappointment if he does not receive a particular bike after he has invested time, effort and emotion negotiating with parents.


Our objective is to assess levels of consumer satisfaction achieved by a sector of the marketing system -- toy and game manufacturers -- among a particular segment of the population -- children between 6-11 years old. We examine the relationship of three variables -- age, amount of television viewing, and level of parent-child interaction -- to both the actual level of product satisfaction which children experience when they receive requested products, and the level of disappointment which they experience when they do not receive requested products. Our hypotheses follow.

Age. Compared to younger children, older children will experience greater product satisfaction with requested products received, and less disappointment when they do not receive requested products. This is in line with existing research evidence that older children are more discriminating toward advertising, less trusting, and therefore, we assume, less likely to have unrealistic expectations for products (Robertson and Rossiter 1974; Ward 1974). Older children are also more likely to have their requests granted by parents and, even if denied, should be better able to understand the reasons why (Isler, Popper and Ward 1979).

This hypothesis is also derived from recent research in the area of children's information processing. In reviewing this work Roedder (1981) has described age-related differences in children's abilities to select, store and retrieve information. "Limited processors" (approximate y ages ; have the greatest difficulty in selecting information relevant to a task, and cannot use storage and retrieval strategies even when prompted in a task environment; "cued processors" (about ages 7-11 ) show greater abilities at information selection and can use storage and retrieval strategies when prompted to do so; "strategic processors (about ages 11 and over) possess developed skills necessary to select, store and retrieve information.

These processes elaborate stage-related notions posited in cognitive development theory -- for example, younger, pre-operational children focus on perceptual aspects of television commercial stimuli, suggesting an inability to select information more relevant to consumption (Wackman and Wartella 1977). Given these age-related differences, we expect younger children to have less well-formed product expectations, and, therefore, to show less satisfaction with requested products actually received. On the other hand, younger children should evidence greater disappointment when they do not receive products, since their less developed information-processing abilities may mean they are not selective in their product requesting behavior. Older children are more likely to rank-order product requests, in terms of their desires and their perceptions that some requests will be granted. Therefore, they should show less disappointment when low priority products are not purchased for them.

A related basis for the age-differences hypothesis stems from the notion that children who are "cued" processors -- about ages 7-11 -- should show somewhat greater levels of disappointment when they do not receive products, and, perhaps greater levels of dissatisfaction with products they do receive. This is because they have developed some abilities to select useful information from commercial messages, and can store and retrieve information, but they have not developed adequate defenses to yielding. This two-factor theory of persuasion has been discussed elsewhere (McGuire 1969: Rossiter 1980).

TV Exposure. We expect that children who watch less television will experience greater product satisfaction than high television exposure children. This is because low TV exposure children hold more discriminating attitudes toward commercials, and, therefore, should have lower product expectation levels (Rossiter and Robertson 1974). Of course, TV exposure is related to structural variables, such as social class. In fact, Atkin (1975b) found a .41 correlation between TV viewing and purchase requests among children, but the correlation dropped to .29 when age, sex, race and scholastic performance were controlled. When mother and child estimates of viewing were combined, the viewing request correlation was .28 for cereals, and .17 for toys, but when the demographic factors were again controlled, the correlations dropped to .22 and .10 respectively. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to hypothesize that children who watch more television are exposed to more commercial messages than low exposure children, and, therefore, form more intense product expectations. Consequently, they are less likely to be satisfied with requested products received, and more likely to be disappointed when they do not receive requested products.

Parent-Child Interaction. Both general parent-child interaction, and specific parent-child interaction about consumption have been positively related to children's development of consumer skills (Ward, Wackman and Wartella 1977). In fact, parent-child interaction contributes to even kindergarten-aged children's consumer skills. Thus, we expect that children whose parents interact frequently with them will develop more realistic expectations about products and the probabilities of receiving them. Consequently, children from high interaction homes should experience greater satisfaction with requested products received, and less disappointment when requested products are not received, than children from low interaction homes.


The research consisted of a wave of interviews with children just before Christmas and a wave of interviews just after Christmas. The pre-wave was specifically conducted to measure children's Christmas present requests to parents. The post-wave was designed to measure what presents children actually received and to gauge satisfaction levels for products received and disappointment levels for products not received.

A sample of 253 children was obtained stratified by socioeconomic level. The sampling was limited to boys at five schools within the Philadelphia-area Catholic school system. The social classes represented, based on occupational and educational analysis, are from upper-lower to upper-middle social class. The sample does not include economically-disadvantaged children nor does it encompass race as a variable. Interviews were conducted with approximately equal numbers of children at first, third, and fifth grade levels and took place within the schools on an individual student basis. Measurement procedures were exhaustively pretested in order to gauge their comprehension for young children and included both open-end and closed-end questions.


Two dependent variables were examined: (1) satisfaction level after receiving an item requested from parents and (2) disaPpointment resulting from not receiving an item requested.

Product satisfaction was measured by a combination of three rating questions for each present the child received: how much "fun" it was, how good it "looked," and how well it "worked." The child was asked to compare each item received relative to prior expectations.

The three components of satisfaction -- fun, visual impression and product performance - seem to measure somewhat different dimensions of the phenomenon. It would appear that the first two dimensions assess affect whereas the third dimension is a cognitive (performance) dimension. The intercorrelations among the dimensions (based on Kendall tau analysis) are as follows: "fun-looked" .24; "fun-worked" .18; "looked-worked" .17. All are highly significant (.001 level).

Non-receipt disappointment was measured based on open-end probing of the child's feelings after not receiving a requested item. During this questioning we also assessed how the child resolved any disappointment experienced as a result of non-receiPt.

Three independent variables were examined: (1) the child's age, (2) his level of television exposure, and (3) the level of parent-child interaction.

Age was determined based on school records.

Television Exposure was measured based on the child's self-report of viewing by time period; for example, before dinner on weekdays, or Saturday morning.

Parent Child Interaction was assessed using a seven-item index of the child's self report of how often parents engaged in a series of activities with him.


Satisfaction with Products Received

Satisfaction levels with presents received are shown in Table l. The children in our sample received 43 percent of their Christmas present requests. A major finding is that product satisfaction far outweighed dissatisfaction: 90 percent of the presents received were felt to be the same as expected, or better than expected, and only 10 percent of the presents were worse than expected. Also, as hypothesized, satisfaction was found to be greatest among older children, low TV exposure children, and children from homes characterized by high parent-child interaction.

The relationship of age to satisfaction level is positive and significant (.14 Kendall tau correlation). The percentage level of satisfaction with presents received increases from 84% at first grade to 91% at third grade to 95% at third grade. When children are dissatisfied, the older children are more likely to evaluate the present on its performance dimension, whereas the younger children are slightly more likely to evaluate on the "fun" dimension.

These results, contrary to some of the critics' concern, suggest that children are not particularly disappointed with Christmas presents. It does not appear that they build unrealistic product expectations; if anything, the reality is likely to be more appealing than the expectation, given that for the total sample, 58 percent of the children rated the product better than expected and only 10 percent rated the product worse than expected (Table 1).

There is, however, relatively more dissatisfaction at younger age levels. This is consistent with the literature findings that younger children are less discriminating toward commercials and less aware of possible message-product discrepancies-(Adler, et al 1980). More specifically, as we hypothesized, younger children who are limited processors may experience less product satisfaction since they were not selective in forming product expectations, and did not retrieve and use stored information in evaluating products received. It should be recognized, however, that our post-interview with the children occurred at the beginning of January, and it is possible that some initial short-term dissatisfaction could have occurred, which was resolved by the time of the interview.



The relationship of television exposure to satisfactlon, while significant, is minor (-.06 Kendall tau). Low TV exposure children are slightly more satisfied with presents received than high TV exposure children. This effect, however, is entirely concentrated at firstgrate, where low TV viewers indicate 92 percent satisfaction, whereas high TV viewers indicate only 76 percent satisfaction. Consistent with our age-related hypothesis, it may be that limited processors who watch relatively more television have particularly acute problems in selecting, storing and retrieving information to use in evaluating (and possibly in requesting) products. The lower satisfaction by TV exposure finding is also most concentrated on the "fun' dimension of satisfaction; that is, high TV exposure children are more likely to think that the product is not as much fun as expected.

Parent-child interaction relates positively to satisfaction (.14 Kendall tau) as hypothesized. Again, this relationship is strongest at first grade level and is relatively unimportant at third and fifth grade levels. This finding is consistent with Ward, Wackman and Wartella's earlier finding that parent-child interaction is most important in contributing to consumer skill development among very young (kindergarten-aged) children. Their findings suggest that older children are less responsive to parent-child interaction, and learn more through direct experience and modelling parental behaviors. It would seem that interaction provides a means for the child to test out his/her expectation levels and to modify them in line uith parental feedback; even if this means simply rejecting some short-term product desires in the case of limited processors who have very limited storage and retrieval strategies. The "fun" dimension of satisfaction is found to be affected more by parent-child interaction than the "look" and "performance" dimensions.

Disappointment at Requests Not Received

Disappointment levels are shown in Table 2 for requests not received. For the 57 percent of requests which children did not receive, they register disappointment in 35 percent of the cases and are indifferent (no disappointment) in-65 percent of the cases. Disappointment is higher among younger children and children with high television exposure and is higher among children with high levels of parent-child interaction, contrary to our expectation.



The relationship between age and non-receipt disappointment is as follows: first grade -- 37%; third grade -- 41%; and fifth grade -- 25%. Thus, younger children reveal greater disappointment, although this is accentuated slightly at third grade level for reasons of which we are unaware. Whether an overall disappointment level of 35 percent some two weeks after Christmas is high or low is difficult to say and we have no data as to whether this disappointment level might have been higher had we interviewed the child on Christmas day immediately after discovery that he had not received a particular request.

As we hypothesized, younger children are less skillful in selecting information about products in order to form preferences and expectations. Consequently, they may not "rank-order" their preferences as well as older children, and, assuming that gifts were received somewhat in line with parental perceptions of the intensity of their children's desires, older children should show least disappointment. Since younger children may not have had such firm and ordered pre-Christmas expectations and desires, they would be more likely to show higher levels of disappointment.

An alternative explanation is the "two-factor" persuasion model we hypothesized earlier. It may be that younger children can select store and retrieve information, but have not developed defenses to yielding. Therefore, they would have desires for many products, and experience greater levels of dissatisfaction when they are not all received. This might explain the finding that disappointment levels continue to be high among third grade children who are likely to be cued processors. As hypothesized, this "two-factor" explanation should be particularly applicable to these children.

When the children were asked why they did not receive the items requested, their responses fell into the following categories:

External Blame -- e.g., "my parents couldn't afford it." This rationale accounted for 41 percent of the cases and was most prevalent among third grade children. "Expense" was also the most frequent reason cited by parents for refusing to purchase a child's request (Bureau of Advertising 1971).

Internal Denial -- e.g., "I didn't really want it." This reason was given in 36 percent of the cases and occurred most among fifth grade children.

Self Blame -- e.g., "I was a bad boy." This response occurred 9 percent of the time and was distributed about equally by grade level.

No Explanation. Children could provide no reason in 14 percent of the cases, with this response concentrated at first grate level.

The children, therefore, were generally able to verbalize why they did not receive requests. A certain amount of dissonance reduction may well be reflected in the responses -- but we did not postulate a dissonance theory design in advance of the research in order to examine this possibility. Some readers may find it encouraging that only 9 percent of the children attributed "self blame" for not getting presents, since this has been viewed by some critics as a possible consequence of unfulfilled "advertising-induced" expectations.

The relationship of television exposure to disappointment is positive (.08 Kendall tau) . High TV exposure children reflect somewhat more disappointment when they do not receive presents than low TV exposure children. This effect is highly concentrated at first grade and diminishes substantially by fifth grade. It would appear, therefore, that television advertising has the potential to build high desire among young children and they are perhaps least able to select and process product-related information, and to assess the probabilities of actually receiving items. These limited abilities result in less ordered product preferences and expectations, in turn resulting in higher levels of disappointment.

Parent-child interaction, contrary to our prior expectation, is associated positively with disappointment at non-receipt; that is, those children with high parent-child interaction actually reflect slightly greater disappointment (.08 Kendall tau). In some ways this may be a logical finding. If children have high levels of interaction with their parents, they may implicitly believe that their parents know more about what they want and may feel "let down" when they do not, in fact, receive their requests.

Interestingly, it is the older children (not first graders) who experience this interaction-disappointment relationship the most. This may be consistent with the prior finding of Ward and Wackman that older children receive more of their requests, probably because they have learned to be selective in their product desires and requests (Ward and Wackman 1972). Given such positive reinforcement, we can expect greater disappointment at non-receipt than for younger children, who are denied a higher proportion of their requests.


The effectiveness of a marketing system must ultimately be evaluated in terms of its ability to satisfy consumer needs. In this article we have examined the domain of children's toys and games and have assessed the degree of product satisfaction which children experience.

Our overall conclusion is that children are predominantly satisfied with presents received from parents: 90% of our sample said that the presents were the same or better than expected and only 10% expressed dissatisfaction. Younger children experience somewhat less satisfaction as do children with high media exposure, whereas children from homes characterized by high parent-child interaction experience somewhat more satisfaction. The implication to be drawn is that, for the most part, children's expectations are not particularly exaggerated as a function of advertising and that most products deliver in line with their advertising promises.

The dissatisfaction which does occur is mainly disappointment upon not receiving presents requested. Overall, 35% of the children in our sample reflected non-receipt disappointment. This disappointment was most pronounced among younger children, children with high television exposure, and contrary to our initial expectation, children from high parent-child interaction homes.

The relationship of age to satisfaction is worth noting. As hypothesized, younger children are more likely to be dissatisfied with the presents they receive and disappointed when they do not receive their requests. This reflects their greater difficulties in selecting, storing and retrieving information in order to form product preferences and expectations. Without such ordered preferences, disappointment is inevitable.

Television exposure level also relates negatively to satisfaction. Children with high media exposure are somewhat less satisfied with the presents which they receive and somewhat more disappointed if they do not receive their requests. This would seem to be a logical outcome of heightened desire and expectation resulting from heavy television reinforcement. The strength of the relationship is not substantial, however, although significant.

Finally, parents play a key editing and mediating role. In the process of requesting presents from parents, children are provided with a check on their desires and an alternative information and evaluation source. Children from homes characterized by high parent-child interaction experience greater satisfaction with presents received, probably as a result of the editing which has been done to rule-out certain toys and games in advance. Interestingly, however, these same children experience somewhat greater disappointment if they do not receive their requests, probably since they feel more "let down" if they have discussed presents and did not receive them.

This set of results, we believe, provides some "base line" data on children's product satisfaction. However, we have only begun to tap a very compLicated phenomenon since the child's satisfaction is intimately related to the process of parent-child interaction. Future research must probe intra-family communication processes, parental coping styles, and the opportunity which such interaction presents for consumer training and socialization. More specifically, future research should examine the question of the extent to which children's product satisfaction is a function of the child's success or failure in parent-child interaction, as well as the child's product expectations.

We also need a more direct test of precisely what children at different ages take away from commercial advertising. It is not clear that they form specific product expectations in the same way that such expectations are treated in adult models of CS/D. Consistent with Westbrook and Reilly's theorizing, it may be that children's satisfaction and dissatisfaction with products is powerfully affected by other aspects of the consumption situation -- such as their feelings about negotiating with their parents, and outcomes as they occur in the family context. We have not examined this question here, but our uncertainty led us to use the emotional term "disappointment" rather than the more delineated cognitive concept of "dissatisfaction" when discussing children's feelings.

Finally, more specific analyses should focus on children's information processing as it relates to CS/D. One could argue that youngest children, who are "limited" or "cued" processors, have little basis for forming any product expectations from advertising owing to their difficulties in selecting, storing and retrieving information. On the other hand, children do have product perceptions and expectations and they do exhibit levels of satisfaction and disappointment. What is not clear is the extent to which these expectations and outcomes are specifically formulated by the younger child. We have hypothesized that their lower levels of satisfaction and higher levels of disappointment result from their relative inability to select relevant information, and to store and retrieve that information in an overall strategy of product evaluation and purchase request. A more precise test of this hypothesis is needed to determine if this "non-selective" notion is correct, or whether even young children have rather specific product expectations.


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