The Role of Knowledge in the Effects of Television Advertising on Children

Henrianne Sanft, Carnegie-Mellon University
ABSTRACT - Previous research on the effects of television advertising on children has focused on age as the important explanatory variable. This study looks at another variable, that of the child's knowledge about advertising, as the important factor. Specifically, this study looks at memory differences between those children who have knowledge about the purpose of advertising and those who do not. Results indicate that those children who have knowledge about advertising remember more product-related information from commercials. These results bring a new theoretical interpretation to the effects found by past researchers and have implications for public policy issues concerning misleading advertising.
[ to cite ]:
Henrianne Sanft (1986) ,"The Role of Knowledge in the Effects of Television Advertising on Children", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 147-152.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 147-152

THE ROLE OF KNOWLEDGE IN THE EFFECTS OF TELEVISION ADVERTISING ON CHILDREN

Henrianne Sanft, Carnegie-Mellon University

[Funding for this research was provided by the Graduate School of Industrial Administration, Carnegie-Mellon University. The author thanks Eric J. Johnson for his helpful comments, Joanne Chu for her assistance in conducting the study and the Gymkhana school for their cooperation.]

ABSTRACT -

Previous research on the effects of television advertising on children has focused on age as the important explanatory variable. This study looks at another variable, that of the child's knowledge about advertising, as the important factor. Specifically, this study looks at memory differences between those children who have knowledge about the purpose of advertising and those who do not. Results indicate that those children who have knowledge about advertising remember more product-related information from commercials. These results bring a new theoretical interpretation to the effects found by past researchers and have implications for public policy issues concerning misleading advertising.

Most children between the ages of 5 and 12 watch at least six hours of television each week. During each of these viewing hours, the child is exposed to approximately 15 commercial messages (Barcus 1980). What effect do these television advertisements have on children? This issue has been a focus of research and theory for at least the past 15 years. However, there is still no definitive answer The purpose of this paper is to review our current knowledge of the effects of television advertising on children, and to suggest a new theoretical interpretation of these effects.

Previous research in the area of children and television advertising has looked at the following questions:

Do children understand the purpose of advertising?

Do children pay more attention to commercials than programs?

Are children persuaded to want the advertised product?

What do children remember about T.V. commercials?

While these questions have independently received partial answers, we still do not know how television advertising works with children. However, in each of these areas, age emerges as an important mediating variable. Taken as a whole, studies in the area demonstrate that children become more sophisticated in dealing with advertising as they grow older (Adler et al 1980). These age mediated effects have been explained in terms of Piaget's theory of cognitive development Piaget's theory is often interpreted as essentially a theory of deficits; children of a certain age and cognitive stage are seen as being unable to perform mental operations characteristic of another, later stage. Early, lower stages of reasoning are more concrete, literal and undifferentiated, while higher stages are more complex and show more differentiation and integration of perception and cognition (Blatt, Spencer & Ward 1972). Research in the area of children and advertising has developed with this kind of deficit emphasis (Wartella e. al 1979).

Piaget's theory guides research by providing rough age guidelines to follow in designing research (Wackman and Wartella 1977). However, biologically based cognitive stages do not really provide an adequate explanation of children's information processing. What they essentially do is to indicate limits on children' s capacity to process information (Calder, Robertson & Rossiter 1975).

They are useful because they explain what children cannot do, but are limited because they do not tell us what children can do. The notion of cognitive stages is most often used in an explanatory, rather than predictive, fashion Thus, Piaget's stage dependent view of children's performance has gained rapid acceptance among those interested tn explaining the effects of television advertising on children. It represents a convenient mechanism for predicting what children are and are not able to do within a given stage (Chestnut 1979).

There has been a recent shift in the field of developmental psychology away from Piaget' s theory of cognitive development towards the role of a child's knowledge base as a factor in memory development. By a child's knowledge base we mean the child's knowledge of a specific domain Changes in such knowledge of specific content domains may underlie changes previously attributed to the growth of capacities or strategies (Siegler 1981) Siegler suggests several points about the child's knowledge base. First, knowledge influences the recall of newly presented material. Second, memorial performance improves during periods of development in which there is little improvement in strategies but substantial improvement in content knowledge Third, age-related differences in measures of basic capacities and strategies may be attributable to changes in the knowledge base Finally, under some circumstances, differences in content knowledge outweigh all other age-related differences. Memory development can be viewed as the increment of more content knowledge and a growth in the knowledge base with age can account for learning and improved memory performance (Chi 1981). Thus, according to this view, a younger child can behave like an older child. given the same knowledge base

It is this relationship between a child's prior knowledge and subsequent performance that this paper is concerned with Specifically, we want to show that the knowledge that children possess about television advertising, and not age, is the important factor in the effects of television advertising on children. Knowledge and understanding of the purpose of television advertising will affect how children are persuaded by commercials, and subsequent memory for commercial information The model proposed for this relationship is presented in Figure 1. This model suggests that knowledge about the purpose of advertising will have an effect on the encoding of commercials This in turn will effect the amount of product related information and non-product related information remembered from the commercial, and recognition of the advertised product. Preference for the advertised produce will be affected by three things: l)recognition of the advertised product, 2)non-product related recall and 3)product related recall The major findings from previous research for each of the components in the model follow

FIGURE 1

MODEL

Children's Understanding of the Purpose of Advertising

Age has been found to be directly related to the child's understanding of the purpose of advertising (Blatt, Spencer & Ward 1972; Ward 1972; Ward, Reale & Levinson 1972; Ward, Wackman & Wartella 1977; Adler 1978; Ratner 1978). Children age 5-7 are confused and unaware of the selling motive. Children age 8-12 have some understanding that commercials are intended to sell. By the time children are twelve years old they have a clear recognition of selling motives, and an emerging understanding of the techniques advertisers use in constructing commercials.

ATTENTION TO COMMERCIALS

In order to process a stimulus, it must first be attended to. Attention is necessary for any memory and comprehension that does occur (Anderson & Lorch 1983). For this reason, children's actual looking behavior or attention to television commercials has been studied. Television advertising to children uses many attention-getting devices such as repetition, unusual sound or visual effects, animation, magic and fantasy (Barcus 1980). What is the effect of these devices on children's attention to commercials? Children 5-10 pay greater attention to commercials and programming than children age 11-12 (Wart, Levinson & Wackman 1979), and the younger the child the greater the influence of perceptual characteristics of commercials on his attention (Ward, Wackman & Wartella 1977). In general, the paying of full attention to commercials decreases with age (Ward 1972).

CHILDREN'S PREFERENCES FOR ADVERTISED PRODUCTS

Several studies have looked at children's preferences for advertised products as a measure of persuasion (Goldberg & Gorn 1974; Robertson & Rossiter 1974, 1976, 1977; Goldberg, Gorn & Gibson, 1978; Rossiter 1979, 1981: Gorn & Goldberg 1982). Exposure to advertising increases desire for, requests for, and consumption of advertised products (Barry 1977; Atkin 1980). This is especially true of brand-name sugared products (Ratner 1978). There are inconsistent findings in terms of developmental differences in this area of research. However, children younger than 8 years old seem to be more likely to request products, and may be more strongly influenced to desire and request television advertised products after watching commercials (Wartella 1980).

CHILDREN'S MEMORY FOR COMMERCIAL AND PRODUCT CLAIMS

As children grow older recall of commercials becomes more differentiated and complex (Ward 1972, 1974; Ward, Wackman & Wartella 1977; Ratner 1978). With both recall and recognition measures memory for commercials increases as a function of age (Blatt, Spencer & Ward 1972; Ward, Reale & Levinson 1972; Wartella 1980; Stoneman & Brody 1983). Young children do not recall the content or purpose of advertising and only recall a single element in a commercial or several elements but in a random fashion. Older children recall more features and relate these features in the proper sequence to represent the story told in the commercial; the commercial message is the focus of recall, not the elements. The major increases in memory seem to occur between the ages of 5 and 8. Again, this focus on age has led researchers to ignore other factors that might influence a child's memory for commercial messages. Roedder (1981) describes these age differences within an information-processing framework. In this perspective, younger children experience difficulty in processing the central persuasive arguments advanced in television commercials and only process information that is peripheral to the commercial content. Roedder concludes by saying that children's abilities to process information can be enhanced by "....affecting the processing of incoming commercial content and previously stored information relevant to evaluating commercial claims" (page 150). It is this relationship between a child's previously stored information about commercials and the child's subsequent memory of commercials that is investigated in this paper.

In summary, research in the area of children and television advertising has shown that age is the best explanatory variable for the effects fount. However, the acceptance of this explanatory variable has led to the lack of any investigation of the possible underlying causes. Could it be that a child's knowledge about the purpose of television advertising is the mediating variable?

EXPERIMENT

Although the components of children's understanding and knowledge has been investigated, such as children's attention to commercials, memory for commercials, and product preferences, the relationship between these measures has not. The cognitive perspective suggests that there may be strong relationships between them. For example, prior knowledge will effect the recall of newly presented material (Siegler 1981). Thus, we might suspect that knowing that commercials are intended to sell products should have an effect on what is remembered from the commercials. Young children have been found to recall mostly non-product related information from commercials. If young children know the purpose of commercials (to sell products), it should lead to better recall of product related information.

This experiment looks at recall differences between those children who have knowledge about commercials and those children who do not have knowledge about commercials. It is expected that recall of product related information in commercials will be better for those subjects who possess the prior knowledge and understanding of television advertising. This is consistent with prior studies. We know, for example, that children above the age of 11 are able to recall the commercial message, and a separate study shows that this same age group is also able to distinguish between commercials and programming and to understand the purpose of advertising (what a commercial is). Our purpose then, is to minimize age differences by making younger children as knowledgeable as their older counterParts.

In addition, this experiment investigates two explanatory hypotheses One is the relationship between attention to commercials and overall recall of commercial information. It is expected that knowing about the purpose of advertising will lead to greater attention to the commercials. This greater attention should lead to better memory for both product and non-product related information. The second is the relationship between memory for the commercial and preference for the advertised product. Recall of produce related information will be higher for those subjects who know the purpose of advertising. It is expected that this better memory for product-related information will be positively related to preference for the advertised product. This is expected because the more a child remembers about an advertised product, the more salient the product will be when the child is asked to indicate a preference.

HYPOTHESES

The following hypotheses are proposed:

Hypothesis 1: Recall of product related information will be better for those children who know the purpose of commercials.

Hypothesis 2: Recall of non-product related information will be the same for all children regardless of the knowledge they possess about commercials.

Hypothesis 3: Recognition of the advertised product will be the same for all children.

Hypothesis 4: For those children who know the purpose of commercials, greater attention to the commercial will lead to better memory for both product and non-product related information.

Hypothesis 5: For those children who know the purpose of commercials, better memory for product related information will be positively related to preference for the advertised product.

METHOD

Subjects. Nineteen children, between the ages of 5 and 6 years, (mean age 5.6 years), participated in the study The children were enrolled in a pre-school gymnastic program in the Pittsburgh area. Children were recruited from two classes at the gymnastic school. Letters were sent out to the parents describing the study, and consent sheets were sent back in the mail. All children were from upper middle class, well educated families. Children were given a small toy at the completion of the experiment for their participation.

Design The experiment included two groups of subjects who were exposed to four commercials in a trial sequence. Knowledge about the purpose of advertising was manipulated by instructing subjects about commercials. Accordingly, one group (n=10) was instructed about the purpose of commercials while the other group (n=9) was not. All subjects participated in 2 sessions, a week apart from each other.

Materials The experimental materials consisted of a commercial questionnaire, four cereal commercials and eight cereal boxes (used for the preference and recognition measures). The commercial questionnaire consisted of six questions which measured children's knowledge about the persuasive intent of commercials.

Cereal commercials were chosen because they account for at least 34% of all ads broadcast on children's television programs (Barcus, 1980). The four cereal commercials were for the following brands: Lucky Charms, Cookie Crisp, Cinnamon Life and Cheerios Each commercial was 30 seconds long. Commercials were obtained from companies and advertising agencies. Although the cereals in the commercials are available in the Pittsburgh area, the commercials were not currently being shown on television. Four different orders for viewing the commercials were used in order to counterbalance the four commercials across trials.

The eight cereal boxes included the four advertised cereals plus four other distractor cereals. The cereals were chosen so that two of them were of the sweetened variety (comparable to Lucky Charms and Cookie Crisp) and two were of the non-sweetened variety (comparable to Life and Cheerios) The four cereals were: Capt'n Crunch, Super Sugar Crisp, Golden Grahams and Kix.

Apparatus. children viewed the commercials on a 19" color TV. A home video cassette recorder was used to play the commercials. Verbal responses were recorded on a cassette tape recorder. Looking time was measured with a digital stopwatch.

Procedure The experiment was conducted in two sessions, each a week apart. Two different experimenters were used for each session. All subjects were tested individually.

Session l: All children were asked questions about television commercials. These questions were imbedded in other questions concerning television in general (i.e. What is your favorite cartoon?) and questions about cereal (i.e. What kind of cereal do yon eat for breakfast?).

Following these questions, subjects were randomly assigned to either the instructed or non-instructed condition. The non-instructed subjects were dismissed and told to return next week at the same time. The instructed subjects were told: "Now I want to talk to you about commercials. When you watch television I am sure you see a lot of commercials. Commercials are those short things on TV between programs that show you things to buy. The commercials show things like candy, toys, games and food. Commercials are shown on TV so that you will buy something. The people who make these toys and games put commercials on TV to get you to buy them" (adapted from Shamir, 1979; Wackman et al. 1979)

After these instructions were given, subjects were shown a videotape of two commercials from Saturday morning cartoons. While viewing these commercials (for bubble gum and cookies) the experimenter pointed out aspects of the commercials that were talked about in the instructions After viewing the example commercials, subjects were re-asked the commercial questions (as a manipulation check). Subjects were then dismissed and told to return next week at the same time.

Session 2: This session was the same for both groups of subjects. Children viewed the four commercials in a trial sequence. The first commercial was shown and then subjects were asked to cell the experimenter what they just saw on TV Similarly, the next 3 commercials were shown one at a time with the children recalling after each commercial Looking time at each commercial was measured by the experimenter with a digital stopwatch.

Following these 4 recall trials subjects were given 4 preference tests. The order of the cereals was the same as that in the commercial viewing. Each preference trial consisted of the l advertised brand and the 2 comparable distractor brands. (For example, if subjects saw eke Life commercial first, they were shown the Life cereal box along with the Kix and Golden Graham cereal boxes). Children were asked: "If you could take one of these cereals home with you to eat for breakfast tomorrow, which one would you want?". Subjects were told to point to the cereal that they would want. This was repeated 3 more times Each time, the child was shown the l advertised cereal along with 2 distractor brands.

Following the preference measure a series of recognition tests were given. These recognition trials were in the same format as the preference trials. Here, children were asked to point to the cereal they just saw on TV.

At the completion of the experiment all subjects were again asked the commercial questions.

RESULTS

Commercial Questionnaire Results are presented in Table l. As can be seen, less than half of all subjects (prior to instructions) could answer appropriately to questions concerning the persuasive intent of commercials. The results for the session 1 manipulation check for the instructed condition subjects show that prior to instructions, the question "What to commercials want you to do?" was responded to correctly by only 20% of the subjects After the instructions were given, 70% of the subjects could answer the question correctly. As can be seen, the manipulation was successful for all but 3 subjects Results from the questions asked at the conclusion of the experiment indicate that the instructional manipulation held over the two week period.

TABLE 1

QUESTIONNAIRE RESULTS

Looking Time. Means for looking time are close to ceiling (average looking time is 28 44 seconds for a 30 second commercial) In a 2 (condition) x 4 (commercial order) X 4 (trials) repeated measures ANOVA, a significant effect was found for trials, F (3.33 = 5.31, p < .01. A Tukey test for the comparison of means revealed a significant increase in attention up to trial 3, but not beyond. These results indicate that in both conditions children were paying the same amount of attention to the commercial.

Recall. Recall items were coded as product related or non-product related information. Product related information consisted of the cereal brand name, any of the cereal attributes (e.g. marshmallows, low in sugar, etc.) and the character related with the cereal. Non-product related information consisted of any people appearing in the commercial or any events that happened in the commercial (e.g the little boy just woke up). Results were analyzed separately for product related recall and non-product related recall.

Product Related Recall In a 2 (condition) X 4(commercial order) v S (trials) repeated measures ANOVA, a significant effect was found for condition, F (1.11) = 10.50, p4'..01. When recall was analyzed in a 2 (condition) X 4 (specific commercial) repeated measures ANOVA, a significant effect was also found for commercial, F (3.51) = 3.31, p < .05 (see Figure 2).

Non-product Related Recall In a 2 (condition) X 4 (Commercial) X 4 (trials) repeated measures ANOVA, no significant effect was found for condition, F (1.11) < 1. As in product related recall, when non-product related recall was analyzed in a 2 (condition) X 4 (specific commercial) repeated measures ANOVA, a significant effect was found for commercial, F (3.51) = 5.31, p < .01 (see Figure 3).

FIGURE 2

PRODUCT RECALL FOR COMMERCIAL

FIGURE 3

NON-PRODUCT RECALL FOR COMMERCIAL

Preference For the analysis of variance, preference for the advertised product was summed across trials. Means are presented in Table 2. In a 2 (condition) X 4 (commercial order) ANOVA, no significant differences were found If children know the purpose of advertising, one would expect them to be less persuaded by commercials. While the means are in this direction, it could be that the lack of any significant effect is due to the small number of data points for each subject.

Recognition As with the preference measure, for the analysis of variance, recognition of the advertised product was summed across trials. Means are presented in Table 2. In a 2 (condition) X 4 (commercial order) ANOVA, no significant differences were found. Advertised products are recognized equally well by both groups of subjects.

TABLE 2

MEAN PREFERENCE AND RECOGNITION

Correlations for All Measures. Correlation tables for all subjects, instructed subjects, and uninstructed subjects are presented in Table 3. For all subjects, the correlation between recognition and product recall (r=.594) was significant, p < .01. This correlation was also significant for the instructed condition subjects (r=.736), p < .01. However, it was not significant for the uninstructed condition subjects. This suggests that recalling the product name is related to recognizing the product at some later time. the correlation between recognition and preference for the instructed condition subjects was also significant (r=.553) p < .05. For the uninstructed condition subjects the only significant correlation was between attention to the commercials and recognition of the advertised product (r=596), p < .05.

Tests for differences between the correlations for the instructed condition and the uninstructed condition were also done. The only comparison that was significant (p < .05) was the correlation between preference and recognition, (instructed condition r=.554, uninstructed condition r=.381). This suggests that preference for the advertised product and recognition of the advertised product are related only for the subjects that knew the purpose of television advertising.

For the instructed condition subjects, it was expected that attention and recall of the commercial would be positively correlated. However, given that the attention measures were close to ceiling for both the instructed and non-instructed conditions, it is not surprising that the hypothesized relationship was not found. In addition, for the instructed condition subjects it was expected that recall of product related information and preference would be positively correlated. As can be seen, the hypothesized relationship (although nonsignificant) was found. This suggests that the better memory for product related information found in the instructed condition subjects is related to preference for the advertised product.

DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS

The experiment has provided support for the three major hypotheses. As predicted, recall of product related information from the commercials was greater for those subjects who knew the purpose of advertising. Also as predicted, recall of non-product information and recognition of the advertised product were the same for all subjects, regardless of the knowledge they possess about commercials.

TABLE 3

CORRELATIONS FOR ALL MEASURES

These findings bring a new perspective to the issue of children and the effects of advertising. They show that young children's failure to recall product related information from commercials is not brought about by the mere fact that they are young, but by the fact that they do not understand that commercials are any different from programs. The lack of any differences in non-product related recall lends further support to this notion. Children without the knowledge of commercials only recall what they understand.

The relationship between recall of commercials and attention to commercial is still unclear. Better attention measures would probably help in shedding some light on this issue, along with varying the amount of attention getting devices in the commercials.

Preference for the advertised product appears to be related to only one measure, recognition of the advertised product. This suggests in some way that young children's preferences are not based on any product attributes themselves, but on the mere fact that they are able to recognize the product. However, a weak positive relationship between recall of product information and preference for the advertised product was found for the instructed condition subjects. This finding suggests that remembering more about the specific product influences the child's preference for that product. The extent of this influence needs to be specified through further research.

This study provides a new theoretical explanation of the results that have been found in previous studies. Mainly, that of the child's knowledge about advertising being the determining factor in his/her encoding of commercials, memory for advertised products, and the extent to which the child is persuaded to want the advertised product. Although there were a small number of subjects in the study the results are encouraging. Further research is being conducted to extend the findings reported here.

This study also has implications for public policy issues concerning children and television advertising. In the past ten years, consumer advocacy groups and the Federal Trade Commission have argued that it is unfair to advertise to young children Rossiter, 1981). One issue, in particular, is whether advertising to children is deceptive. Deception is defined in terms of the child's beliefs about the product. An advertising claim may be factually true yet result in consumer beliefs that are factually false. Of concern here is whether advertisements directed at children result in beliefs about the product that are untrue. Prior research has helped shape public policy to date. Specifically, research has been instrumental in supporting or refuting allegations of misleading advertising (Rossiter, 1981). How can this study contribute to this issue?

In terms of children's recall of television commercials, research findings have suggested that children recall information that is peripheral to the product, and young children in particular, recall very little product relevant information. This learning of information that is peripheral to the product may be one factor involved in misleading advertising. For example, in a toy commercial, much information may be given about the toy itself. However, information peripheral to the toy, such as children playing with it and laughing, may lead to a possibly false belief that the toy will make a child happy. Due to the lack of any remembering about the product itself, the child is left with a false belief that the product will make him/her happy. If young children have the relevant knowledge about advertising (e.g. knowledge about the purpose of advertising, knowledge about the product being advertised or knowledge about the product class in general) to process product-relevant information and young children are able to recall this information. this should lead to less false beliefs about the product. Therefore, this research has much to contribute to policy issues involving misleading advertising to children. Specifically, it can be shown that when young children have the knowledge that is necessary to process the information, they are able to recall more product-relevant information.

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