Understanding Young Consumers: Cognitive Abilities and Task Conditions

Deborah Roedder John, University of Wisconsin-Madison
ABSTRACT - Over a decade of research has been devoted to assessing the extent to which children can understand advertising messages and product claims, evaluate and judge product alternatives, and make informed product choices. The majority of studies in this area have focused on the issue of whether or not children are able to perform consumer tasks such as evaluating advertising and judging advertised products. In doing so, evidence has accumulated which supports the view that many children, particularly young children, cannot critically evaluate advertising claims and advertised products, cannot direct their attention to important aspects of commercial messages, cannot adequately judge the value of product alternatives, and cannot use product information effectively in making product choices. Findings such as these have contributed to our understanding of children's consumer abilities and have also provided valuable input into public policy concerns regarding children.
[ to cite ]:
Deborah Roedder John (1986) ,"Understanding Young Consumers: Cognitive Abilities and Task Conditions", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 648.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Page 648

UNDERSTANDING YOUNG CONSUMERS: COGNITIVE ABILITIES AND TASK CONDITIONS

Deborah Roedder John, University of Wisconsin-Madison

ABSTRACT -

Over a decade of research has been devoted to assessing the extent to which children can understand advertising messages and product claims, evaluate and judge product alternatives, and make informed product choices. The majority of studies in this area have focused on the issue of whether or not children are able to perform consumer tasks such as evaluating advertising and judging advertised products. In doing so, evidence has accumulated which supports the view that many children, particularly young children, cannot critically evaluate advertising claims and advertised products, cannot direct their attention to important aspects of commercial messages, cannot adequately judge the value of product alternatives, and cannot use product information effectively in making product choices. Findings such as these have contributed to our understanding of children's consumer abilities and have also provided valuable input into public policy concerns regarding children.

Despite the contributions of this line of inquiry, current research in developmental psychology suggests that we should shift our research focus from the question of whether or not children have certain abilities to the issue of when children can be expected to exhibit these abilities. This view is supported by a large body of developmental research which documents the fact that children's abilities are seldom exhibited in an all-or-none fashion--children perform well under some task conditions but not others. In consumer settings, for example, children's ability to understand advertising claims may depend on the terminology used to describe the claim and the amount of commercial time devoted to describing the claim.

By failing to investigate potential factors such as these which may affect children's performance, it is quite possible that we have either underestimated or overestimated children's consumer skills and abilities. This possibility is particularly unsettling due to the fact that past results regarding children's abilities have been the cornerstone for regulatory policies toward marketing to children. Thus, there is a need to extend our scope of investigation beyond the current focus to one which includes a consideration of conditions under which children's abilities can be expected to surface.

This paper examines several classes of factors or conditions which have the potential to influence children's consumer abilities. Based on recent findings from developmental psychology, four types of task factors appear to be influential in this regard: information quantity, information format, instruction set, and response format. Information quantity refers to the number of informational units or chunks that must be processed in completing some task. Large amounts of information are typically more demanding and require more processing skill. Information format pertains to the manner in which task-relevant information is presented. Some formats are more conducive to processing information than others. Instruction sets refer to instructions or directions given to subjects regarding task performance. Instruction sets often provide guidance and suggest strategies to enhance performance on the task. Finally, response format pertains to the manner in which subjects are required to respond to the task. Some methods for measuring performance place greater processing burdens on subjects than others. Evidence pertaining to each of these factors is reviewed and implications for future research are identified.

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