Consumer Socialization Research: Content Analysis of Post-1980 Studies, and Some Implications For Future Work

Scott Ward, University of Pennsylvania
Donna M. Klees, University of Pennsylvania
Daniel B. Wackman, University of Minnesota
ABSTRACT - Studies of childhood consumer socialization since 1980 are content analyzed. Results show a high proportion of experimental research designs, participation by many authors from diverse disciplines, and multiple theoretical perspectives. In 14 sources surveyed, publications show a steady pace, at about 10 articles per year. Suggestions are offered for the next era of research in the field.
[ to cite ]:
Scott Ward, Donna M. Klees, and Daniel B. Wackman (1990) ,"Consumer Socialization Research: Content Analysis of Post-1980 Studies, and Some Implications For Future Work", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 798-803.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 798-803


Scott Ward, University of Pennsylvania

Donna M. Klees, University of Pennsylvania

Daniel B. Wackman, University of Minnesota


Studies of childhood consumer socialization since 1980 are content analyzed. Results show a high proportion of experimental research designs, participation by many authors from diverse disciplines, and multiple theoretical perspectives. In 14 sources surveyed, publications show a steady pace, at about 10 articles per year. Suggestions are offered for the next era of research in the field.

In 1979, an ACR paper asked: "Research on Marketing and Children: Upside or Downside on the Product Life Cycle?" Ten years later, that question is answered, because the question can be still be asked! This paper will overview sustained research in the area of "consumer socialization" since the 1970s, then present a content analysis of research since 1980, and, finally, suggest some fruitful areas for future research. Our study is a rough set of the idea that Kassarjian (1986) advanced: that stages of research can be likened to product life cycles, beginning with innovators, followed by mainliners, and, finally, by technicians. If the three types of researchers roughly correspond to the introductory, growth, and maturity stages of the life cycle, then our content analysis ought to provide a fix on where we are in the research scheme of things.


We define "consumer socialization" research in terms of three dimensions:

(1) Process Focus. Most definitions of "socialization" refer to longitudinal processes by which individuals acquire skills, knowledge, and attitudes relevant to some area of social functioning. While studies of consumer socialization are usually cross-sectional, rather than longitudinal, the research interest is on intra- or inter-personal processes relevant to consumption. Some authors have examined populations such as the elderly, for example, but most research in the field has focused on children and adolescents.

(2) Economic Transactions. Research in the area is concerned with economic exchanges, whether they are direct, or through others,most often, through parents.

(3) Marketing Stimuli are Relevant. Studies of children's use of television, family interaction, and the like are useful, but we believe the filed is best defined by limiting it to phenomena involving marketing variables,that is, commercials instead of programming, family interaction about consumption rather than general interaction patterns.

Using this definition, studies of consumer socialization can be traced to early pioneers: Guest's 20-year longitudinal study of brand attitudes(1972); McNeil's studies of child and family consumer behavior (1964); and Wells' pioneering work in measuring children attitudes and their influence in the family (1966). Nonetheless, these early studies were not the progenitors of a sustained stream of research. That stream began in the early 1970s and became sustained, in our view, largely because of "public policy" questions that were raised by consumer action groups, such as Action for Children's Television, and by federal regulatory agencies, most notably the Federal Trade Commission. Policy question were the raison d'etre for early research, and the focus was on television advertising's effects. Since age-related differences in children's responses to advertising-were alleged, the most useful theoretical framework was Piaget's cognitive development theory, which poses age related stages of development in children's perceptions and cognitive functioning. By the mid to late 1970s researchers broadened their theoretical perspectives, and research issues were extended beyond television and the relatively narrow policy questions. New theoretical perspectives were brought-to bear, including attribution theory, social learning theory, and theories about family communication patterns.

By the 1980s, significant work had been done to develop and validate measures for use in research with young people, beginning with Rossiter's validation of an attitude scale (Rossiter, 1977), Ward and Faber's multitrait, multimethod validation of purchase request attempts reported by both parents and children (1979), and progressing through contemporary work by Macklin and Roedder-John on a variety of measurement issues.

Throughout these 17 years, consumer socialization research has attracted researchers from diverse behavioral disciplines, and, within consumer behavior, has been usefully exploited by researchers seeking to apply concepts, theories, and measures useful in other areas of consumer research. In fact, we would argue that there are three primary reasons for sustained interest in consumer socialization:

1. The field is multi-disciplinary and multitheoretical. As we will document in our content analysis, the field attracts researchers from a variety of behavioral disciplines, reflecting the fact that the breadth of consumer socialization phenomena invites the application of many theoretical perspectives.

2. The field has direct, readily-apparent relevance to "the real world." In addition to the concerns of public policy groups, from government agencies to consumer groups and self-regulatory bodies, marketers who make appeals directly or indirectly to young people are a relatively defined group, and their questions about marketing effectiveness lend themselves to equally apparent research questions.

3. There are many opportunities for research. As we have suggested, individuals with diverse research interests can find some area in which to apply those interests in the field of consumer socialization, from intra-individual cognitive processes, to social processes, to longitudinal processes, to applications of advanced measurement techniques. Experimental, survey, and modelling approaches all have utility. In a way, the field is just the reverse of an earlier era in consumer behavior research, when the focus was on searching for suitable consumer behavior phenomenon for the application of particular theoretical perspectives (Ward and Robertson, 1973).

But where are we in 1989, and where should we-go from here? We conducted a content analysis of research in the area of consumer socialization, beginning with the year 1980 and continuing through 1987 (not all 1988 journals were available at the time of our analysis). Previous reviews have focused on the pre-1980 period (Adler, et al, 1980). To try to answer the larger question, we focused on these questions:

1. Are we correct in our belief that the field has attracted many researchers, from diverse disciplines?

2. What is the nature of post-1980 research? Based on Kassarjian's thoughts (1986), our working hypotheses were:

- Younger (pre-school-aged) children would be represented in research, since almost all earlier work focused on school-aged children;

- Lab or field experiments will predominate, moving beyond one-shot surveys and convenience sample research that marked the early years of research in the field:

- The orientation of research would be more toward positive or "pro-social" consumer socialization outcomes, since there is less pressure to address public policy questions, which most often pose "negative" outcomes (e.g., deceptive advertising practices);

- There will be more "process-oriented" research than "stimulus-oriented" research, reflecting current trends in consumer behavior, and less concern with the policy questions that had prompted earlier research focusing on the effects of particular stimuli (e.g., effects of host selling in television commercials);

- Research will reflect a broad range of theoretical perspectives, and some studies would incorporate more than one theoretical base (the "multi-theoretical" perspective called for in earlier research);

- There will be little research oriented specifically to public policy issues.

While we do not have a before/after design since we do not have specific content analysis data from studies in the pre-1980 period, our expectations are shaped by our impressions of the pre-1980 period, and by general reviews of that research.


We began by examining papers that reviewed research in the general area of "consumer socialization." We further limited our search to studies dealing with pre-teenage children. We derived a frequency distribution of referenced publications and examined the periodic indices of these journals to search for categories that met our criteria for the studies in consumer socialization discussed earlier. We identified the following as leading publications in the area and as a set containing over 90% of the published research in consumer socialization:

Child Development

Journals of:

Academy of Marketing Science


Advertising Research

Applied Developmental Psychology



Consumer Affairs

Consumer Research

Family Issues


Marketing Research

Public Policy and Marketing

Proceedings, Association for Consumer Research



After identifying the articles in these publications that fell within our definition of "consumer socialization," we categorized them in terms of type of study. "Orientation" of the study was assessed: positive or "prosocial" orientation; "negative effects" orientation, or not applicable. "Positive" studies were those focusing on positive outcomes of exposure to marketing stimuli (such as sharing or positive sex-role attitudes as a function of exposure to television advertising stimuli), or those that portrayed children as learning positive aspects of consumer behavior. "Negative effects" were defined as studies dealing with outcomes of exposure to marketing stimuli that were identified as dysfunctional, such as materialism, parent-child conflict, and the like.

We also coded studies in terms of their topics. These were defined as:

- stimulus-related: dealing primarily with specific effects of particular marketing stimuli, such as host selling, public service announcements, program-commercial separators, and the like;

- process-related: dealing primarily with general processes, such as family communication process, information processing, attitude formation;

- general effects research: identifying studies investigating various effects as a function of undefined or general stimuli, or as a function of pre-existing states (e.g., descriptive studies of frequency of children's product requesting behavior, influence of product knowledge on comprehension of advertising);

- measurement studies: focusing on application of particular measures, or on measure validation.

Papers were also coded in terms of whether they explicitly mentioned a policy issue or not. A "policy issue" was defined as one that had been mentioned by a regulatory, self-regulatory, or consumer action group, e.g., the desirability or lack of desirability of hosts selling, amount of advertising, program tie-ins with advertising products, and the like.

The academic affiliations of all authors on each study and the expressed theoretical base of each study were the final coding categories.

Two judges, working independently, coded the set of studies. With the exception of the academic affiliation of the authors, each of the measures were tested for interjudge agreement. Judges were in complete agreement for type of publication. Reliability for the remaining categories exceeded 90%, except for theoretical perspective, which had a reliability rating of only 73%. The latter category was difficult to code, because the stated theoretical orientations of the papers were not always comprehensive.


We found 92 studies appearing in the 198087 ACR Proceedings and in the journals listed above. A reasonably steady distribution of studies through the years (shown in Table 1) suggests some "maturation," but no sharp decline of interest. A total of 155 different authors (65 first authors) contributed; 17 first authors contributed more than one study during 1980-87, with two authors contribution 6 studies each.

Over one-half (52%) of the authors listed Marketing as their academic affiliation; Communication or Journalism was the second most represented field (15%). Other fields included Psychology (10%), industry researchers (7%), and Advertising departments (5%). Education, Human Development, and Child/Family Studies contributed most of the remainder (a few affiliations were not ascertained).

Reflecting concentration of research in Marketing, and, more specifically, in Consumer Behavior, 19 of the 92 articles were published in the ACR Proceedings and 16 in the Journal of Consumer Research. Fourteen were published in the Journal of Broadcasting. These findings offer a mixed answer to our first research question: childhood consumer socialization research since 1980 shows concentration by researchers in marketing and publication in consumer behavior outlets, but the field has attracted a high number of research contributors.





Next, we posed a series of expectations about the nature of research in the field. First, we expected researchers to include more younger children in studies than was generally the case in pre-1980 research. About 50% of the studies were based on empirical research with pre-teenage children (as opposed to conceptual or review papers, research with other family members as subjects, etc.), and, of these, 26, or about half, included children S years of age or less. This finding confirms our suspicion that researchers would venture down the chronological age continuum.

We also expected a prevalence of lab or field experiments, reflecting maturation of research approaches in consumer socialization. In fact, the data in Table 2 strongly support our expectation: about half the studies were experimental.

Next, we expected a substantial portion of research to be oriented toward "positive" or "prosocial" consumer socialization outcomes, such as attitudes toward sharing, saving, and the like, as opposed to "negative" outcomes, such as deception, nagging parents, and so on. We only coded studies in one or the other category when the orientation was quite clear, at least to the two judges scoring the studies. Table 3 indicates that of the 67 studies we could code in one category or the other, 42 were "prosocial," or "positive," while 25 focused on negative processes or outcomes.

We expected most research to be focused on processes, including in ra- individual processes (e.g., information-processing perspective), inter-individual processes (in the family, among peers, siblings), and more general process notions, such as changes in consumption-related knowledge, attitudes,and skills over time. We expected this trend toward process-oriented research in large measure because the relatively low level of public policy debate, as compared to earlier years, should shift the interests of researchers away from input-output designs to test for effects of specific stimuli (e.g., types of television advertising). This expectation was not supported (Table 4). Stimulus-related research accounted for 40% of total publications, versus 24% for policy-oriented papers.

Another perspective is the extent to which studies are designed to address specific policy questions, or, in the case of non-empirical research, the extent to which policy questions are the primary focus of the paper. Of the 92 papers, 33 (36%) were coded as "policy-oriented." Again, while we do not have prior data, we would suspect that number may well be somewhat less than in previous years.

Finally, we hypothesized that studies would reflect a broad range of theoretical perspectives, and that a substantial proportion would be "multi-theoretical," in that they draw on more than one theoretical tradition in the formulation of hypotheses and/or interpret results in terms of multiple perspectives. Results are shown in Table 5. Of the 70 studies that could be coded in terms of our categories of theoretical perspectives, about one-fifth were "multi-theoretical." Cognitive development theory is often one of the perspectives in multi-theoretical works, and it is the theory that is most often the basis for single-theory studies. Alas, atheoretical papers account for 14% of the total. The fact that only S papers deal explicitly with "measurement" issues may mean that consumer socialization research is not yet as Kassarjian's final stage, when the "technicians" move in. However, our perception is that many papers include detailed discussion of measurement issues as part of broader topics and objectives.





In summary, we find support for our expectations that: (1) the field of consumer socialization research is alive and well, attracting a steady stream of research over the past seven years: (2) the field attracts many scholars bringing a wide variety of theoretical perspectives, but the field of study which contributes the greatest number of papers is Marketing; (3) there is some trend away from policy-specific research, but many studies still focus on effects of specific stimuli; (4) there is some trend toward a truly "multitheoretical'' perspective in that more than one theory or conceptual framework is brought to bear on consumer socialization phenomena.


Where does our analysis place consumer socialization on the "research life cycle" in 1989, and what does it suggest for future research directions? We believe consumer socialization research is in the "mature" stage of the product life cycle, exhibiting a reasonably steady pace of new research through the years. The diversity of disciplines and theoretical perspectives suggests that studies prior to 1980 cut a wide swath, while post-1980 research has focused on the specific issues early work exposed.

We believe that future research directions should build on the characteristics of the field that have attracted researchers to the field to this point in time namely, that future research should remain multi-theoretical and multi-disciplinary, that research questions continue to have significant implications for practice, and that researchers continue to explore various opportunities for research in the area.

We believe that these attractive characteristics remain, regardless of whether one believes that the most fruitful direction is to strive for a general theory of consumer socialization, (e.g., Howard and Sheth, 1969) on the one hand, or focus on relatively narrow research questions such as policy issues--on the other hand. However, our belief is that the most fruitful directions for future research lie between the two extremes posed above. That is, we advocate "middle-range" research, or "micro-theoretical" notions--a position well established in behavioral sciences generally (Merton, 1957) and in consumer behavior specifically (Ward and Robertson, 1973; Ray, 1974). Future research should aim to specify and model reasonably discrete and specific sub-areas within the overall field. However, given the research to date, we believe that the marginal utility of additional studies in some areas is less than it may be in other areas. For example, the large pool of studies of children's information-processing patterns in recent years has greatly increased our knowledge in that area. As another example, so much research has been done based on cognitive development theory that there is little left to know about stage-related cognitive phenomena.

On the other hand, we believe the marginal utility of additional studies in the following areas is high, and that research can be oriented toward deriving the following "middle-range" theories and models:

(1) Children's influence on aspects of consumer behavior in the family unit, and conversely, the impact of family variables on children's consumer socialization processes. While many studies decry the fact that "family decision-making" as field of consumer behavior study focuses primarily on husband-wife dyads rather than on the entire family unit, relatively little research has been done in the last seven years on the expanded view of the family. The topic would seem to be especially important, given contemporary social and demographic changes affecting the composition of families, and their functioning as a social unit.

(2) The durability of early consumer socialization processes. Virtually every definition of "socialization" stresses the idea that socialization processes involve learning that is applied in later situations. While we recognize the difficulty of specifying elements of learning for study, the prevalence of cross-sectional studies in the area leaves us begging for more information on not only what is learned and when, but also how long learning lasts and how it is changed.

(3) Consumption as a relative experience for young people. Many authors discuss the fact that consumption is just one of many things children and adolescents experience, but the literature is silent on the relative nature and significance of consumption as a relative experience.

In conclusion, we believe consumer socialization research is maturing. We have gone through the "introductory" stage, when Kassarjian's "innovators" exploited theoretical perspectives (e.g., cognitive development), driven by policy questions of the day. Research in the 80s is less tied to policy questions, and reflects a broad range of theoretical perspectives and more rigorous experimental research. The choice point now is if we continue to refine areas that have become "well-mined," attempt to construct broad, general theories, or seek to specify relatively specific areas of interest in this broad field and derive models and theories of the "middle-range" to satisfactorily explain and predict some circumscribed phenomena. We believe the field can enjoy a fruitful "mature" stage by pursuing the latter course.

A listing of the studies that were content analyzed for this research may be obtained by writing to the first author.


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