Designing Research to Assess Children's Comprehension of Marketing Messages

Laura A. Peracchio, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Charise Mita, BBDO New York
[ to cite ]:
Laura A. Peracchio and Charise Mita (1991) ,"Designing Research to Assess Children's Comprehension of Marketing Messages", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 23.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Page 23


Laura A. Peracchio, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Charise Mita, BBDO New York

The focus of this paper is to suggest factors a marketing researcher should consider in designing experimental procedures that are congruent with the young child's cognitive capacities. Several components of the experimental environment are identified as important in designing an age-appropriate task: familiarity with factual information, context, verbally presented information, and the goal of the experimental task.

A consideration of task components has a number of implications for how an experiment should be structured to effectively tap the emerging capacities of the young child. First, and most importantly, the task should conform to the child's understanding of the world. A task that violates this basic principle will be nearly impossible, without -extensive training, for the young child to master. Secondly, the research reviewed in the paper makes salient seven specific guidelines which should be helpful to an experimenter in designing a task that assesses the child's basic abilities:

1. Ensure that the knowledge domain your task is tapping is familiar to young children. Since children process information more efficiently when they are familiar with a domain (Chi, 1976, 1977), frame your research within a topic area in which preschoolers have well developed prior knowledge. For example, ask them how they go about choosing a video game, such as Nintendo.

2. Provide the child with rich contextual support for encoding and retrieving information by employing familiar objects and pictures in your experimental task. Young children's task performance will improve if they are given external, physical support for processing information through the use of attractive child-relevant props when the experimental task is introduced and assessed. The context created by the experimental task should be congruent with the child's knowledge of objects and interobject relationships.

3. Include only those elements essential to your task. Eliminate any unnecessary and, therefore, possibly misleading, information from your task. The experimental context should be streamlined so that all materials and information presented are relevant to the child's successful task performance. The addition of irrelevant information creates an opportunity for the child to be distracted from the main processing task, thus impairing performance.

4. Minimize the complexity of the information you present to the child. If your task requires only a simple presentation to test a child's basic ability, start with this basic format. Later you can test the child's ability to handle larger amounts of information, but first test his/her ability to perform the fundamental task.

5. Employ language that conforms to the child's conversational norms. Not only should the experimenter's vocabulary be within the child's level of understanding, but the experimenter's directives should conform to the child's use of language in everyday settings. Children often will literally interpret directives based on the meaning of words and language in their everyday world. When the experimenter violates the child's language code, performance on the task will suffer.

6. Use language that highlights the important features of your task. The experimenter can use language, as well as physical context, to direct the child's attention to the important aspects of a task. Highlighting important features of an experiment through language will improve task performance.

7. Employ a goal that will be readily apparent and meaningful to the child. The goal of an experimental task should be congruent with objectives the child may have observed or attempted to achieve in everyday environments. A goal that is clear and familiar to the child will allow the child to devise a plan for accomplishing a task and empl relatively more sophisticated strategies.

Attention to task conditions seems to reveal a young child's fledgling cognitive abilities in many areas, often minimizing developmental differences on experimental tasks. Research that incorporates a sensitivity to experimental demands and achieves congruence with the child's available processing resources, frequently reveals that the young learner is not completely lacking in the ability to perform a task and does possess some competencies in the area of interest.


Chi, M. T. H. (1976). Short-term memory limitations in children: Capacity or processing deficits? Memory and Cognition, 4, 559-572.

Chi, M. T. H. (1977). Age differences in memory span. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 23, 266-281.