Children As Consumers: the Need For Multitheoretical Perspectives

Thomas S. Robertson, Center for Research on Media and Children, University of Pennsylvania
Shel Feldman, Brooklyn College
ABSTRACT - Our objective in designing this workshop has been to confront the issue of how to encourage interdisciplinary research on children's consumer behavior. The particular task of this paper is to posit some direction for resolving the conflict and inconsistency engendered by the specification of multiple theoretical perspectives. Our approach will be to suggest that not all components of consumer behavior, nor all aspects of a social issue are equally amenable to a given theoretical, perspective. Instead, a critical function for the researcher is to match particular problems with appropriate theoretical vantage points --a function which many researchers abdicate due to their faithful allegiance to specific theoretical positions.
[ to cite ]:
Thomas S. Robertson and Shel Feldman (1976) ,"Children As Consumers: the Need For Multitheoretical Perspectives", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03, eds. Beverlee B. Anderson, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 508-512.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1976      Pages 508-512


Thomas S. Robertson, Center for Research on Media and Children, University of Pennsylvania

Shel Feldman, Brooklyn College

[The authors are indebted to the Consumer Research Institute for funding.]


Our objective in designing this workshop has been to confront the issue of how to encourage interdisciplinary research on children's consumer behavior. The particular task of this paper is to posit some direction for resolving the conflict and inconsistency engendered by the specification of multiple theoretical perspectives. Our approach will be to suggest that not all components of consumer behavior, nor all aspects of a social issue are equally amenable to a given theoretical, perspective. Instead, a critical function for the researcher is to match particular problems with appropriate theoretical vantage points --a function which many researchers abdicate due to their faithful allegiance to specific theoretical positions.


The topic of children's consumer behavior is one of some currency in social policy circles and has sparked a flurry of research in the past five years. Yet, much of the data which has been generated has been free of any theoretical underpinnings -- which is perhaps to be expected in an embryonic research tradition. Our position is that social policy will be served best in the long run by research which is theoretically-based, rather than in specific response to issues of the moment.

Children's consumer behavior is a topic which is rich in theoretical and methodological implications. The sheer pervasiveness of consumption and the range of possible behaviors suggests a rich laboratory and research base for the application of many diverse theoretical vantage points. Furthermore, consumer behavior may be pervasive not only socially, but in many cases it may be an important mode of self-presentation and self-enhancement. The corresponding complexity of consumer behavior also argues as to its potential theoretical robustness. The dynamics of consumer decisions may involve us in alternative and sometimes conflicting theoretical perspectives, since no single vantage point is capable of broad levels of prediction.


The researcher often finds that progress in understanding a problem results from taking a particular perspective on that problem and extending it to its limits. Such an exercise clarifies the assumptions involved; elucidates the problems to which the perspective does not apply; and organizes the data on the problems to which it does apply. This procedure works in part because of its selective effect. Theoretical commitment limits the phenomena accepted for study, the methods used, and the classes of explanation found worthy of consideration.

A theory often embodies a researcher's perspective on the world: given one perspective, he investigates certain phenomena; given another perspective, he investigates quite different phenomena. The differences between the phenomena studied by different researchers often preclude definitive objective tests of the perspectives themselves. For this reason, among others, theories seem more often to fall as victims of revolution than to be indicted by normal processes of evidentiary examination.

The role taken by the researcher in publishing, and in the usual interdisciplinary conference (such as this), is as explainer of, apologist for, and crusader on behalf of, his own theoretical perspective. Even neglecting the researcher's ordinary tendencies to defend his own viewpoint in contention with others, it must be noted that he is trained to approach problems from a single theoretical perspective. If the several participants in such a conference each take such roles, it is not surprising to find that attempts to integrate their contributions into a coherent whole are generally unsuccessful. It must be remembered, however, that we are not discussing pathologically closed-minded persons, or even zealots with content commitments, but those who have found a particular intellectual vantage point highly functional. In the clash of perspectives with his colleagues, the scientist finds the apparent limits to his own perspective and ia challenged to extend that perspective to overcome them. Be feels the possibilities for growth and development and begins to meet some of these -- and herein lies the individual stimulation and learning.

Functional as such practices may be for the individual researcher, or for the development of pure knowledge, they may be dysfunctional for the solution of social problems, or marketing management problems. Real phenomena do not come neatly encapsulated, but as a congeries of effects on many facets of social, cultural, economic, and political norms, attitudes, and behavior. Given his training, the scientist attempts to deal with the multiplicity of causes and effects first by separating out those aspects of the problem that are most amenable to exploration within his own perspective, and then by either analogizing to the remainder or treating it as residual variance. Such an approach works well, it must be reiterated, in advancing the understanding of a particular perspective, or the understanding of the individual researcher.


Let us consider, as a straw man example, the Piagetian perspective on development. The study of children as consumers seems a natural candidate for extension of Piagetian theory. Much of the child's behavior with respect to consumption must depend upon his knowledge about money and exchange relationships; his ability to compare products on various attributes and evaluative dimensions; and his ability to plan and balance requirements for consumption and for saving. The perspectives on the development and functioning of the cognitive structures underlying these achievements offered by Piaget and his followers are surely pertinent to the issues raised. These perspectives are likely to cast considerable light on the abilities the child may bring to bear on his problems in the sphere of consumption.

At the same time, Piaget and his followers have been little concerned about the affective life of the child and this perspective therefore would not seem to be particularly useful in examining advertising's impact on the child's desires, fears, and anxieties. So long as Piagetian theory's major concern is with respect to accommodation to the physical world, little is lost by this choice among phenomena. Even when concern shifts to accommodation to modes of moral reasoning, little need be lost, insofar as such reasoning is universal (which is not, of course, to say that the contents of the values involved are universal) and there is little conflict between models available to the child. But the essence of the problem here is that alternative models of consumer behavior and reasoning about consumer behavior seem to be made available to the child, presenting occasions for considerable conflict and affective imbalance.

The incompleteness of the Piagetian framework is further argued by Calder, Robertson and Rossiter in a paper following this one. They argue that Piagetian theory denies the mediational representational view of information processing, whereby information from the external environment is "represented" psychologically.

Piaget does not subscribe to the thesis that language is the basis of thought nor that cognitive structures depend on symbolic representations. It may be that Piaget's biological approach and the representational view are not incompatible, but they are definitely appropriate for different problems. What one cannot do is to impose cognitive development stages on the typical consumer information processing model. The child's current cognitive responses may be regulated by structures, or internalized operational schemes, but they are not explained by structural changes. Stage theory is important for understanding long-term developmental changes, not necessarily for understanding short-term shifts.

Is the sort of insufficiency just discussed peculiar to Piagetian theory? Certainly not! Any theoretical perspective is partial with respect to its explanatory power and the range of phenomena to which it can be applied. Children's consumer behavior cannot be handled exclusively within the Piagetian framework any more than it can be handled exclusively within a socialization, social learning, psycholinguistics, or whatever type of theoretical perspective.


How are we to choose among theoretical perspectives or to find their underlying commonalities? The most popular current models of consumer behavior suggest integration by the application of some meta-theory or systems theory.

It is our suggestion that the generation of understanding about children's consumer behavior requires a modification of the systems analysis approach. In this approach the analyst attempts not to isolate component processes of the entire system, but rather those questions appropriate to each of the theoretical perspectives offered. In our view, a normal systems approach requires an a priori theory -- or meta-theory -- of the entire problem, and this is generally not available for the class of behavior which we are considering, and would often be inappropriate if it were available, for exactly the same reasons as given above for the insufficiency of the usual perspectives brought to bear on consumer behavior problems.

Our thesis is that all aspects of consumer behavior are not equally amenable to a given theoretical perspective. The researcher must sort among the perspectives available and choose those which best fit the behavior he is most interested in explaining. In doing so, he must also recognize that the behavior is not fully explained, but only some portion or portions thereof. It follows that, as his resources grow, he can research several aspects of the problem, and that the perspectives applied to each of these need not be the same.

It is our thesis, therefore, that children's consumer behavior must be divided into its component parts in such a way that problems are matched with theoretical perspectives. Let us consider the problem of children's consumer behavior more directly. What are some of the theoretical perspectives available, and what are some of the component problems that fit each perspective best? We shall attempt a brief illustrative review.

This review is organized by theoretical perspectives on children's consumer behavior from the behavioral sciences. It is not an attempt at a rigid categorization of these perspectives: theories cannot be categorized along a single dimension; neither are their concerns exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. This review is meant only to be suggestive of the sorts of issues with which particular broad theories seem most concerned. It covers those we shall loosely label as: learning theory, cognitive-development theory, information-processing theory, psychoanalytic theory, attitude theory, socialization theory, and group process theory. It is assumed that the reader knows or has access to full descriptions of these theories; what is attempted here is to sketch the general concerns of each, and to present a number of specific questions about children's consumer behavior that seem congruent with each.

Learning Theory Approaches

The major concerns of learning theorists relate to the growth of specific skills and their use in particular situations. Some simple illustrations of this concern would be the study of children's learning of brand names, product uses, and commercial message content and slogans. More interesting illustrations are studies of the ways in which the child first learns the connection between commercial messages and the purchase of consumer goods; the connection between the content of such messages and the experience of using the advertised products; and the lack of connection between such messages and the content of the programs in which they are embedded. The learning theorist is also concerned with such problems as determining how the child comes to discriminate among products of similar function and to generalize brand images across products. Problems of even larger scope might also be studied, such as the child's learning to save his discretionary funds and the strength of this response as opposed to the consumption response.

Particularly relevant is social learning theory involving stimuli provided by people. Atkin, in a paper which follows, distinguishes between instrumental training where a "teacher" explicitly attempts to shape response by differential reinforcement and imitation, where the child matches responses to cues provided by responses of a model. A considerable proportion of the child's learning comes about based on imitation.

The position of parents in the social learning process is both as teacher and role model. It becomes important, therefore, to study the child's learning of responses to parental reactions regarding purchase requests; the gradual shaping of those responses into standard strategies; and the use of particular strategies in response to particular sorts of parental reactions. It is important to research what responses parents attempt to teach and reinforce. For example, parents may deal explicitly with their objections to requests for particular products, or attempt to teach the child the criteria they themselves are using, or they may allow the child to learn by trial and error. Parents may reinforce saving behavior or consumption, comparison shopping or impulse buying, and so forth, by their example, or by explicit rewards. They may use material rewards or symbolic rewards in their child-training practices, immediate rewards or deferred rewards. The responses suggested, the explicitness of the teaching, and the types of reinforcement offered for acceptable behavior may all be productively investigated from the perspective of social learning theory.

Media models as sources for children's learning also comprise an interesting topic of investigation. Atkin, for example, in his paper to follow, notes the role of adults in children's commercials as authority figures, who either directly approve of the child model's consumption, or implicitly endorse it by their presence. Such reinforcement has a bearing on the impact of the message. Research could also be conducted on source characteristics affecting message reception and yielding, such as the use of child actors as models or the relative effects of race or sex. Research to this point on such source characteristics is indeed sparse.

Cognitive-Development Approaches

As suggested earlier, the principal concerns of those who study cognitive development are to specify the competence the child brings to his behavior as a consumer, and to specify the course and determinants for the development of that competence. The develop-mentalist would be concerned, for example, with the child's understanding of money as a medium of exchange. Thus, while he would inquire, as would the learning theorist, as to how and when the child learns to identify coins as such, and to identify different sorts of coins, he would also inquire as to how and when the child learns to view coins as a storehouse of value and to appreciate their use in purchasing as meta-barter functioning (Strauss, 1952).

Another area of interest relates to evaluating products in a class and computing tradeoff functions among them. The child must learn about the intersubstitutability of various items. He must also be able to evaluate their merits on each of several attributes or dimensions, and to bear this multiplex in mind while choosing to purchase one or another of the items. If the child is to evidence effective consumer behavior, he must be capable of such complex cognitive functioning as these formalizations suggest.

Furthermore, it is important to the developmentalist to study the experiences that are necessary or sufficient for development of the abilities just discussed. He would also be interested in the sorts of behavior that occur prior to the development of those abilities, and in the fit of those other behaviors to environmental and interpersonal demands in different socio-economic circumstances and settings. The article by Ward, Wackman and Wartella which follows elaborates this cognitive development perspective.

Information Processing Approaches

Cognitive theories of information-processing are highly prevalent in psychology, communications, and consumer behavior research today. The essential focus of such models is on how individuals select, store, evaluate, and utilize information for decision-making purposes (McGuire, 1969). The question arises as to how effective and "rational" an information-processing machine the child is in absorbing information, processing it, and modifying his behavior accordingly. Of concern here is the child's ability to procure information, his potential overreliance on limited sources (advertising), and his lack of cognitive defenses in sorting-out and evaluating sales-oriented information.

The paper by Ward, Wackman and Wartella which follows provides an overview of this perspective and provides a synopsis of children's information processing behavior. Also relevant is the paper by Fowles which follows in that it addresses the information processing consequences of television viewing as a potentially passive form of behavior. Given the child's lack of selectivity in processing televised information, since his attention is dictated by the stimulus structure. Fowles' raises the question of whether the message may be passively accepted: "If the sequence of percepts is largely dictated, then it follows that evaluation of these percepts (for plausibility, truth, value, etc.) is largely suspended, since judgment is not a passive mode of response."

Calder, Robertson and Rossiter (in another paper to follow) contrast adult versus child models of information processing. Their argument is that the child model is not simply a constrained version of the adult model but is both quantitatively and qualitatively different from that of adults. In particular, they argue that research on children's consumer information processing should not follow the pattern of adult research in ignoring all hut the linguistic coding of information. Instead, considerable emphasis must also he placed on enactive (motor) and imagery codes. Rossiter, for example, in his paper to follow, finds evidence that children have a rich data base of information about cereal brands which is stored in visual rather than verbal memory and which impacts on preferences for brands.

Psychoanalytic Approaches

The central concerns of theorists who take the psychoanalytic approach are the affective and motivational dynamics of behavior. One problem of interest is the child's motives for consumption of particular products. Research might, for example, investigate whether the gratification which a child experiences in playing with a particular toy arises from its connection with previously cast-off infantile behavior, from the opportunities it offers to master the immediate environment, or from the opportunity it offers to play the adult role. Psychoanalytically-oriented researchers might study the child's use of, and choice among, consumer products as a means of allaying anxiety about sibling relationships or parental relationships.

Psychoanalytically-oriented theorists would be interested in the effect of commercial messages upon the child's fantasy life, including the degree of competitiveness, aggression, or dependency they fostered. They would be concerned about the manner in which family conflicts over purchase decisions fit into other ongoing conflicts and aid or retard the development of stable and effective modes of conflict resolution.

Attitude Theory Approaches

One primary focus of attitude theory is on the prediction of behavior based on knowledge of an individual's attitudes -- generally conceptualized in terms of cognitive, affective, and action tendency components. Of particular interest in relating attitude theory to consumer decisions might be the balance theory approaches stemming from Heider and variously conceptualized in the communications' and consumer behavior literature. Also of interest is the recent literature on attribution theory (for example, Jones et al, 1971) which views intent from the vantage point of the perceiver and which can be extended to media communicator intent (Robertson and Rossiter, 1974).

An initial question is when and how children form attitudes toward product categories and how well these attitudes predict behavior. Furthermore, what are the relative influences in the formation of attitudes and what role does mass media advertising play? Even more specifically, how are brand preferences formed among children and again what role does advertising play? It might be hypothesized that mass media advertising serves a critical function in the creation of children's attitudes and preferences, especially if parents treat consumption as a low salience topic and are not actively involved in the process of inputting to and critiquing the child's developing attitude structures.

It has been suggested that children may be particularly subject to disappointment as a result of consumption (Feldman and Wolf, 1974). This is posited due to the belief that unrealistic expectations are built by advertising. The levels of disappointment incurred by children as a result of consumption and the dissonance-coping modes used constitute an interesting and researchable topic.

Socialization Theory Approaches

Socialization refers to the process by which children learn a particular role and the requisite values and requirements for performance of that role. Beuf, in a paper to follow, suggests that the extensive use of television by American children "has the potential to function as a common conscience which introduces and reinforces American values at a high level of generality." Beuf's view is that television and advertising may be considered a new secondary socializer "stepping in to perform some of the tasks of value definition and inculcation which are no longer so effectively performed by sacred institutions."

Little is known in a rigorous sense about television advertising's longitudinal effects on values or its relative effects compared to other agents of socialization. Nevertheless, concern is voiced by social critics as to possible negative long-term socialization consequences. Some of the undesirable effects alleged are: that advertising instills undesirable values; that advertising encourages materialism and the need to consume; and that advertising does not teach rational consumer decision-making. Perhaps the most reasonable response by marketers to these charges has been that advertising only reflects the existing values of the society and does not create these values. Furthermore, advertising performs a vital function in preparing the child for his role as a consumer, at least in U.S. society.

Mass media are not an independent means of socialization and would generally be expected to be of less importance than family and peers -- although this depends on the age and circumstances of the child. The young child who is deprived of a meaningful family context and who has been exposed to television as surrogate guardian and babysitter may be unduly influenced by this medium, form stereotyped impressions, and learn a limited value system regarding consumption (Gerbner and Gross, 1973).

Group Process Theory Approaches

Ultimately, the child's consumption behavior is dependent on the dynamics of his family group. This suggests the possible usefulness of group process theories. Marketing to children is based primarily on encouraging the child to initiate a purchase request to his parents. According to some social critics, this may lead to an unhealthy family relationship -- particularly in low income homes where the parents must deny a disproportionate number of requests.

Exactly what happens in consumption-related interaction between parent and child is not well researched. The particular outcome of this interaction and the role and relative influence of television advertising is probably a function of many factors, including social class, the child's position in the sibling order, the age of the child, the degree of role integration between parents, and the parental discipline style. For example, general research on intra-family interaction processes finds that middle-class parents rely more on intellect and reasoning than on authority position and are, therefore, more open to interaction and suggestion from their children (Berkowitz, 1964). Preliminary research evidence by Ward and Wackman (1972) reveals that purchase requests to parents decrease as the child grows older but that the parent's yielding to the child's requests increases as the child grows older. Conflict level between parent and child rises with the number of requests which the child makes.


It is tempting to apply behavioral science theory intact to the area of children's consumer behavior. Following Lewin's dictum, "Nothing is so practical as a good theory," the researcher attempts to cast all aspects of behavior into terms covered by his own theoretical approach. All too often, however, that which is not encompassed is then passed off as irrelevant, and the theory is thus confirmed by a selection from among the available data. Although theoretical perspectives do overlap, there is generally a fairly specified set of behavior to which any one theory applies.

In order to understand and explain the dynamics of children's behavior as consumers, it is necessary first to bring to bear an enriched set of theoretical perspectives and then to select those theories most appropriate to particular kinds of behavior. But this sort of selection cannot be done from within the confines of a particular perspective. As Godel has proven, no system at least as complex as elementary arithmetic is susceptible of being shown logically consistent, except from the vantage point of a more powerful system than itself. The theorist is unable to assess the ultimate consistency of his perspective purely within that perspective. Neither is he able to assess its consistency from simple comparison with an alternative perspective that makes quite different assumptions than his own. It is only as he observes his system in comparison with others and with certain simplifying constraints relaxed, as in considering its appropriateness to an applied problem, that its consistency can be assessed and, if necessary, modified.

In conclusion, we do not wish to destroy scientific single-mindedness, but instead to harness its potential productivity toward understanding children as consumers. To this end we have offered the suggestion that children's consumer behavior be divided into its component problems and that these problems he matched with appropriate theoretical vantage points.


Leonard Berkowitz, The Development of Motives and Values in the Child (New York: Basic Books, 1964).

Shel Feldman and Abraham Wolf, "What's Wrong With Children's Commercials?," Journal of Advertising Research, 14 (February, 1974), 39-43.

George Gerbner and Larry Gross, "Cultural Indicators: The Social Reality of Television Drama." A working paper, Annenberg School, University of Pennsylvania, 1973.

Edward Jones et al. Attribution: Perceiving the Causes of Behavior (New Jersey: General Learning Press, 1971.)

Mary G. Jones, "The FTC's Need for Social Science Research," Proceedings: Second Annual Conference, Association for Consumer Research, (College Park, Maryland: ACR, 1971).

William J. McGuire, "An Information-Processing Model of Advertising Effectiveness," A paper presented at the Symposium on Behavioral and Management Science in Marketing, University of Chicago, July 1969.

Thomas S. Robertson and John R. Rossiter, "Children and Commercial Persuasion: An Attribution Theory Analysis," Journal of Consumer Research, 1 (June, 1974), 13-20.

Abraham Strauss, "The Development and Transformation of Monetary Meanings in the Child," American Sociological Review, 17 (June, 1952), 275-286.

Scott Ward and Daniel Wackman, "Children's Purchase Influence Attempts and Parental Yielding," Journal of Marketing Research, 9 (August, 1972), 316-319.