Moppets in the Market Place: Evaluating Children's Responses to Television Advertising

Barbara R. Fowles, Children's Television Workshop
ABSTRACT - The claim that television viewing is a passive activity has several possible implications. Passivity can mean physical inactivity, taking in preformulated information, abdication of judgment or relinquishing of attention control to a dynamic stimulus display. Only in the larger instance is the term "passive" relevant to the interaction between child and television. The implications of this for assessing the impact of television are discussed.
[ to cite ]:
Barbara R. Fowles (1976) ,"Moppets in the Market Place: Evaluating Children's Responses to Television Advertising", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03, eds. Beverlee B. Anderson, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 520-522.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1976      Pages 520-522


Barbara R. Fowles, Children's Television Workshop


The claim that television viewing is a passive activity has several possible implications. Passivity can mean physical inactivity, taking in preformulated information, abdication of judgment or relinquishing of attention control to a dynamic stimulus display. Only in the larger instance is the term "passive" relevant to the interaction between child and television. The implications of this for assessing the impact of television are discussed.

America has been hawking goods to its children for a long time, and no one has worried about it very much. Recently this state of affairs has, for many reasons, begun to change. Television has been a primary object of concern, in part because the enormous investment of money and air time in advertising directed at children has come to public attention, and partly because our suspicions that children, particularly preschoolers, watch enormous amounts of television have been confirmed by research. (C.F. Murray, 1973) Finally, educational programs, Sesame Street in particular, have caused parents and teachers to notice, sometimes with astonishment, that very young children absorb a great deal from apparently casual television viewing. Thus what was once considered a minor factor in the ecology of childhood has become a force to be reckoned with.

The fact that we have now come so far as to consider theoretical approaches to the study of this phenomenon is noteworthy. It means that our empirical approaches to the study of the impact of television on children will be increasingly informed by a broader theoretical perspective; but it also means that our theories of child development may at last begin to reflect what the medium is teaching us about the nature of children's learning.

The following discussion, then, deals with the passivity, a concept that plays a crucial role in the interpretation of responses of young children to television, and which has been wielded to obscure as well as to illuminate those responses. The role of this notion in guiding our observations is explored and evaluated, and the meaning of the concept reconsidered.

When the first television generation was growing up in the 1950's, there was fuss about children becoming physical and intellectual vegetables from watching too much of the stuff. Television, it was argued, demanded a passive response mode which children would them adopt as a general pattern of response to the environment. An important point here is that passivity was not considered an optional response, as it is for the person who stands on the sidelines during a pick-up basketball game, but as required by the dynamic unidirectional character of the medium. Little evidence was forthcoming that these children had noticeably more vegetable-like attributes than their predecessors and the idea of a nation of pale, obese, near-sighted maladjusted children faded largely away. Passivity has nevertheless continued to be ascribed negatively to the young television viewer, though its attribution now has the weight of developmental theory behind it. I will briefly describe several such notions:

According to Piaget, the most widely familiar and accepted of the developmental theorists, children up to about the age of seven, have their thought processes firmly grounded in practical action (Piaget, 1963). In the sensorimotor period which lasts until about two years of age, the child's primary mode of mental growth and development is said to be through direct motor involvement with the physical environment. The child builds a coherent picture of reality by acting on the environment and getting feedback from it.

The two-to-seven-year-old child increasingly carries out these "experiments" in her head instead of through action, but the mental manipulations are still intuitive, and involve visualizations of concrete events. Only at the next stage is this intuitive mode of reasoning replaced by logical structure which is still very closely tied to practical actions. Auditory and visual learning from television is, of course, acknowledged within this theory, but information gotten through the eyes and ears is supposedly incorporated into preexisting cognitive structures (assimilation) rather than initiating change in those structures (accommodation.) Given the Piagetian view of the process of mental growth, television plays a minimal role because it does not allow for direct interaction. It does not provide for the sort of experience with physical and social reality that is the raw material for real intellectual progress. Thus within the context of this theory, the passivity of the viewing child is understood in the following senses: Learning from television is passive in the rather literal sense that the child is not directly engaged with the environment, but merely gets pre-formulated information through the auditory and visual channels. The child is physically and socially unresponsive in her role as television viewer.

Learning from television is passive in the sense that information gotten through perceptual experience, as opposed to practical experience, will not initiate cognitive change in young children, but rather will be comprehended in terms of the existing conceptual structures.

Developmental psychology offers yet another way of looking at passivity. Ability to systematically allocate ones attention, (to look and listen selectively and efficiently) develops gradually. Young children are captivated by external stimuli and easily distracted from one focus of attention by another competing one. As the child grows, she becomes better at imposing efficient, internally guided search strategies on the stimulus field in order to get needed information from the environment. This is not a matter of acquiring control over perceptual mechanisms, but one of cognitive growth. The very young child knows how to look in the mechanical sense, but has no basis for determining what to look for (Vurpillot, 1968), and how to plan and guide her search (Miller, Galanter, Pribram, 1960).

For a young child, a dynamic display like television is a particularly powerful controlling stimulus. The eye is coaxed around the screen by light and movement, and presumably the mind goes along for the ride. The viewer is passive in that while she may be (though is not necessarily) processing information rather rapidly, she is not directing a search for information, but is apparently being "fed" a sequence of percepts dictated by the television screen and its auditory accompaniment.

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 judgmental activity is not a passive mode of response.

So we have collected two more interpretations of the concept of passivity: First, the child is neither systematic nor selective in processing the information television makes available during the course of viewing rather successive foci of attention are largely dictated by the stimulus structure. The TV, not the young viewer, is in charge. Second, this lack of selection would seem to imply passive acceptance of the message.

When it comes to considering the effects of television advertising on children, working through these various formulations of the concept of passivity comes to be particularly relevant because two points of view, with important differences in their implications, are possible. The first position is that since young children learn mostly through direct experience with the environment, the impact of television, negative or positive, is negligible. To extend this to advertising is to minimize the effects of television advertising on young viewers by arguing that the young child is simply not the sort of animal to be much influenced via the communication modes available to that medium. Hence, exposure to television commercials is essentially harmless, and at most, wasteful of the child's time as well as the advertiser's money.

The second and equally logical position has almost opposite implications: The idea here is that since passivity implies lack of selectivity and lack of critical stance toward incoming stimuli, the child is a willing victim to all advertising messages--a sucker. In this view advertising is powerful and insidious.

Thus the idea of the passive relationship between the child and the TV set can be bandied about to support quite different views of the medium's effects, and quite different frameworks for investigating and interpreting identical observable behaviors. Yet the two views are not actually contradictory, there is merely a difference in the impact ascribed to information gotten indirectly from TV rather than directly through the environment. It is therefore worth sorting this out in order to determine in what sense, if any, passivity is relevant to an understanding of the impact of advertising on children. For if we can tell what a "passive" role for the viewing child means, we are better equipped to look in the right places for harmful effects and to predict what they are likely to be.

To sort this out, we need to go back and examine the first set of statements about passivity. We should do this in light of the fact that the theoretical foundations of developmental psychology were pretty well set before television was invented and, (for reasons ranging from conservatism through snobbism,) the field has so far taken remarkably little serious notice of children's responses to television. This is not to say that even large doses of television have essentially altered the course of cognitive growth. However, the ubiquity of television has indeed changed the nature of the environment in which those children who are heavy viewers grow up, and it is of course these children who are of primary interest to us. Furthermore, it is probably true that nothing with an impact even approaching that of television has been introduced into the ecology of childhood since formal education, which had an acknowledged effect on the course of development, became widespread. It seems at least possible that children have always been capable of functioning in ways that were simply not demanded prior to television (and still are not demanded in the range of settings and tasks psychologists typically use to study children.) So developmental psychology's predictions for television ain't necessarily so, and may underestimate both the ability of young children to learn in certain ways, and the power of television to teach them. We need to examine the statements about passivity that have been developed here critically, in light of what we know about television and children's responses to it. We can then go on to identify likely parameters of the impact of television advertising on children which would be appropriate areas for future research.

First and most straightforward is the contention that the young child does not interact with television on the physical plane. In fact young children frequently become actively involved with television programs--dancing, pointing, imitating gestures, singing, and conversing with the television set. Sesame Street has consistently and intentionally provided for this propensity and turned it to desirable ends. This is a matter of designing instructional sequences such that verbal and motor behaviors appropriate to the child's level of development are explicitly modeled. For example, children are encouraged, by an on-screen model, to hold up fingers as they count. And though this sort of response doesn't happen at all possible occasions, and there are individual differences in the tendency to respond, episodes of overt participation are consistent enough to make it quite clear that a physically, even verbally interactive mode of response to television is open to young children. In addition, of course, there is now a considerable body of research which demonstrates that children will imitate behaviors they have seen on TV later on, away from the television. This deferred imitation means that even when no overt response is evident, attention and memory are engaged sufficiently to store the critical attributes of the performance.

The second formulation of passivity restates the first, but on a cognitive rather than an action plane. The claim is that the form of experience television offers makes a trivial contribution to cognitive growth because the lack of motor involvement precludes significant cognitive restructuring. We can, again, question this assumption on two grounds: First, while concept formation in young children probably does require some direct experience, television has obvious ability in contrast to the "real world", to present an organized range of additional examples, to highlight critical features, and to concentrate this experience in time and space. It can therefore accelerate concept acquisition once the experiential basis for the concept has been established. (A verbal formulation of the concept, in addition to examples repeatedly demonstrated that young children can learn concepts like "circle" and "up" from television. These are, of course, concepts which young children encounter in their physical and verbal environment quite frequently, and the interaction between Sesame Street and the environment has no doubt facilitated concept acquisition. Even if television plays the most minimal role of directing the child to aspects of his environment relevant to a particular concept, it is playing a significant role in cognitive growth; and it is almost certainly doing far more than that.

There are even ways in which television material can be organized to give rise to the kind of cognitive restructuring identified with real intellectual growth. According to Piagetian theory (Charlesworth, 1969), a stimulus structure that embodies a perceived conflict (an incongruity, a surprise, a dilemma) will lead an individual to engage in cognitive activity in order to resolve the conflict to her own satisfaction. Of course the stimulus material must be at the level where the viewer can grasp its structure, yet not be bored by it, otherwise, violations of that structure will go unnoticed; hence unresolved. This sort of cognitive activity, which demands reinterpretation of the stimuli, can lead to accommodative activity; or a reorganization of the child's cognitive structures, in order to account for the properties of the stimulus which were initially inexplicable. The significance of this activity depends, them on the importance of the conflict embodied in the stimulus for intellectual growth, and the appropriateness of the stimulus design. We have seen in our research at Children's Television Workshop (Fowles, 1972), stimuli of this kind, particularly events with magical properties, will lead young viewers to generate imaginative hypotheses to explain these properties. Since such stimuli can be designed such that the hypotheses the viewer is likely to produce covertly and overtly, are (1) in conflict with her currently held notions of how reality works and (2) advanced and adequate as explanations as well, a favorable restructuring of the conceptual system is a likely outcome of exposure to some amount of such stimulus material.

Once we look beyond the surface attributes of the medium and consider stimulus structure, it is rather easy to understand that the so-called "passive" medium can be rendered active by engaging the viewer to resolve or complete the structure.

For either of these mechanisms to work, however the content of the stimuli must of course be appropriate to the child's level of development (Fowles and Voyat, 1975) so that the child has relevant expectations. Deliberateness in the stimulus design is thus required to make the most of this property, yet the contention that television viewing is limited as a learning experience is nevertheless clearly untrue.

The final sense in which the notion of passivity is used is to identify the situation wherein the allocation of attention within the stimulus (primarily the scan path) is controlled by aspects of t he stimulus itself, rather than by a search strategy imposed by the viewer. Eye-movement recording (O'Bryan, 1972) has demonstrated that this kind of passive response does occur, especially in young children and children with learning problems. That is, records of children's scan patterns while viewing television shows that they are predictably drawn to certain aspects of the visual display, and as the child matures, an organized scanning strategy, reflecting the desire to get specific information from the screen, emerges.

In this sense television viewing can legitimately be called passive. For instructional purposes this is not necessarily bad, for if the scanning sequence can he controlled, then at the same time a useful strategy for scanning other similar stimuli, outside of the television context, is being modeled for the viewer. It has been proposed (Salomon, 1972) that such scanning strategies may be internalized as thinking strategies, and there is some empirical evidence that this occurs. For example, subjects who were shown scanning strategies modeled by the camera as it examined complex paintings, later displayed similar strategies in their own eye movements, in freely examining still slides of stylistically similar paintings.

Passivity in this sense is thus a meaningful concept when applied to television. It also has a corollary as noted earlier, which is that in relinquishing control of one's attention strategy evaluative judgment of the stimulus and its message is also relinquished. The latter claim is difficult to document, but is clearly a deserving focus of concern. However, we cannot go so far as to assume, even if we can empirically determine that a particular piece of television material will reliably control subjects' visual attention patterns in a particular way, that a predictable message is thereby being conveyed. Again, the child's level of cognitive functioning determines how information will be interpreted, and for the young child this interpretation may vary widely from the intended message. Thus the concept of the viewer as an information sponge is also something of an erroneous one.

Several points emerge, I think, from looking closely at what passivity means in terms of the child as television viewer in general, and viewer of television advertising in particular. We have seen that the interaction between child and television is complex, and there is no sense in which we can simply say that children are passive in their relation to television, and that they are therefore either wholly immune or wholly vulnerable to what they see. So while we clearly cannot ignore the impact of television advertising, neither can we predict effects from examining the commercials alone. Rather, the precise nature of the child's response to television is dependent on both developmental factors in the child and structural factors in the commercial or program. When these factors are well meshed, television can and often does provide a full range of learning experience for good or for ill. Advertising, perhaps often only by chance, surely participates in this instruction process and needs to be examined from this point of view.


William Charlesworth, "The Role of Surprise in Cognitive Development," In D. Elkind and J. Flavell (Eds.) Studies in Cognitive Development: Essays in Honor of Jean Planet, (N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1969).

Barbara Fowles, "A Pilot Study of Verbal Report in Formative Research in Television," Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation (N.Y.: Yeshiva University, 1972).

Barbara Fowles and Gilbert Voyat "Piaget Meets Big Bird: Is TV a Passive Teacher?," Urban Review, (Vol. 7, 1974).

George Miller, Eugene Galanter, Karl Pribram, Plans and The Structure of Behavior, (N.Y.: Holt, 1960).

James, Murray, "Television and Violence: Implications of The Surgeon General's Research Program," American Psychologist, (June, 1973).

Kenneth O'Bryan, "Report on Children's Viewing Strategies,'' Unpublished Report, (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Toronto, 1972).

Jean Piaget, Six Psychological Studies, (New York: Random House, 1963).

Gavriel Salomon, "Can We Effect Cognitive Skills Through Visual Media? An Hypothesis and Initial Findings," AV Communications Review, (1972, 20, (4)) 409-422.

Emile Vurpillot, "The Development of Scanning Strategies and Their Relationship to Visual Differentiation," Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, (1968) 632-650.