Understanding Children As Consumers: Toward an Ethical and Integrated Methodological Approach

ABSTRACT - While marketers and consumer researchers in general are increasingly striving to better understand children as consumers, there is little consensus regarding the best way in which to research this segment. This discussion paper reviews some of the methods used in the past and looks at what we might learn from other disciplines. One issue raised in this review, but that has received little consideration in terms of methodological choice, is that of ethics.


Sarah Todd (2001) ,"Understanding Children As Consumers: Toward an Ethical and Integrated Methodological Approach", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Paula M. Tidwell and Thomas E. Muller, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 99-101.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 2001      Pages 99-101


Sarah Todd, University of Otago, New Zealand


While marketers and consumer researchers in general are increasingly striving to better understand children as consumers, there is little consensus regarding the best way in which to research this segment. This discussion paper reviews some of the methods used in the past and looks at what we might learn from other disciplines. One issue raised in this review, but that has received little consideration in terms of methodological choice, is that of ethics.

"Despite the importance of the children’s and adolescents’ market to the educational, financial and retail sectors, we know surprisingly little about where and how young people acquire their money, where and why they spend and save it, and their knowledge of the financial world and its opportunities"

(Gunter & Furnham 1998:viii)

Perhaps the key reason for this lack of knowledge is not due to a lack of interest in children as consumers, but rather a lack of 'know-how’. That is, with many conventional consumer research techniques patently inapplicable to this significant market, developing an appropriate method with which to enhance understanding, may be a major stumbling block. Together with a recognition that children are not just pint-sized adults has come the realisation that there is a need to look beyond conventional techniques (e.g. self-completion surveys) if we ae to obtain a better understanding of child consumers’ thoughts, feelings and actions. The purpose of this paper, then, is to provide an overview of different research techniques that have been used in studying children, and the issues that those different approaches raise.

While it is stated above that conventional research techniques don’t work with children, this does not mean that there have not been attempts to use self-administered scales, either in a conventional or modified form. For example, Rossiter (1977) developed a scale intended to measure 9-12 year old children’s attitudes towards television commercials. Before asking children to complete the survey, time was spent instructing them regarding the scale, and what the boxes meant. The children were asked to indicate agreement or disagreement by placing an X on the line. This scale was then replicated by Bearden, Teel and Wright (1979), and an alpha of 0.75 was seen to validate Rossiter’s measure. At a similar time, Lindquist and Beloanx (1979) used the same seven point scale to investigate attitudes towards a range of media, while Riecken and Samli (1981) also replicated and extended the use of the original scale. The latter’s reported alpha of 0.76 appears to be the highest observed in any of these replication studies, although this varied across socioeconomic backgrounds and product categories.

Macklin and Machleit (1990) are a further example of scale development being undertaken in an attempt to understand children’s attitudes. Rather than advertising, their focus was affect towards brands, and their target comprised pre-school (non-verbal) respondents. The five-item standardised attitude scale (Preschool Attitude Scale or PAS) developed is said to be age-appropriate and that children apparently fill it in in a valid and reliable manner. Rather than using 'yes’ and 'no’ as was done in the Rossiter (1977) scale, points are operationalised with visuals. As well, desciptors are used with each pictorial item. These descriptors are said to be words from within the children’s vocabulary. Considerable feasibility checks were undertaken, together with checks for reliability, dimensionality and validity. Additionally, gender specific visuals were developed for two of the items. Another, somewhat significant difference to Rossiter’s earlier instrument was the administration procedure used by Macklin and Machleit (1990). That is, nonverbal (pointing) responses were elicited, and more of a game-like atmosphere was created.

Despite modifications such as those of Macklin and Machleit (1990), McNeal (1992:220) noted research findings regarding children’s consumer behaviour are "almost always suspect". He went on to suggest the need for our research procedures to be 'fixed’, and a new set of theoretical guidelines to be developed. Despite this earlier call for such developments, Gunter and Furnham (1998) infer that marketers are not yet on top of the problem. They argue that research techniques must evolve if we are to understand the increasingly developed and sophisticated children’s market.

However, while marketers and consumer researchers may be struggling as to how best to sensitively measure the range and complexity of children’s perceptions, opinions and ultimate consumption behaviour, disciplines interested in other aspects of children are leading the way.

For example, family researcher Morrow’s (1998) work on understanding families from a child’s perspective offers many insights as to how we too may gain a child’s perspective on consumption. Her research approach follows James and Prout’s (1990) argument that children deserve to be studied in their own right, independent from adults’ perspectives. Such an assertion is in contrast to Gunter and Furnham’s (1998:158) suggestion that "it is usually valuable and sensible to include parents in most research evaluations", an opinion which seems to represent a view held by many consumer researchers to date. Other disciplines would appear to be more open to the idea that children themselves are competent, though differnt, providers of research data.

The main methodological implication then is that methodologies must be designed to draw on those different abilities. From a consumer researcher’s perspective, it is interesting to note that the techniques considered most appropriate for researching children’s issues in other disciplines can be paralleled in the increasing acceptance and use of qualitative techniques evident in consumer research as a whole today.

It is not enough, however, to simply adopt a qualitative or humanist outlook. Rather, steps should be taken to ensure media of communication with which children are both familiar and confident are implemented. Morrow (1998) herself used a combination of methods to enhance understanding of children’s concept of family. Representative of projective techniques (common in marketing research to study issues such as brand image and 'motivation research’), Morrow (1998:5) categorised the drawings/writing and sentence completion techniques she used as "structured activities". In addition, the open-ended group discussions she describes have obvious parallels in the focus group method commonly implemented in marketing research.

Focus groups in particular seem to offer an appropriate method for researchers wanting to better understand children in their consumer role. Benefits Gunter and Furnham (1998) perceive include the ability to acquire information not only about the factors influencing their consumer behaviour, but also yielding insights into the language children use when discussing consumption-related issues. This last point is especially beneficial, with a widespread acceptance among those researching children of the importance of speaking in their own terms. Such insights will be useful not only in conducting further research, but also in the design of communication and promotional strategies.

The focus group format also offers the opportunity to introduce activities that may result in information children would not (or could not) otherwise articulate (Dailey 1985-6). For example, even quite young child participants in Ffelan and Marshall’s (1999) focus groups were described as very responsive to the use of collage boards (comprising a range of pictures of different toys). Responses obtained suggest children had relatively developed storage and retrieval abilities, but may not have been able to provide such information in a purely verbal interaction.

A potential problem with children as focus group participants, however, relates to their well-documented susceptibility to peer influence. Individual interviews would overcome such a problem, and may offer greater potential for children to discuss their 'true’ underlying tastes and preferences. However, it can also be argued that, because of this very problem, focus groups provide a more valid picture of children as consumers. That is, with peer pressure playing a significant role in their consumption behaviour, it is important to recognise and measure that influence in any research methodology. Many products marketed to children are subject to faddish preferences, and, as such, purchases are strongly influenced by peer pressure and young children’s desire to conform. Information regarding preferences obtained through oneBtoBone conversations with children may not be valid if one is really interested in finding out how the child would behave in the marketplace, where they are subject to strong influences from peers.

McDonald (1982) categorised three distinct approaches that could be taken when conducting focus group discussions with children. What was termed the 'Creative Drama Approach’ relies heavily on children’s creative input, with drawing-based techniques and role playing common. In contrast, the 'Adult-Oriented Approach’ makes little or no allowance for the difference between children and adults as research subjects. Thus, the expectation is that children will participate in an adult-like manner. Evidence from empirical studies undertaken since suggests that, while valuable information can be obtained from children as focus group participants, allowances do need to be made fr their differing abilities and verbal development. McDonald (1982) himself argues for a 'Structural Approach’, based on children’s stage of cognitive development. In particular, it is argued that sessions should be designed in line with the participants’ information processing ability. Visual aids should be incorporated to provide structure and enhance children’s ability to conceptualise. It is also noted that data obtained from children’s focus groups should be analysed bearing in mind the abilities of the participants. That is, not only should the session be conducted in a manner designed to elicit the best information possible, but analysts too should be cognizant of the participants’ ages and abilities.

Even McDonald’s 'Structural Approach’, however, assumes that child participants will be reasonably articulate and able to verbally express their opinions. While requiring more time to analyse, the inclusion of non-verbal activities such as collage or drawings would appear to overcome any such inabilities and provide a rich source of data. Simply adding picture-based activities is not enough though. McNeal (1992) notes that any instructions associated with drawing-based techniques should be carefully piloted. Depending on the cues given in the instructions, different images were found to be elicited in children’s minds.

Ffelan and Marshall (1999) successfully implemented focus groups in their study of character merchandising and children’s toys, using a combination of techniques within the focus group framework. They recommend that separate focus groups are run for different ages, and that boys and girls are separated, to ensure the best possible discussion. The specific methodological approach taken seems at first glance to fit best with McDonald’s (1982) 'Creative Drama’ categorisation, with role playing and picture drawing exercises both used. However, a third technique using a collage board seems more in line with his third (Structural) category. Ffelan and Marshall also implemented the idea of a 'secret ballot’, whereby participants were asked to submit a vote for their favourite character. This technique in particular demonstrated some of the problems involved in conducting focus groups with children. That is, the ballot itself was not really secret, with children discussing their votes, asking for help in spelling characters’ names and so on. Changes in children’s votes after discussion with peers, and the role discussion played in what was supposed to be a 'secret’ ballot in itself helped demonstrate the important role peer pressure plays in children’s consumption behaviour!

Both cognitive development-linked focus groups and the use of picture drawing techniques represent a change in direction from past research undertaken on children as consumers. However, despite the studies cited above, and arguments put forward supporting children as research subjects, use of adults as the source of information regarding children’s consumption continues today. Even a brief review of literature in areas such as family decision making, and particularly that pertaining to measure children’s level of purchase influence (e.g Berey & Pollay 1970), serves to demonstrate that much of what we know about children as consumers has traditionally been based on an adult’s (usually the mother’s) perception.

One common argument for the pervasiveness of such methods is based on the perceived inability of children to act as research subjects in their own right. The increasing sophistication of qualitative methods in general, not only in terms of implementation but also the analysis, means that such an argument has now lost much of its weight. Add to that the wider recognition that children can provide information, we just have to use the right methods of enquiry, and there is even less excuse for relying on adults’ perceptions.

Observational techniques provide an alternative, more indirect way of improving our understanding. Parents’ perceptions are automatically removed, and children’s confidence in interacting with the researcher, or inability to articulate, are no longersignificant factors. For example, Rust (1993) successfully employed observational procedures to study the relationship between children’s age and in-store behaviour. However, depending on the information required, this method does suffer from some limitations. Observational techniques are useful to study public consumption behaviour, but both laboratory and field-based observations are limited when the researcher is interested in understanding how children actually use or consume many products. Gunter and Furnham (1998:163) note that many children’s products are used in the home, and this is an environment in which it is more difficult to undertake observational based research. However, research problems such as that of Rust (children’s in-store behaviour) may well benefit from the use of such techniques.

As well as the adaptation of established research techniques (e.g. focus groups, observation) to researching children as consumers, a number of child-specific measures have been developed. One such example is that of Almqvist’s (1997) content analysis of children’s letters to Santa Claus. In an attempt to measure the influence of pre-Christmas toy catalogues on children’s toy preferences, both letters sent to Santa and catalogues sent to households were analysed. This particular method is based on the work of gender socialisation researchers (Richardson & Simpson 1982, cited in Almqvist 1997). Almqvist argues that an analysis of children’s letters to Santa Claus opens the door to quite a number of otherwise hidden domains of children’s play, thinking and learning.

Otnes, Kim and Kim (1994, cited in Almqvist 1997) also implemented this procedure in their study of the age at which children become aware of trademarks. They were of the opinion that letters to Santa Claus can provide insight into the behaviour of a segment of the population that is often inaccessible via traditional research methods (cited in Almqvist 1997:1).

The use of letters, written for a quite different purpose, as a source of research data, raises an issue which must underpin any methodological decision, but particularly those undertaken with regards to studying children. That is, what are the ethical implications of the method chosen?

While not specific to consumer researchers wanting to know more about how children feel and their actual consumption behaviour, ethical issues must be sensitively dealt with. Children are recognised as a 'vulnerable’ group in society, and open to exploitation. Inherent in any choice of method with which to study them must be a recognition of their level of cognitive development and competencies. Strongly related must be the realisation that children may not clearly understand the purpose of the questions they are asked to answer, or the activities they are asked to participate in.

Marketing as a whole has had to come to terms with the specific requirements of children as a market (e.g. in many countries, special codes of advertising practice have been developed). In determining an appropriate research methodology, those wanting to study child consumers must look not only at the implications of their subjects’ abilities in terms of the quality and type of data yielded, but also the potential impact that the method will have on the participants themselves.


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Sarah Todd, University of Otago, New Zealand


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 2001

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