Special Session Summary Learning to Consume: Research Amongst Child Consumers


Sarah Todd and Margaret K. Hogg (2003) ,"Special Session Summary Learning to Consume: Research Amongst Child Consumers", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 12-17.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 12-17



Sarah Todd, University of Otago, New Zealand

Margaret K. Hogg, UMIST, UK


This session examined the socialisation of child consumers by presenting the results from a series of recent studies about different aspects of children’s understanding of consumption and consumption behaviour. The papers offered a developmental perspective on children’s consumption behaviour and their socialisation as consumers. The first paper (Banister and Booth) examined children aged between 5 and 10; and how they acquire tastes and distastes. The second paper (Todd) examined the impact of money as a factor in children’s consumer socialization by exploring attitudes to money among children aged 5/6 and 9/11. The third paper (Piacentini and Tinson) examined the impact of social influences on pre-adolescent children (7-11) and their attitudes to food choice. The fourth paper (Goetze) was a cross cultural comparison of the development of brand knowledge and brand attitudes of very young pre-school children (aged 3-5). Each paper had a different methodological focus (in terms of data collection and data analysis). A range of methods used for eliciting information from children (and parents, see Goetze’s study) are discussed including self-directed photography, templates, collages, projective techniques, mapping exercises, picture association, interviews and focus groups.

Interest in the area of children’s consumption behaviour and their response to marketing mix variables was high in the 1970s, mainly as a reaction to calls for tightened regulations regarding television advertising. New concerns have since been raised regarding the possible exploitation of this relatively vulnerable sector of the market. In some areas of marketing, special codes have been developed to control the way in which marketers interact with children. However, there is ongoing debate regarding the extent to which children do in fact understand marketing messages and the market place itself. There is increasingly recognition that children need to be studied from a child’s perspective, using appropriate methods. By employing child-oriented methods, and looking at methods used by researchers from other disciplines (e.g. sociology; health sciences; education), there is the potential to enhance our understanding of how children develop as consumers.




Emma N. Banister, Lancaster University, UK

Gayle J. Booth, UMIST, UK


This study explores children’s likes and dislikes and in particular attempts to identify influences on the development of tastes. The overall aim of the research is to help bridge the current gap in research in this area and to link this with children’s relational development (Klein 1987). A limited number of authors have begun to explore the negative aspects of consumption (e.g. Banister and Hogg 2001; Hogg and Banister 2001; Wilk 1995; 1997), the associated emotion of disgust (Rozin and Fallon 1987) and negative views of the self (Banister and Hogg 2001; Ogilvie 1987; Oyserman and Markus 1990), yet conceptualisation in this area has been fairly limited.

The paper reports on an initial exploration into how meanings are embodied and projected by means of reflexive engagement with the varying social, political, cultural and economic spheres of children (Giddens, 1991; Mason, 2000; Beck, 1982). The socialisation process is relational in context and thus the child creates an individual 'patchwork quilt of identity’ (Griffiths 1995). The quilt associates the child with others yet also enables the avoidance of certain social groups (Englis and Solomon 1995) or behaviour. It could be argued that parents buy their children items because of an adult construction of reality within which they scrutinise and decide the needs and wants for their offspring (at least at an early age). Therefore children’s products and brands could be said to signify an adult culture organised in such a way that it is interpreted as suitable for childhood culture. However, also important is the interpretation of the adult world that children construct, making their own decisions and presumptions about what adults do (Steinberg and Kincheloe 1997).

The study

The paper reports on the findings of a qualitative study, which focused on pupils (aged between 5 and 10 years old) in an infants and junior school in Yorkshire, England. A three-stage qualitative study was conducted, integrating semi-ethnographic methods, interviews and projective techniques. The first stage focused on informal interaction with children during break and lunch times in the school playground, and was important in forging a bond with the children and observing their behaviour in a 'natural setting’. Various projective techniques were used in the second stage of the study: children were given templates with the outlines of trees on them, entitled 'tree of bad taste’ and 'tree of tastes’ and 'tree of disgust’ as well as t-shirts focusing on a similar idea. Children were asked to customise /design their templates, positioning objects, words and drawings on them. Twelve children were also selected to participate in a projective exercise involving self-directed photography. Each of these children was given a single-use camera and asked to take twelve photographs of what they considered distasteful, disgusting or disliked and twelve pictures of good taste, enjoyable or pleasurable objects, places or scenarios. The final stage of the research involved loosely structured interviews with the children who had participated in the projective exercises (the templates and the photographs). The discussion focused on the collages and photographs and these were used as visual prompts to further explore the wider area of likes and dislikes.

Toys and clothing functioned as social indicators with several important predictors of likes and dislikes identified: colour, gender, age and the context of consumption. The children were adamant about the types of products that were 'suitable’ for them, and demonstrated within-group agreement about the meanings that were associated with items. The children ascribed certain meanings to the colours used by marketers to indicate suitability on the basis of age and gender, suggesting that children were familiar and comfortable with the methods used by marketers. Children also had very strong views about the suitability of products on the basis of age, rejecting those that were considered either too old or too young. The most striking observation was the way in which products’ suitability was clearly defined in gender terms. The association with objects of an adult nature depicted a sense of not belonging to the correct age group; therefore such items were consciously negated. However, these 'rules’ were 'allowed’ to be broken if the context of consumption was private rather than public.


Findings and Discussion

The findings suggest that children become increasingly aware of self-identity and the manner in which it informs their participation within their relational world at a young age. Gender and age play particular roles in segregating and combining shared interests. However, it appears it is the nature of media, advertisements and other marketing activities and the carriage of values and norms, which depict what is acceptable to whom, where and at what point in life. Children become pre-destined to acceptance and rejection and are assumed to possess the same qualities and characteristics of the product or brand that they own and perhaps more importantly, not to possess the associated characteristics of those products that they do not own. The participants displayed a conscious effort not to own or be associated with contextually incorrect items (Banister and Hogg 2001; Wilk 1995 Englis. and Solomon 1995).


This research was funded by a grant from UMIST Academic Development and Resources Committee’s Research Initiative Fund (2001).



SarahTodd, University of Otago, New Zealand

"To the small child observing a parent reaching into a pocket or purse time after time and continually extracting a handful of money which will purchase some desired object, the supply of money is likely to appear inexhaustible. The money seems to magically replenish itself. It is always there when the parent wishes to buy something." (Goldberg and Lewis, 2000 p.160)


While considerable research effort by marketing academics has been devoted to understanding children and their responses to advertising in terms of consumer socialization, relatively little attention has been paid to child consumers and their understanding of money, where it comes from and its value. This paper reports the initial findings from an exploratory study of primary school aged children’s understanding of different elements of the marketplace, with the focus of this paper being on money.

Strauss (1952) was one of the first to investigate children’s understanding of money-related concepts, and his interviews with children between 4_yrs and 11_yrs confirmed Piagetian ideas of children’s development going through stages rather being a continuum. He classified the children’s answers into nine stages that signify not only intellectual maturity but also different levels of experience, perception and values. In a study undertaken at a similar time, of children aged five to eight years, Danziger (1958) suggested four stages of development in children’s understanding of economic concepts. He proposed that movement through the stages was related to first-hand experience. Subsequent work in the area, using methodological techniques such as role plays (Jahoda 1979) and interviews (e.g. Sutton 1962), has largely supported the idea of stage development in children’s understanding of financial and economic concepts. However, the number of stages has not been widely agreed upon, but such differences may well be due to the different age ranges of subjects, the number of subjects studied and the individual researcher’s level of precision in deciding when one stage ended and another started. Table 1 summarises key studies in this area and the number of stages indicated by each.

The study

Seven primary schools were contacted and asked to participate in exploratory research designed to investigate New Zealand children’s consumption beliefs, opinions and behaviours. Schools were initially selected in an attempt to study children from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, and gain an understanding of any differences that may emerge related to whether the children lived in an urban or rural environment. All principals contacted agreed to participate, and information packs (including consent forms) were then distributed through the schools to parents of five to six year olds and nine to eleven year olds. Initial discussions were held with selected classes, and then focus groups were run with smaller groups of children (approximately six to eight children in each). In addition to the preliminary class discussions then, a total of fourteen focus groups were undertaken, with a 'junior’ and 'senior’ class at each primary school participating. The two age groups were kept separate, to ensure that younger children felt able to contribute and were not intimidated by having older children in their group. Researching children has obvious ethical implications, which in this case were covered by both the schools’ and the individual parents being given comprehensive information packs and being required to sign consent forms. The use of focus groups has also been queried due to concerns about children responding to peer pressure and adapting their answers accordingly but focus groups do have an advantage in that children are with friends and discussions can be conducted in familiar surroundings (in this case, classrooms). To ensure that children all felt able to participate, and that they understood what was being asked of them, physical props were used wherever possible, and pictures used both as a data collection technique and to help children respond to specific questions.

Findings and Discussion

With regards to pocket money, almost all children studied indicated that they received pocket money on a regular basis, and it was also common for children to receive money as a present for birthdays or Christmas. For the majority of children, parents were the source of most money, or close relatives (especially when the money was a present). Rather than just being handed pocket money, most children are required to work for it, although the amount received was not necessarily tied to specific jobs or the amount of work done. Work done mainly involved simple household chores, although pocket money was also linked to behaviour in that they had to be "good" to get pocket money, or "do everything that Mum says".

While there is not enough space here to report the full range of issues discussed, children’s knowledge of the relative value of products and what their money can buy them appears limited, as does their understanding of where money comes from. While some of the older children knew that their parents were paid for working, many of those studied still subscribed to the view noted by Goldberg and Lewis (2000), quoted at the beginning of this article. That is, there is a general expectation among children, regardless of their age, that their parents will always be able to access more money at the bank or, increasingly, from "the money machine". With regards to marketing variables, the assumption that shop owners were all well off because they "own everything in the shop" and that "people who work at the shop decide how much things cost" appears widespread. Further analysis will look particularly at the extent to which children’s understanding of money and related concepts develops with age, in line with the developmental theories described in the review of relevant literature. Additionally, data from the focus groups (which took children through a quasi decision-making process and ultimate purchase scenario) will be analysed to gain a more in-depth understanding of how child consumers conceptualise and deal with money-related issues in the marketplace.



Maria Piacentini, University of Lancaster , UK

Julie Tinson, University of the West of England (Bristol), UK

Background to study

Childhood is a critical period in the development of food preferences and eating patterns that often persist into later life. Given the major emphasis in European and US health policy in recent years to improve health through dietary change (e.g. Department of Health, 1994; Healthy People, 2010), understanding how eating habits are formed is particularly important. Studies looking at children’s food choice behaviour have mainly drawn on food science (e.g. Baxter et al, 1997), nutritional science (e.g. Birch et al, 1982) and health psychology (e.g. Horne et al, 1998). While these perspectives provide important information about food choice behaviour, they do not focus on the social context of consumption, thus offering limited insights into this aspect of consumption behaviour. Within the consumer behaviour literature, there has been some research into the consumption activities of children in recent years (e.g. Gregan-Paxton & Roedder-John, 1995; Moschis & Smith, 1985; Hite & Hite, 1995; Gunter & Furnham, 1998), but few studies that have looked at the social significance of consumption activities for young children in any product category (Roedder-John, 1999; see Hogg, Bruce & Hill, 1999 for recent work in this area).

Theoretical framework

Symbolic interactionism stresses that relationships with other people play a large part in forming the self, and offers a theoretical basis for conceptualising this socially oriented self and its relationship with product conspicuousness (Charon, 2001). The concept of symbolic interactionism is based on the premise that individuals interact with society and important reference groups to determine how behaviour should be structured. Central to this theory are a number of assumptions about the role of symbols in social communications. Firstly, consumption symbols are an important means by which consumer communicate with others in the world (Bhat & Reddy, 1998). Shared knowledge and attitudes are critical to effective communication of symbols. Secondly, symbolic consumption of goods is an important means by which consumers define themselves; they use goods as materials with which to create, foster and develop their identity (Elliott & Wattanasuwan, 1998). The third assumption is that the explanation of self-concept offered within symbolic interactionism also acknowledges the multiplicity of self-concept (Hogg & Savolainen, 1998). The facet of self to emerge within a given situation is dependent upon an evaluation of how social others might respond to a particular course of behaviour (or, more specifically, a choice of self) (Schenk & Holman, 1980). Finally, socially consumed products are most notably used in instances of symbolic consumption since consumers are more likely to use the visibility of consumption to communicate their identity message (Hyatt, 1992).

Aims and objectives

The purpose of this study is to explore the assumptions of symbolic interactionism in the area of children’s consumer behaviour, specifically focusing on food choice behaviour. This will involve an exploration of situational self-concept and the social nature of food meanings. Specifically, the research seeks to understand the variability of children’s self-concepts across different social contexts and to investigate the role of food-consumption in the expression of self-identity. The research also encompasses an investigation of the role of reference groups in guiding children’s food choice behaviour and will explore evidence of consumption stereotyping in this area of consumer behaviour.


There were a number of methodological issues that we aimed to address through this research, including the development of an appropriate methodology for exploring situational self-concept with a sample of young children. Methodological guidance came from studies with children more generally (e.g. Hogg, Bruce & Hill, 1999; Ells, 2001; Owen, Schickler & Davies, 1997). Our interview procedure was developed and refined through extensive piloting. We used a variety of projective techniques including mapping exercises with pictures, 'lunchbox’ word allocation tasks, and celebrity picture associations.

Our sample consists of pre-adolescent children in the 'analytical’ stage of children’s socialisation (in the 7-11 age group). The sample was drawn from two schools in selected areas within each of two major UK cities (one in the West of Scotland, and one in the West of England), where we sought to interview children from similar social class profiles. [We used the DEPCAT system to allocate social class to the postcode and ward areas in both cities (as developed by McLoone, 1994). The Carstairs-Marris DEPCAT score (McLoone, 1994) is a scheme that categorises areas based on a range of measures of material deprivation including male unemployment, overcrowding, low social class, car ownership and home ownership.] Our target sample is 80, with 8 children interviewed in each age category in each area. Consent of the relevant Education Boards, the schools and the parents has been established, and a random selection has been drawn from the classes. We are currently in the process of conducting the interviews, with 70 completed so far. Some analysis has been completed already; the approach for data analysis was that of a systematic coding via content analysis (Morgan, 1988). A coding scheme was created based on our understanding of the literature review and relevant theoretical frameworks. As new concepts emerged they were appropriately coded and included. For reliability of the data, both researchers independently coded the transcripts and then we compared coding schemes and patterns emergent.


Our findings so far suggest that food consumption is a highly social issue for children in this age group, and that variations in choice across social contexts were closely tied to actual vs. aspirational choices for different contexts. Parents and friends were found to affect the children’s food choices, but in different ways. Parents adopted a more informative role, often encouraging children to pursue healthier choices. Friends were also important witnesses to the children’s food choices but were more likely to positively evaluate unhealthy choices (e.g. sweets, fatty foods, etc.). While friends have the power to influence acceptance or rejection of a group through individual food choices, it was interesting to see that this was more about acceptance into a group rather than rejection by the group.

Branding appears to be an important aspect of the children’s consumption decisions, mainly influencing the older children. Younger children felt consumption of own-label foods was socially acceptable. There was also a social class aspect to this; for those children in the lower social class groups there was a strong desire / aspiration to choose heavily branded food products. The findings will be presented at greater length at the conference.



Elisabeth Gotze, University of Vienna, Austria

Introduction and background

Nowadays, children are one of the most important target groups: They have money of their own and are ready to spend it ("primary market"); they are also the future customers ("future market"); and they influence buying decisions of many grown ups (see McNeal 1992). One issue in this context is children¦s brand knowledge. It is an essential aspect of their socialisation as consumers (see Ward, Wackman et al. 1977).

Multinational companies target children not only in their home country but also in other countries in a similar way. Nevertheless, so far there exists no research on this issue. Therefore, it is unclear whether children in different countries acquire their knowledge about brands in the same way.

This paper focuses on pre-school children as the acquisition of brand knowledge starts at a very early stage (see Pecora 1998). It is the aim of this study to enhance knowledge about children¦s acquisition of brand knowledge. In particular, cultural differences in this regard should be detected, and if they exist explanations for them should be found.


Based on the literature, a structural equation model was developed. It is proposed that factors such as age of the child; television viewing behaviour; existence of older siblings; and attendance at kindergarten (peer influence) influence children¦s brand knowledge.

Moreover, Hofstede¦s "dimensions" (see Hofstede 1980) were used to formulate hypotheses about differences which we expected to find. Hofstede identified aspects such as power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism versus collectivism and masculinity versus femininity when researching companies in 67 countries.

To test the hypotheses, as well as the model, 360 children aged 3 to 5 years and one parent per child were personally interviewed in three countries. In all 720 interviews were undertaken. The countries chosen were Austria, Serbia and Australia, because they all differed significantly with regards to Hofstede¦s dimensions.

Results and Discussion

The model was tested using Amos 4.0. The model fit was very good with the Austrian and with the Australian sub-sample, whereas it did not explain the situation in Serbia perfectly (as the fairly poor fit indices indicate). One explanation is that some information is missing, which is essential for understanding children¦s acquisition of brand knowledge. This seems plausible, since the factors of influence incorporated in the model were identified from literature. Most of this literature stems from studies undertaken in the US and Western Europe, and therefore it does not necessarily take into account factors which might be relevant in other cultures.

Concerning the concrete outcomes, in all countries children¦s brand knowledge significantly correlated with their age and with household income. Whereas the correlation with age is positive in all three data sets, the relation with household income is not so clear: It is positive in Australia and Serbia, but it is negative in Austria, indicating that Austrian children living in relatively higher income households have less brand knowledge than others. The parents¦ comments in this regard indicated that upper class families would rather try to protect their children from market influences such as advertising.

Furthermore, the hypotheses concerning the cultural differences were tested. As expected, there is a negative correlation between the level of uncertainty avoidance in a country and children¦s brand knowledge. The countries¦ level of power distance correlates with the average amount parents talk with their children about aspects of shopping. This means that in countries with less power distance parents talk more about shopping with their children. And the more collectivistic a country is, the more children like to have the same brands as their friends. Finally, in a country with a relatively high index concerning masculinity children ask for brands more than in rather feminine cultures.

On the other hand, some hypotheses had to be rejected: e.g., children¦s brand knowledge was not correlated either with the level of power distance in a country or with the level of masculinity. The first was expected because brands could help people to enhance their status which ought to be important in countries with higher power distance (see Houston and Eckhardt 2000). And in countries with a low level of power distance the children do not have more influence upon their parents¦ brand decisions, which also contradicts our expectations.

The results indicate which factors might be of interest in understanding children’s consumer socialisation, in addition to the ones discussed in literature so far. For the first time, possible differences between cultures were taken into account in the context of brand knowledge.

On the other hand it has to be mentioned that the sample was fairly limited in scope. The research must be extended to some more countries to verify the results presented. Moreover, also other concepts of culture could be taken into account, eg. Hall¦s concept of high and low context (see Hall 1989).


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Sarah Todd, University of Otago, New Zealand
Margaret K. Hogg, UMIST, UK


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2003

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