Developmental Stage and Children's Reaction to Tv Advertising

ABSTRACT - The paper reports how children at different developmental stages (of the age 7-8 and 10-11) differ in their cognitive and affective reactions to TV advertising. The study indicates many differences in the cognitive reactions, whereas affective reactions and preferences for the commercials were more similar. Children tend to prefer both cognitive and emotional content directed at their own age.


Liisa Uusitalo and Virpi Takala (1993) ,"Developmental Stage and Children's Reaction to Tv Advertising", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, eds. W. Fred Van Raaij and Gary J. Bamossy, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 360-365.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1993      Pages 360-365


Liisa Uusitalo, Helsinki School of Economics, Finland

Virpi Takala, Helsinki School of Economics, Finland


The paper reports how children at different developmental stages (of the age 7-8 and 10-11) differ in their cognitive and affective reactions to TV advertising. The study indicates many differences in the cognitive reactions, whereas affective reactions and preferences for the commercials were more similar. Children tend to prefer both cognitive and emotional content directed at their own age.


In countries where commercial television plays an important role in the program supply, there has been continuous concern over the impact of advertising on children. Research interest is associated with a broader concern as to how children are possibly affected by television watching in general, or what kind of cultivation effect television has on children (Himmelweit, Oppenheim & Vice 1958, Dorr 1986). Special attention has been paid to the effect of violent programs on children's aggressiveness, or to the more specific effects of commercials and commercial programs on children (e.g. materialistic life attitudes, children's learning of bad food habits etc.)(see e.g. Robertson & Rossiter 1977, Rossiter 1981, Palmer & Dorr 1980, Alwitt & Mitchell 1985).

As Young (1990) concludes in his summary of the major concerns, the discussion has largely been dominated by the concept of childhood as an age of innocence, trusting naivety and "purity of perception". In this game, the advertiser is seen more or less as a seducer who tries to exploit the trustfulness and inadequacy of the innocent child. Consequently, the principles for television advertising in most countries include some regulation of advertising and products directed at children. However, any stricter regulation, such as removing all advertising from children's programs or a stricter control of the amount of advertising in programs, has so far not been accepted (Young 1990,18-38).

It is not only educational and public policy interests that have guided the study of advertising and children. Advertisers of children's products have themselves shown great interest in how children pay attention to advertising and how capable they are of processing commercial information and learning from advertising (Wells 1965, Ward, Wackman & Wartella 1977, Robertson & Rossiter 1977, Churchill & Moschis 1979, Goldberg & Gorn 1982, among others). Some writers have paid attention to intermediating factors in this process, such as parents (Robertson 1979, Wiman 1981) or characteristics of the communication content (Cantor 1981).

Common to both these concerns has been their particular interest in individual commercials without paying much attention to the whole television-child relationship (Uusitalo 1986). However, the social context has an important role. There are already big differences in how much time children devote to tv-viewing and are exposed to commercials in different countries and cultures, or within different social strata and families. For example, in the United States children watch television approximately two to three times as much as European children (Wiman 1989).

Since it is difficult to compare and draw final conclusions over the impacts of television or television advertising on children in quite different contexts and television cultures (see e.g. Ward,Robertson & Brown 1986), we will instead try to concentrate on the impact of their developmental stage on how children cognitively and affectively receive advertising; how they interpret and prefer it. We will try to find out whether children who are of school age and have grown up with television and commercial television, really are so inadequate or incompetent as viewers as is often assumed. We are more interested in studying what the child does with the content of the commercials than how the advertising possibly influences his/her choices or life attitudes.

According to Piaget's theory of cognitive development, the child goes through different stages of development: the sensomotor period (0-2 years), the pre-operational (2-7), the concrete operational (7-12), and the formal-operational period (12-15)(Piaget & Inhelder 1966). From the viewpoint of cognitive understanding of television content, probably the most important changes take place between the pre-operational and the concrete-operational stages. Children's thinking in the pre-operational period is ego-centric and centers around the immediate appearance of things, whereas in the concrete-operational period the child can differentiate his/her standpoint from others and make evaluations and reflect on communication (e.g. Hakes 1980). He is also able to deduce meanings, infer events not presented and "read between the lines".

Consequently, the empirical part of this paper will include comparisons between first-grade school children who are just reaching the concrete-operational period (7-8 years), and fourth-grade children who are closer to the next period change (10-11 years). Before that, we shall discuss some hypotheses relating to the impact of the developmental stage. Impacts on cognitive and affective reactions are treated separately.


Impact on cognitive reactions

During the concrete-operational period "advertising literacy" as any other literacy in children, increases considerably. By that is meant for example the ability to differentiate between programs and commercials. It has been found that much younger children are also able to differentiate between these two things but that their judgment is usually based on some immediate characteristic such as length of the program or other perceptual characteristics.

One step further in the development of advertising literacy is to be able to understand the selling intent behind advertising. Previous studies show contradictory results as to whether children, for example in the age group 9-12, understand the selling motive (see Young 1990, Ward, Reale & Levinson 1972, Robertson & Rossiter 1974). Before one can understand the persuasive character of advertising, one has to understand something about the system of advertising and the selling motive behind it.

In the concrete-operational period children should also be able to control their information processing, for example, by avoiding product preference entering into the evaluation of the commercial. This is not to say that product preference could not influence the preference for the commercial or vice versa, but that the child should see these two things separately and tolerate inconsistencies between them.

The stage of development should also have an impact on how the child judges reality within the programs or commercials; does he only refer to something being a "physical impossibility", for example, or can he also evaluate the plausibility of the contents, let's say, happy endings, as compared with their frequency in real life. Consequently, what is meant by the "truthfulness" of advertising means quite different things to children in different periods of development.

An ability which develops later in the concrete-operational stage is the understanding of symbolic meanings and the ability to infer events not presented in the messages, that is, learning how the rhetoric of advertising works (Collins 1979). Belk, Mayer and Driscoll (1984) have also found gender differences in the awareness of consumer symbolism. They also claim that this awareness grows with age in school-age children (in their experiment it grew with children from 9 to 11).

Because the child, during the concrete-operational period, develops schemata which help to handle dramatic information, older children will probably put more emphasis on the story and central information when recalling messages, whereas younger children possibly better recall marginal features and incidental information. Also the ability to infer things or events which are not directly shown grows with age (Alwitt & Mitchell 1985, 177-198). Inferring activities seems to be easier for children than inferring space, personal relations, attitudes, or time.

Impact on affective reactions

According to van Raaij (1986), hierarchy of effects models are not very applicable when studying the effects of tv-advertising on children. The first reaction to a commercial is always an affective one, although, after some cognitive processing, a newBmaybe more detailedBaffective reaction may develop. The importance of affective reactions is based on the dominance of the visual material in the commercials. It works with emotions more directly, whereas textual material requires more explicit cognitive processing. This would lead to the assumption that children's preferences towards individual commercials will be based mainly on emotional arguments. Moreover, younger children at a lower developmental stage would prefer more than older children direct emotional messages with as little informational content as possible. On the other hand, we have to add that, in direct measurement, adults, too, tend to prefer commercials which appeal to emotion and are entertaining or aesthetically pleasing (Uusitalo 1977).

Some results in reception studies of art suggest that, of the aforementioned aspects, the aesthetic dimension is much more correlated with the cognitive and intellectual competencies of the viewer than with pleasure/hedonistic motivations (Kerttula 1988). Thus, it is probable that children, who usually have less developed cultural competencies for enjoying the aesthetic aspects of TV advertising than adults, will, instead, emphasize the entertaining aspects.

So, preferences for different message types can be very much dependent on the developmental stage of children, e.g. on their ability to recognize and interpret symbolic meanings, stories, humor etc. We may therefore assume that the reasons why they prefer certain advertisements can be quite different for children at different developmental stages. We can also conclude that children in general will probably prefer entertaining aspects over informational aspects in advertising.

Cognitive competencies intermingle with children's affective reactions also through the idea of "optimal comprehension content". Usually children do not like programs targeted at adults (e.g. if they are too informative or too exciting), but neither do they favor material directed at a lower comprehension level than themselves (Alwitt & Mitchell 1985, 177-198). According to this, it can be assumed that children prefer commercials especially targeted at children of their own age over those targeted at adult consumers or younger children. However, it can be added that previous familiarity with the product class or product brand advertised can often be assumed for commercials targeted at children and, therefore, it is somewhat difficult to differentiate these optimal comprehension effects from the effects of product involvement on advertising preferences.

The hypotheses discussed in this chapter will be explored with the help of empirical data from an qualitative research in which children were interviewed in experimental viewing situations. The qualitative research design followed a 'hermeneutic or interpretative style' by starting from a loose framework (Figure 1) and a theme questionnaire, letting children discuss freely but taking care that every important issue was covered, and trying, by analysis of these discussions, to find support or contradictory results for the above mentioned ideas.

Cognitive reactions were measured with the help of comprehension and recall of message contents, affective reactions with the help of the children's expressed preferences or rejection of commercials. A behavioral component was not central to this study, but it was, however, measured on a general level by asking whether the children remembered asking their parents to buy some product or service which they had seen in commercials. As background factors, we considered the children's TV viewing habits and parental influence.


A convenience sample of 41 children was selected from a suburban school in Helsinki. The sample consisted of 18 children in the first grade (age 7-8) and 23 children in the fourth grade (age 10-11). Both age groups were interviewed separately. Each age group was further divided into smaller groups (of 5 to 6 children each) in order to facilitate and encourage discussion. In all, seven group discussions were conducted by the researcher. The group sessions lasted 25-45 minutes.

The children's own teacher introduced the researcher but was not present in the discussion. The sessions took place in a school class during the normal school day, and all discussions were tape recorded in order to give the researcher more time to observe also the non-verbal behaviour of the children.

The sample of nine commercials which were shown to the children were selected from current campaigns of the commercial television channel MTV. The commercials were selected to represent both adult-directed and children-directed advertising. Moreover, the commercials included both informative and emotional kinds (e.g. using music, humor). The description of the commercials is in Appendix 1.

Group discussions started with general background questions concerning the children's viewing habits and program preferences, the influence of parents and friends on their viewing, and the children's own attitudes towards television advertising. After that, the nine selected commercials were shown to the children, stopping for discussion and evaluation, three commercials at a time. In evaluating their liking for or dislike of the commercials, the older children used the 7-point school grading scale (from 4 to 10) with which they were familiar, and the younger children a 5-point "face scale" (e.g., Wells 1965, Marschall & Rossman 1988, 89).


Children's television habits, general attitudes and parental influence

All the children had adopted a positive attitude towards television viewing and television advertising as a natural element of their life. Parents seem not to limit children's viewing very much as far as the content of program is concerned. However, parents tend to be present when very exciting programs and films (of the "Killer whale" type) are viewed. Viewing limits are set by bedtime (8.30-10.00), whereafter viewing is not allowed but, in group discussions, only a few children admitted having to follow such rules. Girls seem to be more independent and human drama-oriented in their program choices than boys, who often consult their father about the program and follow his habits, especially in favoring sports viewing.



Younger children tend to concentrate on children's programs (comic strips, Ankronika, Zorro, Wilhelm Tell) but they view all the popular family series as well (e.g., Bill Cosby, studio competitions and the popular "mating" program Napakymppi). American crime, police and lawyer series were usually popular among the older children.

The children were not interested in documentary or news programs, neither did they like children's programs directed at younger, pre-school children. The only exception to this are comic strips. Some of the younger children said that they do not like too exciting programs like horror films or Tarzan. Some older boys also rejected the "mating" program.

When watching early evening or morning programs, children tend to play alongside the television viewing, whereas viewing will intensify towards the end of the evening.

The children were also asked to recall any commercials which they either liked or disliked. They said that they liked program preadvertising which they included in commercials. Moreover they recalled several vigorous, powerful commercials (e.g. soft drinks) or commercials with humor (e.g. a margarine commercial in which the husband goes on a boating picnic and leaves his wife on the shore because he's so busy enjoying his bread and margarine). The majority of the children preferred commercials with a story. The younger children recalled especially well commercials using pencil drawn figures or comic strip techniques. Many commercials were also recalled through the music or the song melody (the children recalled and sang several of them), or by some final punch line which children or their parents go on utilizing as a piece of humor in everyday contexts.

When recalling disliked commercials, gender-related product group and creative style seemed to have an effect: girls disliked car and household appliance commercials, whereas boys disliked clothing or detergent commercials. Older boys also rejected commercials with heavy sexual reference (e.g. a Lipton tea commercial where a young couple, half naked, are having their morning tea after a night spent together).

When discussing the disliked commercials, children spontaneously took up the question of commercial breaks. They were very irritated by the number of commercials in their favorite programs and by the interruptions in viewing caused by commercial breaks. They were extremely angry that one of their favorite comic strip programs had recently been canceled in a Saturday morning program, and for this they blamed the heavy number of commercials which had taken the time instead.

The children were also asked whether they remembered any commercial which had made them persuade their parents to buy the product. Product requests were common before birthdays or Christmas (toys, walkman stereos, sweets). Moreover, some children had, after getting the idea from commercials, asked their parents to take the whole family to a certain leisure park or for a leisure boat cruise.

The above mentioned results were based on general discussion with the children. Next, we will turn to the results of the discussion and evaluation which took place after the children had watched the selected nine commercials on a video tape.

Cognitive reactions to commercials

All the children in the older age group (10-11) knew that commercials are shown on television for the purpose of selling products, whereas the younger children (7-8) became very quiet and insecure when this question was taken up. One child suggested vaguely the purpose of selling, but in most answers children thought that commercials were invented for "filling up the otherwise empty time between programs". A clear difference seems to exist between the 10-11 and the 7-8 year old children with regard to the understanding of the selling intent and commercial television system behind commercials.

All the children recalled well the commercials just shown andBwith a couple of exceptions in the younger groupB knew very well what was being advertised and where the product could be bought. All the children could also differentiate between their opinion about the commercial and their opinion about the advertised product, and an inconsistency between them was tolerated (as with, for example, the commercials of the PIRKKA-food chain and VOLVO car which they did not like but, at the same time, believed that PIRKKA food products are good and VOLVO is a good, safe car.) The ability to keep attitudes about the commercial and the product separate from each other shows competence in rational thinking.

Activities took a central place in the children's descriptions of the commercials, which supports the idea of Alwitt and Mitchell that, when inferring things not shown in the commercial, it is easiest to infer activities, i.e. what people are explicitly doing in the commercial.

The younger children, however, recalled and paid more attention to details, e.g. figures in the ad or gestures of the persons in the ad (e.g. the gesture of showing that the knives and forkes are missing in McDONALD'S, or the gesture of greeting in the REISSUMIES ryebread commercial). It seems plausible that children emphasize non-verbal communication in commercials not only for cognitive reasons but also because they use it quite often in their own daily communication.

Children in the older age group paid more attention to a "good story" in commercials. The older children could also make intertextual comparisons; they noticed, for example, that the idea of the REISSUMIES bread commercial was borrowed from the film "Star wars", which it "imitated badly".

The cognitive differences in schema development between the two age groups were also shown in their sense of humor. Both groups, for example, thought that the SISU candy commercial was very funny, but they gave very different reasons for this. Older children thought that it was funny because of the story: in a triathlon race, a young girl beats the boy who is the Finnish champion just by taking some SISU (meaning "guts") pastilles. The younger children said it was funny because some competitors coming out of the water "looked like frogs in their diving suits".

Moreover, the sensitivity to truthfulness differed between the age groups. The older boys especially were very concerned at finding "lying" in the commercials. However, the "untruthfulness" did not always relate to the selling argument but instead to the realism of the events. The SISU commercial was untruthful because in real life "a woman could by no means beat the champion", or because, in the JUNIOR COLGATE toothpaste commercial, the "drummer does not really drum".

Affective reactions to commercials

The children's opinions about the commercials were to a large extent based on emotional arguments, which supports the idea that the first reaction is usually an affective one. Emotional appeals (vigor, humor, etc.) attract more attention than informative contents, and emotional, funny, lively commercials were preferred to informational ones.

Both age groups were quite similar in their preferences for the commercials. Appendix figure shows the preferences (average grades) for different commercials in the two age groups. The results measured by face scale for the younger group have been transformed into the "school grade" used by the older children.

Both age groups gave the lowest value to the informational commercials targeted at adult viewers (PIRKKA food chain, VOLVO car). The younger age group was slightly more positive towards the two commercials with the highest distribution of opinion and falling between the most and least preferred commercials (THOMPSON TV of Mustap├Ěrssi-chain and REISSUMIES ryebread).

For both age groups, the most preferred commercials included children-directed McDonald's, SISU candies, JUNIOR COLGATE toothpaste, and FANTA soft drink. SISU was most preferred in the age group 7-8 and FANTA in the age group 10-11. FANTA is very vigorous with much action and strong music, and is more directed at teenage children. The older age group valued it considerably higher than the younger. The younger, again, put the fairy tale-like, smooth and quiet commercial of FAZER confectionery much higher than the older children.

Extremely few gender differences were found in the opinions, the only exception being in the younger age group in which the FAZER-commercial was unanimously liked by girls. This is understandable, because a girl of exactly their own age is the main figure in the story and serves as a perfect identification object to girls.

We can conclude that children usually prefer children-targeted, entertaining and funny commercials. Children aged 10-11 tend to identify themselves with teenagers and like the noisy and lively style adopted in commercials directed at them, whereas younger children still appreciate a quieter, a not so fast but, at the same time, fantasy-feeding way of presenting products.


School children aged 7 to 11 show a good ability to handle and interpret commercial information. They also have explicit preferences as to the style of commercials and even about their number and placing in programs. They are very receptive to commercials and have a common positive attitude towards emotionally appealing advertising.

However, there are still great differences between younger and older children in their cognitive reactions, ways of interpreting messages and how they recognize the persuasive selling motive behind them. The ability to use schemata and handle dramatic information, to infer events not directly seen, to judge what is authentic and true, all develop considerably from age 7-8 to 10-11.

At 7-8, children are just reaching the concrete-operational period and still have difficulty in seeing the "wood for the trees". On the other hand, they take advantage of this and find many interesting and amusing things in commercials which remain unrecognized by the adult viewer. From commercials, children pick up phrases, melodies and gestures which they use in their daily life. They play with the content of commercials rather than take them as serious product information.

By 10-11, at the end of the concrete-operational stage, cognitive skills have developed considerably, and children develop a slightly more critical attitude towards advertising, especially towards its "untruthful" rhetoric. However, preferences for various commercials have not changed much as compared with the younger children. Children at this age start to identify with teenagers, but they still reject commercials which are directed at young adults (e.g, commercials with sexual content). Children do not only learn best if the material is optimal for their comprehension, but also in symbolic matters children tend to prefer things which are optimally fitting for their present life values.

Children do not restrict themselves to children's programs but follow popular adult series as well and, consequently, are exposed as much to adult-directed as children-directed advertising. Some of this overload they will ignore as incomprehensible or uninteresting but all emotionally appealing advertising receives attention from them. Therefore, there might be some truth in the claim that the child's experience can be saturated by illusory experiences through television, and that real experiences after that seem to become very weak and superficial. Perhaps children unconsciously fight against this impact by expressing their dislike for adult-directed commercials.

"Television literacy" is thus a more complicated concept than literacy in the normal meaning of reading. It is also much more difficult to measure. It is obvious that the stage of development has a strong impact on children's television literacy and reactions to television advertising. However, to show the exact impact is very complicated because age is a very rough measure of the developmental stage, and individual differences are fairly significant.



1. PIRKKA-branded products of the K-food store chain.

There are no people in the ad, only branded food products. Products are presented with smooth colors in a summer frame. A male voice emphasizes that these products always have a beneficial price-quality relationships.

2. MCDONALD'S as family restaurant

There is a story in the ad which is told (in singing) by a male voice: children take their grandfather to McDonald's. The children are familiar with the place, but for everything is new to grandfather. The personnel and the customers are friendly and smiling. After tasting the hamburger grandfather seems to be positively surprised.

3. SISU pastilles ("GUTS" candies)

The commercial shows a triathlon-sports contest, and the male voice speaks like a sports reporter. The young champion Pauh Kiuru seems to be winning, but a young female admirer of him takes SISU candies ("Guts") and becomes extraordinary powerful and wins. The takes place in Firuiish summer surroundings.


The ad shows real children on a sketched (pencil drawn) background. ne children form a rock band, in which a sketched toothpaste tube sings in English. The ad is full of action. It ends with a male voice telling in Finnish that Junior Colgate " for you and other supers".

5. THOMPSON TV of the MUSTAP-RSSI electronics chain

The humorous figures familiar from other MUSTAP_RSSI ads are present: aplump elderly, good-hearted male called Topi and a younger couple. The story starts with the woman telling that she wants to have aTHOMPSON TV. All three go together to a MUSTAP_RSSI store, and also Topi finds an own THOMPSONTV-set. The ad relies on Topi's humorous figure and familiarity with earlier similar stories with him.

6. REISSUMIES ryebread (="Wanderer's" ryebread)

The ad has brownish colors, the figures consist of the male wanderer/daredevil and tiny strangers, faceless figures, dressed in cape, who show great curiosity towards the wanderer who sits and eats his bread. The wanderer gives some bread to taste to the strangers, and stands up and continues his travel. The ad is adventurous and exciting, the small figures do not say anything. In the end a male voice states: "..and the travel goes on".

7. FAZER 100 years

Fazer confectionery and bakery manufacturer celebrates its anniversary with this ad. A story is told in the ad: Children clothed as in the early 1900's leave their school. It is snowing. On her way home, a 7-8 year old girl passes on to look at the window of the FAZER bakery shop. 'Me fairy tale pictures in the window become real and alive and children in various role-dresses (cook, clown etc.) start to make FAZER products (sweets and cakes etc). In the end of the ad, a male voice tells that FAZER celebrates this year its birthday " probably you do. Why not celebrate it together!"


In this very speedy ad a male voice sings in English. The ad has been filmed in summer surroundings and it demonstrates a group of adolescents, approximately 20 years old. In the end, a female voice tells (in Finnish) a linguistic joke: "Fanta went into mandarins. You find it also light."


The camera follows a VOLVO driving in a deserted forest landscape with lots of snow. The brand name appears a couple of times across the tv window. A pleasant background music is the only audio material in the ad. In the end a low male voice tells the familiar VOLVO slogan (in Finnish): "Think what you drive. Volvo."



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Liisa Uusitalo, Helsinki School of Economics, Finland
Virpi Takala, Helsinki School of Economics, Finland


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1 | 1993

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