The Role of Mass Media in the Consumer Socialization of Chinese Children

ABSTRACT - This study assesses the extent and nature of mass media as agents of Chinese children’s consumer socialization by comparing them with interpersonal relations and stores as sources of new product information. The results from administering questionnaires to 409 Beijing elementary school children and their parents unexpectedly show that mass media rank above both interpersonal relations (family, friends) and stores as information sources. Further, television is the most important of the mass media for information as well as entertainment. Effects of age, gender, and family occupation were measured.


James U. McNeal and Mindy F. Ji (1998) ,"The Role of Mass Media in the Consumer Socialization of Chinese Children", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, eds. Kineta Hung and Kent B. Monroe, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 6-12.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998      Pages 6-12


James U. McNeal, Texas A&M University, U.S.A.

Mindy F. Ji, Texas A&M University, U.S.A.


This study assesses the extent and nature of mass media as agents of Chinese children’s consumer socialization by comparing them with interpersonal relations and stores as sources of new product information. The results from administering questionnaires to 409 Beijing elementary school children and their parents unexpectedly show that mass media rank above both interpersonal relations (family, friends) and stores as information sources. Further, television is the most important of the mass media for information as well as entertainment. Effects of age, gender, and family occupation were measured.


Children learn consumer-related skills, knowledge, and attitudes through interaction with various social agents in specific social settings. The process is usually termed consumer socialization (Ward, 1974) and provides a conceptual guideline in this study for assessing children’s selection and utilization of sources of information about new products and services. While parents are considered the primary socialization agents, "no other agent of consumer socialization has received more attention [in the literature] than the mass media" (Moschis, 1987, p. 121). Both advertising and editorial/program content of mass media provid children knowledge and guidance in their consumer behavior development (O’Guinn and Shrum, 1997). Through mass media children may learn about new brands and products (Goldberg, Gorn, and Gibson, 1978), how to use products and who uses them (Atkin, 1978), realities and beliefs about them (Gorn and Florsheim, 1985), and preferences for them (Gorn and Goldberg, 1977). Thus, the interactions between mass media and the public-children and adults- are very important to marketing managers who, in effect, believe that what is prominent in the media becomes salient in the public’s mind, and in turn produces consumer related behaviors such as shopping and purchasing (Sutherland and Galloway, 1981; Wartella, 1981). This thinking is particularly important in the case of children where it is believed that many of the consumer attitudes and behaviors they develop will be applied throughout much of their lives (Guest, 1955; McNeal, 1987).

Ward, et. al. (1977) postulated that "a basic component of children’s learning about the marketplace is knowledge of sources of information about products" (p. 56). They examined children’s awareness of sources of new product information by asking some kindergarteners, third, and sixth graders where they would find out about three kinds of new products: toys, snack foods, and clothing. They classified the children’s responses into three basic sources-mass media, interpersonal, and stores-and compared the role of each source in children’s learning about new products. In general they found that (pp. 56-59):

1.  In-store experiences are the primary source of new product information for all ages.

2.  Mass media constitute the second most important source for all children, and particularly for the older children, with television being first, newspapers second, and catalogs third.

3.  Interpersonal sources generally rank third in importance, becoming more important with age mainly due to the growing influence of peers.

A serious shortcoming of the work by Ward and his co-researchers, and of later researchers who were influenced by them, is that it focused only on the commercial contents of mass media as consumer socialization agents and disregarded the potential effects of programming (of television and radio) and editorial content (of newspapers and magazines). Actually, it is virtually impossible to separate the influence of these two media elements in real life, particularly in the case of younger children who may be unable to discriminate between programs and commercials (Ward et. al., 1977; Meringoff and Lesser, 1980). Therefore, most consumer researchers focus only on advertising because of its intent to produce consumer behavior and tend to ignore or not account for the influences of editorial and programming content. However, a recent study by O’Guinn and Shrum (1997) did focus on the role of television programming in the consumer socialization of adults and demonstrated that it is a major source of information about the prevalence of products and services in the lives of consumers of various subcultures and income groups.

The measured influence of mass media on children’s consumer socialization probably is understated in many cases since much of its impact is subtle and indirect. Children seek out mass media for information and entertainment and during their interactions with them may let down their cognitive defenses, to the extent they exist, and messages from commercials and programming/editorial content may get through (Krugman, 1965; Moschis, 1987). Thus, mere exposure to mass media can effect changes in consumer behavior and thinking such as awareness and liking of a brand of a product and subsequent identification of it on the shelf during shopping. Further, this impact of the mass mediaon children may be indirectly felt by a second party, the parents of the children. Children who receive messages from the media may in turn convey these messages to their parents, perhaps in the form of requests for products. For example, Caron and Ward (1975) found that around half of third and sixth-grade children mentioned television as a source of information about gifts they would like to receive for Christmas, and Galst and White (1976) found children’s product requests to parents were related to viewing of television. Finally, the amount of interaction with media appears to be positively related to learning consumer behavior. That is, the more that children interact with mass media, the more consumer socialization takes place (Moschis and Churchill, 1978; Moschis and Moore, 1982; O’Guinn and Shrum, 1997). However, as Ward (1980) warns, we do not know how much of this change in consumer socialization is due to the combined influence of media and other sources such as parents and stores.

While mass media as consumer socialization agents of children have received much attention in the United States, scant attention has been paid to them in the most populated nation in the world-China. China’s rapid change to a market-driven economy is producing an average annual economic growth rate of 8% or more, far greater than that of any large nation, and that is in a country that is still around 75% rural. It is China’s urban areas that are producing most of its economic growth. For example, its 10 largest cities contain only 4% of its population but account for 22 % of earning power and 19% of discretionary spending (Market: Asia Pacific, 1996b). A recent study of Chinese consumption patterns by Euromonitor shows increasing growth and sophistication of retailing and media as a direct response to the growth in consumer spending (Market: Asia Pacific, 1996a). The rapid development of television broadcasting has been most notable. For instance, in 1995 there were 114 color TV’s per 100 households (a similar number for radio) in Beijing compared with only 36 in 1987, and there were eight national channels and 12 local channels broadcasting 128 hours of programs for children per week compared to only three channels ten years earlier and virtually no specific programs for children (Beijing Statistical Bureau, 1996). Today, a glance at China Television Guide in Beijing shows that the content of programming that targets children consists of one to two hours of cartoon entertainment in the morning for preschoolers, and one to two hours of entertainment, such as kids clubs programs and cartoons, after school for school-age children. The remaining hours that children might view television, with their parents or alone, tended to have an educational bend such as teaching values, English, singing, and other school topics. Radio still targets adults primarily, but there tends to be some after school programming, usually for one hour or less, that targets children with both education and entertainment. Similar growth in new print media also has occurred, and today Beijing has 240 newspapers and 1884 magazines with a small percent of each targeting the youth culture (Beijing Statistics Bureau, 1996). Both newspaper and magazine content that targets children tends toward the educational with very little that children would see as fun.

The commercial content among print media that target children can generally be described as sparse. There is maybe one advertisement, at most, per children’s magazine or newspaper, and it is usually targeted to parents and typically focuses on health and/or educational products. Commercials tend to be more prevalent in broadcast media. There is usually a 15-second commercial before and after each radio program and each television program that targets children. These ads are usually directed to children and in around 80 percent of the cases present messages about foods and beverages, while the remainder consists of messages for toiletries, school supplies, and video game software (McNeal, Ji, and Wang, 1997).

Compared to the rapid changes in the Chinese mass media industry, the study of media usage, especially aong Chinese children, is far behind and not comprehensive. For example, one recent study reported by Xia and Liu (1997) stated that 58.2% of parents are worried about TV taking up too much of children’s homework time, but it did not say how much time they were devoting to it. Another survey conducted recently in Beijing found that 43% of elementary and middle school students watch cartoon programs each day (Yuan, 1997), but there was no mention of other programming or of other media. McNeal and Yeh (1997) recently investigated the development of consumer behavior patterns among Chinese children and showed that they are actively involved in the consumer role, but the researchers did not specifically examine the children’s interactions with mass media.

We attempted what appears to be the first study of the role of mass media in the consumer socialization of Chinese children in order to learn the extent to which the children interact with mass media and utilize them as sources of information about new products, that is, products new to them. We asked the children about new products, rather than products in general, in order to cue their knowledge of sources of information since learning about products for the first time is fundamental to learning about the marketplace (Ward et. al., 1977). It is known that young children, particularly those under age eight, have trouble discerning sources of information such as media, stores, and parents, while older children do well in this effort (Ward et. al., 1977). Taking this into consideration, we directed our inquiry to Chinese children above the age of eight. Mass media in this study consisted of newspapers, magazines, radio, and television; it did not include catalogs as Ward et. al. (1977) did since catalogs are virtually nonexistent in China. We hypothesized that:

1.  Mass media as sources of new product information are important to Chinese children but less important than interpersonal or in-store sources. In China the basic social unit is the family, and its maintenance becomes the responsibility of the first born male child (Yau, 1988). The family lives for the child; the child for the family, is a popular saying in China. Therefore, the family theoretically should be the most important source of virtually all information for children. Stores (including street merchants) are expected to be next in importance. As a normal part of family life, parents (and sometimes grandparents) regularly take children shopping with them and almost always buy something for them (McNeal and Yeh, 1997). Moreover, when children are old enough they are permitted to go to stores alone and buy things for themselves, although they also continue to shop regularly with their parents. McNeal and Yeh (1997) found that over 2/3 of Chinese children age seven and virtually all at age eight go shopping on their own. Therefore, children are likely to see stores as important new product information sources since they make purchase-visits to them regularly and since they are tacitly blessed by the family. Mass media, then, are likely to be third in importance behind interpersonal and in-store sources, particularly since they are primarily oriented to adults (Johnstone, 1996).

2.  The function of mass media for Chinese children will be primarily educational rather than entertainment. Chinese parents instill in their children at a very early age the belief that a good education is one of the most worthy goals (Shao and Herbig, 1994). The parents try to insure that virtually every activity their children undertake has some contribution to learning. Therefore, we expect that children will look to the media primarily for education, or useful information, and only secondarily for entertainment. During the time of this study there were approximately 114 television sets per 100 urban households (Beijing Statistical Bureau, 1996). Given that there is one television set per household, television viewing is mainly a family activity and a recent study confirms this showing that family television viewing is near the top of the list of parents’ desired weekend activities (McNeal and Ji, 1996. Thus, we would expect the parents to focus on educational programming when the children are viewing with them.

3.  Television will be the most important of the mass media as a source of new product information for children. Even though television is the newest medium in China, it is expanding fast with new channels, stations, and programming, including some for children. Of all mass media, television appears to be positioning itself for children most (Johnstone, 1996). It is expected that the increasing children oriented advertising and programming arriving by cable from Western origins (Wang, 1996) will tweak children’s interests in products from the West.

4.  Children who are heavy users of a mass medium will rely on it more than light users as a source of new product information. In general past research suggests that heavy users of media receive more information and persuasion from them ( O’Guinn and Shrum, 1997; Rossiter, 1981). We expect that if we separate heavy and light users of a medium we will find that the former will rely on it more for information because they turn to it more and consequently receive more communications from it, and probably have more trust/respect/liking for it.




Two questionnaires were utilized in this study that were first constructed in English and then translated into Chinese, tested, modified, and tested again. One questionnaire assessed children’s new product information sources, including mass media, and the other the extent and nature of their usage of four major mass media-TV, radio, magazines and newspapers. The questionnaires were distributed to 430 children in grades 4-6 in schools selected by education officials to be representative of urban Beijing. Children in these grades were chosen because they were expected to be mature enough, in or beyond the "concrete operational stage" of Piaget (1952) where they could sort objects such as media and evaluate them ( Ward, et. al., 1977; McNeal, 1987). Children were further grouped into youngest (8 and 9 years), middle (10 and 11), and oldest (12 and 13) for convenience of analysis recognizing that within the age range of 8-13 years children’s information processing abilities such as reading and listening abilities expand with age. The children were administered one questionnaire at school regarding their new product information sources, and instructed to take the other about their media usage habits home to their parents for completion and return it to their teachers within three days. A small gift was promised to the children to encourage the return of it. A net total of 409 children and their corresponding families completed the questionnaires with 47.7% from girls and 52.3% from boys. All questionnaires sent to parents were completed by mothers who in 98.9% of the cases had only one child. The sample composition was as shown in Figure 1. In addition, all households in this study owned at least one television set and one radio, and 90.71 percent subscribed or bought at least one newspaper for children and 70.42 percent subscribed or bought at least one children’s magazine.

The new product information sources questionnaire administered to children consisted of two parts. In the first part age and gender were obtained. In the second part eight sources of new product information, which were identified by an earlier pilot study, were listed and children were asked to rank the three most important ones with a 1, 2, or 3. (Ranking is a concept widely utilized in Chinese children’s education and therefore easily understood by them at these ages.) We specifically asked for information sources for products new to the children rather than for specific products such as toys or snacks as done by previous researchers Ward, et al.(1977), in order to cue the children toward sources in general rather than just toward media and media advertising as we believe product lists tend to do. Also, we did not want to inadvertently excludethe consideration of programming as a source of information. The second questionnaire about children’s media usage habits, which was coded to correspond to each child who completed a questionnaire, was taken home by each child to his or her parents. The first part of it asked for father’s occupation and the number of children in the household. Occupations for those employed were later grouped into either blue-collar or white-collar according to the perceptions of the investigator from China, with white-collar embracing the professions such as accounting and teaching and blue-collar representing the skilled workers such as truck driver and factory worker. Additionally, there was a request for information about ownership of radio and television sets and subcriptions of magazines and newspapers. A second part consisted of four three-part questions about their children’s media use-do they watch TV, listen to the radio, read newspapers and magazines, if so, what kinds of programs/materials do they regularly watch/listen to/read, and how much time do they devote to each.

Analysis of the questionnaires was conducted by researchers from China and from the USA. Data were examined mainly by age as is typically done in consumer behavior studies of children. Chi-square tests of independence were used to explore the differences among age groups. The findings were also examined for effects of gender and parents’ occupation.


Profile of Chinese Children’s Media Usage

Table 1 shows the percent of Chinese children who use each of four media and the average total hours they devote to them each week according to their parents. Confirming our expectations (hypothesis 3), TV viewing (97.3%) is much more common than readership of newspapers (72%) and magazines (60.4%) and radio listening (38.9%). Moreover, the time that Chinese children devote to watching TV (17.2 hours) each week is much greater than the total spent on reading newspapers (2.7 hours) and magazines (2.6 hours) and listening to the radio (6.3 hours). The average of 17.2 hours a week of TV viewing results from an average of 1.75 hours during week days and 4.19 hours on weekend days. An average standard deviation for boys and girls of 2.9 suggests substantial variation in viewing time. Some gender differences were observed for three of the four media. Boys watch significantly more TV than girls on weekends (4.8 hours versus 3.8 hours, t=2.46, p=0.014), and their readership of magazines is slightly higher than that of girls (64.49% versus 55.32%, X2=3.51, df=1, p=0.061). However, girls’ readership of newspapers is significantly higher than that of boys (77.65% versus 68.22%, X2=4.48, df=1, p=0.034). Age and family occupation have no effect on children’s media usage.



Relationships among Chinese children’s usage of the four mass media described above were examined. We found that the 38.9% of the children who listen to radio are more likely to read newspapers (X2=10.421, df=1, p=0.001) and magazines (X2=7.245, df=1, p=0.007) compared to those who do not listen to the radio. On the other hand, heavy TV viewers (defined as those that watch more than 20 hours a week, one standard deviation above the average) are less likely to read newspapers than medium and light TV viewers (respectively defined as those that watch 14-20 hours per week and those that watch less than 14 hours a week, one standard deviation below the mean) (X2=8.746, df=2, p=0.013).

Content of Chinese Children’s Media Consumption

Parents were asked to list the types of television programs their children watch, the types of radio programs they listen to, and the types of newspapers and magazines they read. These results were summarized and an attempt was made to dichotoize the media as being mainly for educational or entertainment purposes in order to determine their primary function.

Television. The TV programs that Chinese children most frequently watch are cartoons (33.2%) followed by movies/plays for children (14.2%) and kids club programs (11.2%). Their remaining viewing (41.4%) consists of a relatively wide range of adult-oriented programs that include news, sports, and music. Contrary to our hypothesis 2, it appears that except for news the primary function of most television programming chosen by Chinese children is mainly entertainment, although some of the plays and kids club programs as well as some of the adult programming in addition to the news have some educational value.

Radio. Among the radio programs that Chinese children listen to, an unexpectedly large proportion are adult-oriented consisting of news (21.2%), plays and story telling series (20.8%), music (20.5%), and comedy dialogues (17.6%). All but the news appear to have entertainment value. Only 19.9% of the programs they listen to are targeted to children specifically and they usually are intended to be educational such as (translated) "Little Gloria" and "The World of Kids" both of which teach children how to sing, how to tell a story, and how to develop good character. Thus, in the case of radio it is estimated that except for news and kids programs (41.1%), the majority of radio listening, like television viewing, has an entertainment purpose.

Newspapers. The most popular newspapers read by Chinese children in this study are (translated) Learning How to Write (27.2%), Star and Torch (29.3%), and The Youth Newspaper (26.6%). The latter two newspapers have a general education format with sections on science, history, literature, and news, while the former narrowly focuses on writing and reading skills. A relatively high percent of what the children read (26.9%) consists of daily newspapers for adults, mainly (translated) The People’s Daily and Beijing Evening News. Virtually all of the newspaper reading serves an educational function, thus supporting our hypothesis 2.

Magazines. Chinese children read a very wide range of magazines whose principle topics are children’s literature (47.5%), writing guidance for elementary school students (25.0%), and science reading (19.2%). A small portion of them (8.3%) are specifically entertainment reading for adult. Like newspaper reading, magazine reading is primarily educational.

Relative Importance of Media as New Product Information Sources

In order to determine the relative importance of mass media in providing information about products, we ask children to report their three most important sources of new product information among a list of eight sources that children had said they use in an earlier pilot study. Further, we asked children to rank the three most important sources with a 1, 2, or 3 (most important to least important) to try to get to the relative value of each in their minds. The rankings for all of the eight sources, including four mass media, are displayed in Table 2.

Total rankings are the highest for television with 76.28% of the children ranking it either 1, 2, or 3. It also receives by far the largest number of first place rankings from the 409 children, 196 compared to 82 for parents who were next in first place rankings as well as overall. The other mass media-newspapers, radio, and magazines-rank fifth, sixth, and seventh overall behind parents, store visits, and friends. Thus, TV stands alone in rankings well above the other media and much more so than we expected. When the eight sources were categorized into mass media, interpersonal, and stores, mass media scored highest in first place rankings with 258, followed by 118 for interpersonal, and 22 for stores. In total rankings, mass media were also highest with 599 (48.81%), followed by 382 (31.13%) for interpersonal sources, and 167 (13.61%) for store visits. Thus mass edia constitute the dominant new product information source for Chinese children due mainly to the heavy influence of the relatively new medium of television. Although our findings show television is children’s major entertainment medium, it also serves as their major informational source probably as a result of a relatively great deal of fun-oriented educational programming and frequent advertising, both of which are in contrast to most print materials that target them.



From the standpoint of age, television’s influence increases significantly as children get older (X2 =23.883, df =2, p=0.000) while that of magazines, newspapers, and radio remains relatively constant at their lower levels. Gender-wise, magazines are more important to boys than girls (17.29% vs. 7.89%, X2=7.704, df=1, p=0.006). Children whose parents are blue-collar workers are more likely to rank newspapers one of their three most important information sources (38.71%) as compared to children of white-collar workers (26.79%), or those whose parents are unemployed (25.00%) (X2=6.828, df=2, p=0.033).

We were surprised by the lesser role of interpersonal sources in providing the children new product information in view of the supreme importance of the family in Chinese society. Further analysis by age of children revealed that friends become more important information sources as the children grow older (X2=8.463, df=2, p=0.015), which is consistent with Ward (1977) findings, while grandparents lose most of their influence (X2=24.024, df=2, p=0.000) and that of the parents declines slightly but not significantly. Thus, parents do appear to be a fairly constant new product information source for the children. Contrary to our hypothesis, however, parents are not more important than media even when their influence is combined with that of grandparents and friends.

Different from Ward’s study and our hypothesis, stores visits ranked third overall with only 22 (5.37%) children designating it as the first most important new product information source. This relatively low ranking is consistent across gender and age groups. Perhaps this difference is due to self-service not being common among any Chinese store types and therefore Chinese children can seldom reach and examine products on the shelves by themselves. In fact, they often cannot see them at all because they are located behind counters that block their vision.

We looked at users of each mass medium in order to determine if involvement in a medium related to perceiving the medium as an important new product information source as we suggested in our hypothesis 4. In the case of TV the more time children devote to watching it, the more important it is regarded as a new product information sourceC86.23% of heavy TV viewers, 79.14% of moderate TV viewers, and 62.88% of light viewers (X2=21.285, df=2, p=0.000), thus supporting our hypothesis. There was a tendency for heavy TV viewers (46.38%) to regard friends as one of their most important sources of information as compared to moderate (37.41%), and light viewers (32.58%) (X2=5.598, df=2, p=0.061), but this relationship is probably due to age intervention, that is, as children get older they tend to watch more TV and concurrently turn to friends as more important information sources.

In the case of the other media, however, there appears to be less enthusiasm for them as new product information sources even when there is significant involvement with them. For example, only a slightly higher percent of radio listeners (28.93%) reported radio as one of their most important sources than those who do not listen to it (21.60%) (X2=2.828, df=1, p=0.093). And those children who regularly read newspapers and magazines do not look on them as significantly more important sources of new product information than those that don’t. Thus, our hypothesis that heavy medium users place heavy reliance on it as an information source holds only for television and not for radio, newspapers and magazines.


This study of the role of mass media in the consumer socialization of Chinese children produced some unexpected findings that did not support three of our four hypotheses. Contrary to our first hypothesis, mass media as sources of new product information are more important than parents, a surprising finding in view of the strong family orientation in the Chinese culture but one that is fairly consistent with findings of Ward et. al.(1977) among children in the United States. Likewise, mass media are used much more than store visits as new product information sources, a finding unlike that of Ward et. al. (1977). Clearly the key to these surprising findings is the very important informational role being played by television in addition to its major entertainment role. It may be that as suggested by some writers (Crowell and Hsieh, 1995; Goll, 1995) new products of interest to Chinese children are those from the West, and mass media, particularly television with it increasing amount of programming and advertising that originates from Western sources (Kraar, 1994), conveys information about these products that Chinese parents may not possess. Also, as noted earlier, the low ranking of stores as information sources relative to their highest ranking in the Ward (1977) study is likely due to the low level of self-service in China and thus the lack of opportunity to touch and try the merchandise.

We expected the predominance of television over the other mass media but not to the extent that our findings show. Even though television is the newest of the mass media in China, it appears that its entertainment value along with its information value is very appealing to children, so much so that they are willing to set aside their use of other media. For example, those children that are heavy users of TV are less likely to read newspapers than moderate and light users. In fact, it appears that the light users of television are regular users of the other media while the heavy users of TV are only sporadic users of the other media. Either most of the children are trying to avoid the strictly educational tone of newspapers and magazines, or they feel that what they obtain from television is educational enough while being entertaining. From a functional standpoint (Moschis, 1987), then, television alone seems to satisfy the needs of many Chinese children that are ordinarily met by the other media while meeting their important need for play (McNeal, 1992). Our hypothesis that children who are heavy users of a mass medium will rely on it more than light users as a source of new product information is only true in the case of television, and again, it appears due to its ability to satisfy multiple needs.

In conclusion, the findings from this study suggest clearly that the TV generation of China is here and now. The children rely on it for new product information more than any other medium, more than they do on stores, and more than they do on parents, grandparents, and friends-in a culture where the basic social unit is the family. Clearly television is having an emancipating effect on China’s children. It is reducing their reliance on interpersonal sources of product information while catering to their need for entertainment. Television’s central informational role makes it the most likely candidate as a communications channel for domestic and international marketing managers looking to target the children of China as consumers.


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James U. McNeal, Texas A&amp M University, U.S.A.
Mindy F. Ji, Texas A&amp M University, U.S.A.


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3 | 1998

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