Aall Changed, Changed Utterly?@ B Kids As Consumers and the Case of Character Toys

ABSTRACT - This paper looks at current perspectives on children as consumers and considers the idea that children are passive, powerless, naive and easily duped. Reporting on some exploratory research with young children aged between 6 and 8 it suggests that this view may be somewhat outdated, at least in regard to children 's use of character toys.



Citation:

David Marshall (2003) ,"Aall Changed, Changed Utterly?@ B Kids As Consumers and the Case of Character Toys", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 137-141.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 137-141

"ALL CHANGED, CHANGED UTTERLY?" B KIDS AS CONSUMERS AND THE CASE OF CHARACTER TOYS

David Marshall, University of Edinburgh, UK

ABSTRACT -

This paper looks at current perspectives on children as consumers and considers the idea that children are passive, powerless, naive and easily duped. Reporting on some exploratory research with young children aged between 6 and 8 it suggests that this view may be somewhat outdated, at least in regard to children 's use of character toys.

INTRODUCTION

'Insides the minds of children is a world of attitudes, knowledge, perceptions and motives that are woven together in ways that we still do not understand very well’ (McNeal 1992).

Today children represent important consumers both in their capacity to influence purchases indirectly and directly as purchasers in their own right. Yet, to date, there has been relatively little research into children as consumers. This paper revisits some of the literature on children as consumers. It reports on a small research study on character toys that suggests why we need to reconsider how we treat these young consumers.

PESTER POWER: CHILDREN AS CONSUMERS

McNeal asserts that 'for children to be considered customers..from a marketer’s standpoint, they must have wants, money to spend and there must be enough of them to make marketing worthwhile’ (1992:4). He conceptualises the children in terms of influencers, primary purchasers, and future consumers and estimates that as influencers they can affect up to 80% of toy purchases (McNeal 1992, Villwock 1997). There is limited evidence of young children (under eight) as primary purchasers although it has been estimated that they spend up to one billion pounds of their own moneyBnot all on toys! (see Villwock 1997). Even when children make purchase decisions with money they control, which McNeal estimates amounts to around $6 billion for the under twelve’s in the US, they do not act independently of peers, parents, siblings or of market influences. Income, spending and the proportion of income spent increases when children start school (McNeal 1992). Most of the attention has focused on what has been termed 'Pester Power’. Influences include active (suggesting, asking, demanding, whining), passive (parents know what their children like) and collegial (parent consultation) demands (Wyckham and Collins- Dodd 1997). This is prevalent in a number of product categories such as frozen novelties and processed fruit snacks (from McNeal) cereals, fast food and sneakers (Guber and Berry 1993). The Advertising Association has produced a guide on 'Pester Power’ in a bid to help parents deal with their children’s demands. Yet research has shown that Pester Power is as common among light/non-television viewers as it is from heavy viewers and more likely to reflect peer influence than television viewing (Buss 1999). One suspects the key lies in what is viewed as opposed to simply level of exposure.

NEWLY EXALTED CONSUMERS

In Miller’s (1998) excellent treatise on shopping in Britain he alludes to the societal shift in emphasis towards children. He refers to the 'devoted mother’ centred on the idea of agapic love in a post feminist era and the rise of the infant as a substitute for the partner as an object of devotion. This is apparent in the extent to which shopping is centred on the infant and what clothing, food and other items children can (and cannot) consume. Consumption in some ways complements the biological link between the mother and child B'as the child develops the mother’s enemy is held to be materialism in the form of anything from television advertisements to indulgent relatives which would seduce the child into independent desires that cannot be fulfilled by the mother. As such materialism itself becomes the instrument by which the child develops its autonomy in the teeth of any narcissistic attempt to retain the infant as the mere continuation of the identity of it’s parents’ (Miller 1998: 124-125). The main issue here is the extent to which children have been exalted as consumers and integrated both directly and indirectly into the consumption process. Despite this we remain ignorant of their consumption practise and much of the basis of our understanding assumes a somewhat passive and easily exploited group.

PASSIVE CONSUMERS?

Childhood continues to be defined by powerlessness and dependence on adults for direction and guidance (Kline 1993), and children are often treated as passive, naive and easily duped by television and advertising. Passivity implies consumers 'lacking assertive skills, knowledge and attitudes relevant to function as consumers in the marketplace’ (Ward 1974). This view prevails when it comes to children and there is a strong protectionist lobby that challenges what, they believe, amounts to manipulation of children as consumers. This is not without good basis and Tomkins (2002) counters the two main arguments put forward by industry. On the first, that children can distinguish between advertising and content, he notes it does not follow that advertising is ineffective in persuading children, or their parents, to part with their cash. One assumes that is why companies continue to target children. On the second, that advertising revenue provides funding for television programming, he suggests this is not a sufficiently good reason to condone it. Moreover he argues that children need to be protected from advertising in the same way that they need to be protected against exposure to tobacco, hard liquor and sex, all of which are legally available (although not to them!). Concerns over the vulnerability of children to commercial manipulation reflects the significant growth in marketing to children through a wide variety of communication media that now extends far beyond television and comics to include communication via licensing, the cinema, internet, national curriculum schools packages, product placements, and van livery (Watts 1999, McNeal 1992, Kline 1993).

Much has been made of the cognitive and motor development in young consumers, and while Piaget’s (1951) theory has been subject to considerable criticism, it continues to feature in the debate about children as consumers. The four stages of cognitive development are sensiormotor (0-2 years), pre-operational (3-7) where children cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality, concrete operational (8-11) when the ability to distinguish between advertising and programming intent, and formal-operational (11-16) when they develop comprehension skills. The development depends on the child’s level of intelligence, culture and class but in the later stages children develop the ability to comprehend, conceptualise and think abstractly. Emergent theories outline the developmental stages and discuss the implications for marketing to children (Roedder-John 1999). Roedder-John proposes three stages of information processing namely limited, cued and strategic processors based on the child’s ability to both store and retrieve information. Much of this work centres on the child’s ability to recognise persuasive intent and develop critical facilities to deal with advertising yet there is no exploration of how children view advertising and what they see as the rationale for this promotional activity (Lawlor and Prothero 2002).

The debate about children has focused on their engagement with marketing communications, and ability to understand and comprehend the commercial messages (Preston 2000, Young 2000, Bergler 1999). Lawlor and Prothero (2002), in their literature review, identify the ability to distinguish between advertising and programming and the child’s facility for comprehending advertising as the main focus of research in this area. Research on how children use advertising has shown that they do not simply absorb messages with naive credulity but find advertisements entertaining, recognising the link between the product and the entertainment (Cullingford 1984). It seems that children will not like something just because they see it on television. They appear to use advertising as a source of product information, although research among 6-12 year olds (the core market for character toys is 5-9) showed that they often needed to be prompted to recall the information (Roedder-John 1999, 1981, Piaget 1951). Children are quick to reject adverts that do not work for them in many cases actually filtering out complete ads (Buss 1999). A new perspective is emerging of children as active and discriminating, if somewhat 'fickle’ consumers (Seiter 1993) with a degree of advertising 'literacy’ (Palmer 1986).

Yet outside of this we know relatively little about the world of the child as a consumer, or at least a user of consumption goods. The investigation seems to stop at the point of sale. Irrespective of the role of advertising what do children make of the toys they buy, or request, or get given? How do they use these toys in their play, and in the case of character toys based on comic, or cartoon, or film characters how are the designated roles (re) created in play? It is the relationship between the commercial activity, advertising and programming, and play that is perhaps most interesting from a consumption perspective. The meanings ascribed to toys in play are dependent on more than simply advertising. It is what kids do with toys that are perhaps of most interest as this is where the consumption value lies, and this determines the nature of their engagement. Ultimately it is the actual experience with the toys that determines the consumption experience (and, whether that Christmas gift becomes abandoned after the festive excitement has died down!) This paper offers an alternative perspective on children as consumers and one, hopefully, that is more respectful of their capabilities in the consumption arena and more reverent with regard to their role as consumers.

LITTLE USERS

Arguably, we know very little about children as consumers, or at least what we know alludes to this notion of children as passive, inactive, powerless assigned to the user category dependent on others to buy and purchase on their behalf (Seth 2002). Of course this assumes a lack of economic independence, limited influence over the decision process and most importantly an inability to fully comprehend the nature of the task. Yet, how we regard children in their capacity as consumers depends to some degree on their opportunity for consumption engagement. This idea of children as users presumes dependence on others and as noted access to resources change as children get older. One has to question who is sanctioning and supporting the growth in consumption in this sector. Perhaps we, as parents, guardians, grandparents are all caught up in this desire to consume, bitten by the lure of the material and reflecting and generating similar desires in our off spring. A recent British television documentary on kids revealed an interesting insight into the relationship between consumption practises of children, and their parents! Children (perhaps like petsBanother main group of users) seem to reflect their parents (or owners) character. The rise in retro marketing (Brown 2001) is fuelled by parental nostalgia, or missed opportunities, for Barbie dolls, Action Man figures, The Wombles, Bill and Ben, and other characters from our past. How many fathers will buy Scalextrix for their children to relive their own misspent youth? One of the great weaknesses in the 'children are vulnerable’ argument is the failure to recognise that kids may be adept consumers particularly with new non-retro products. The growth in computer games and electronic toys reveal a new generation who are more skilled at using these and much more knowledgeable than their parents.

CONSUMING AND LEARNING

Paiget (1951) emphasised the importance of symbolic play in cognitive development and much of the concern surrounding toys relates to question of whether they change the balance between 'assimilation’, translated by Kline (1993) as creative discovery, and 'imitation’ which Piaget saw as an important aspect of learning. The question is whether television restricts or limits the play 'script’. Sutton-Smith (1981) believes that in the end it is the children who have 'agency’ and control the toys. Carlson-Page and Levin (1987) found little evidence of assimilation and much evidence of imitation in their research into war-toys. This signals a potential problem for Kline (1993) who found over half of the children, in his study of over two hundred 6-8 year olds, sed television characters or script structures in their play. Although in the main these characters were being incorporated into general play rather than being simply reproduced. Erickson (1950) claims that children use toys for creative ritualisation, victorious self-images, and killing off the weak guys. These are precisely the roles that many of the licensed character toys are used for according to Seiter (1993). She argues that cartoon based toys actually encourage children to make up stories and encourage co-operative play, more so than abstract toys. Seiter draws on research by Greenfield et. al. (1990) and James and McCain (1982) to refute the claim that character toys stifle creativity and claims that 'commercial television programmesBtoy-based or notBenhance creative ability in young children, and the fact that they do so helps explain the popularity with children of toys based on cartoon characters’ (Seiter 1993: 190).

In terms of their cognitive development children 2-7 years of age have knowledge about products but not how to use that knowledge, instead they focus on physical aspects one at a time and display inconsistent preferences (Bahn 1986). Children between the ages of 6-12 children, when prompted, employ storage and retrieval strategies, not found in younger children (Roedder-John 1981). It is children under seven years of age that are considered to be most vulnerable to advertising but as Kline (1993) found most of the 6-8 year olds in his study could clearly distinguish between reality and fantasy. Cognitive skills are believed to be a function of experience and interest and research has shown that matching brands to product categories increases with age and IQ (Guest 1942). High levels of brand awareness have been found among young children (7-8 years) who were able to match brands with product categories, as a consequence of observing and learning directly from parents, siblings and peers. Van Auken and Lonial (1985) examining children’s beliefs in characters concluded that confusion between reality/non-reality was only found in children under five and suggested that children 'may not be as easily exploitable as detractors of children’s advertising would have the discipline believe’. Moreover, children do not simply absorb messages with naive credulity (Cullingford 1984).

Seiter (1993) sees toys as part of popular consumer culture and is interested in their role in social interaction. She prefers to see children as active and discriminating, if somewhat 'fickle’, consumers who can distinguish between television programmes and advertising. They understand the selling intent and techniques of advertising. She takes a much less deterministic view of the role of television and rather than focus on what children do not know about advertising she suggests that we examine what they do know. Moreover in recognising the importance of social context and the impact of peers and parents on children’s desires, she puts forward a convincing argument against the negative impact of television drawing on Palmer’s (1986) observational study on how kids interact with television. Palmer describes children as a 'lively’ audience 'because it was found that in their own talking and playing about the set, and in their viewing behaviour, children are not passive respondents. Rather, they were engaged in the human task of giving their own lives structure and meaning, using whatever was at hand to do so, within the bounds of their physical and social development. 'Lively’ refers to children’s conscious choice of favourite programs and to their activities in front of the TV set. Both of these demonstrate a relationship with television based on the ability to make decisions about the salience of programs and the competing appeal of other activities’ (Palmer 1986: 139)

METHODS

This study used qualitative focus groups (Gunter and Furnham 1998) with children aged six to eght in order to understand the role of character toys in their consumption practises. This was an attempt to look at how children use and relate to character toys, what influences their choice and whether they are being duped (Marshall and Ffelan 1999). A qualitative approach was adopted due to the exploratory nature of the research and the anticipated difficulties of administering standard questionnaires to this age group where reading, comprehension and writing skills are not fully developed (Piaget 1957). A total of twelve groups were carried out in three schools in Edinburgh, Scotland at the beginning of 1997 after requesting permission from the school head, individual teachers and the children’s parents. Given the exploratory nature of the work a convenience sample was considered appropriate although it is not possible to extrapolate these findings to a broader population beyond this sample of children. The main objective was to try to understand if character toys featured in their consumption and how these children related to character toys. Focus groups were conducted on the school premises and all children in the appointed class were invited to participate. Final selection required parental approval and was made with assistance from the teachers. In order to ensure some homogeneity in the groups, and in recognition of age and gender differences (Guber and Berry 1993), separate groups were conducted for boys and girls and for six, seven and eight year olds. These comprised eight children, and groups lasted approximately 40 minutes, although in one case the discussion ran for up to one and a half-hours. Groups included a number of projective techniques such as a collage board, a picture drawing exercise, role-play game and a secret ballot. These projective techniques were designed to access information that is not readily accessible with standard question and answer methods. (Schlackman 1989, Sampson 1986, Ereaut 2002). Finally each child was asked to complete a simple questionnaire that addressed their exposure to, liking and ownership of characters from a variety of cartoons and films. The discussion guide was designed to ensure that the each focus group followed a similar structure.

FINDING VOICE: THE ROLE OF CHARACTER TOYS

The discussion covered an array of toys and games that the children had received at Christmas. The gender differences were apparent. Boys discussed bicycles, computer games, and football gear while the girls talked about books, perfume sets and dolls. Moreover, character toys such as Buzz Lightyear, Street Sharks and Action man were firm favourites among the boys while girls talked about Barbie, My little Pony and Doodle Bear. The collage board prompted discussion of various character toys and most children recognised the characters from television programmes or movies they had seen. Older children, eight years and above, were more discriminating in terms of what they watched. One child did not have a television at home and showed little interest in the collage material. Besides television programmes most children claimed to have seen characters in movies at the cinema, or on home video, in catalogues or toyshops. This link between exposure to media and character recognition is interesting. The children had clearly formed ideas about certain characters based on exposure to programmes and their character knowledge was impressive but, as suggested earlier, they displayed a limited capacity for storage and retrieval of information unless prompted. Talking about favourite characters elicited a response from other children who had the same toys. Older children clearly distinguished between the characters they saw on television and toys or merchandise on sale in the shops. Simply seeing a character on television was insufficient to guarantee a sale as one eight-year boy commented 'on TV they (character toys) look all good and when they’re off TV they fall apart’. These boys were not fooled by the promotion but had clear ideas about marketing >gimmicks’. Irrespective of whether they truly understand this concept or are simply repeating what they have been told, it is sufficient to warrant some caution on their part.

The question of whether children can distinguish between fantasy and reality is best illustrated in the finding that the children found it high amusing that Buzz Lightyear a main character in the Disney movie 'Toy Story’ blatantly failed to acknowledge that he was a toy for most of the movie. While they suspend their own beliefs, that toys cannot come to life, to enjoy the movie they find it amusing that the character could not distinguish between fantasyBhe is The (real) Buzz Lightyear, 'defender of the universe’ and realityBhe is just another mass produced toy. Children could clearly discriminate between what they saw on the screen (or in the advertising) and the reality represented by the actual toys. 'Buzz can’t really fly’ reflects both an understanding of the characters failure to acknowledge his own wherewithal and the limitations of the toys. Moreover, watching the characters on television programmes or on film did not guarantee that children would purchase or request the toys nor did owning the toy predispose the children to the television programmes or advertising. One seven year old has seen advertising for Cabbage Patch Dolls but was disappointed when she saw them in the store, describing them as 'hideous’. In another case a young girl expressed her dislike for Barbie advertising despite owning the product.

The focus groups revealed that kids were both well informed and knowledgeable when it came to talking about their toys. Character toys played an important role in their consumption activities, by virtue of their level of awareness, knowledge, allegiance to certain character toys and ownership. Many of the children took pride in their collection of character toys, as one eight year old commented 'Street sharks! I’ve got them all apart from Moby and I like them because they’re cool’. Although that allegiance may be somewhat short lived reflecting the fickle nature of these young consumers. The secret ballot of favourite cartoon characters reflected this, despite the lack of secrecy due to children shouting out their favourite characters. One group of boys felt that Power Rangers were no longer 'cool’. Notwithstanding this, children talked enthusiastically about character toys and were clearly engaged in all aspects of the character merchandising from programmes through to the toys (this research was conducted before the Pokemon phenomena).

RELATING TO THE CHARACTER: INCORPORATING AND RECREATING CHARACTERS IN PLAY

Far from being passive consumers these children actively use character toys as an important part of their play, but rather than simply regurgitating the script, they create new roles for their characters, adapting the scripts and modifying the characters as they play. Scripts are re-enacted, but also rewritten, re-run and modified in the process. Their experiences of play and the images on the television or movie were related but toys brought with them a reality check and children were cognisant of the characters roles and limitations both on- and off-screen. Just as Buzz Lightyear could explore the galaxy alongside the original Power Ranger’s back in 1997 today Spiderman challenges Action Man, does battle with Obi Wan Kenobi, and even takes on the US Cavalry (at least in our household). The key issue here is that the child is not limited to the script played out by the advertiser or the programmer, not confined to the plot but liberated in play. The kids make their own rules and regularly shirk convention.

Peer pressure and the desire to conform were apparent in this group exercise as children revealed their favourite characters. This need to conform was manifest further in the drawing exercise as the children copied their friends when aske to create a new toy. Many of the drawings resembled existing characters, or incorporated key elements of characters they were familiar with. For example, one creation named 'Manic the Hedgehog’, bore a remarkable similarity to 'Sonic the Hedgehog’ except he was deemed to be much faster. Another boy drew Luke Skywalker and Batman engaged in combat and in describing his creation declared that he would like to see these two heroes appearing together on television. The idea of the hero was important to the boys in these groups. Humour was also an appealing feature of the characters discussed, with Bart Simpson, and Roadrunner considered funny characters. Of the ninety-six pictures produced by the children one third were of existing products or based on television characters. Older children show more originality in their designs. In one respect their creativity was constrained by these reference characters and the roles attributed to them in the cartoon series (Marshall and Ffelan 1999). However, the exercise did produce some original designs, including an electronic toy spider that had to compete a life threatening assault course and if killed could be brought back to life, or dolls that could act and communicate as humans (Furbie!). Their creations were as different as 'sugar and spice’ with the girls creating soft, cuddly toys while the boys opted for monsters, and 'scary things’. Whether this is innate or reflects social conditioning is unclear but many of the creations are clearly influenced by existing characters. In one respect it could be argued that this is stifling creativity as children simply reproduce existing characters however, it could be argued that their adaptations allow for creativity and prove that children are not passive consumers of these characters and their plots. Interestingly, many of the girls felt that there were fewer characters directed at them, and many watched the cartoons and characters aimed at boys. As Seiter (1993) notes boys will not watch girl’s programmes but the reverse in true.

CONCLUSIONS

Trading on nostalgia and retro can prove a successful strategy, as evidenced by the commercial success of Star Wars, but the toy industry recognises the need to continually innovate and get close to their young consumers. As this research has shown this is an extremely difficult 'consumer’ to research, the most difficult things is to learn to think like a child (unless you are Tom Hanks character in the movie Big!). In the real world of play Luke Skywalker and Batman are in constant battle irrespective of what is happening in the marketplace. As for the concerns over young children being manipulated by the media and advertisers, this exploratory research suggests that these children make a clear distinction between the fantasy of the screen and the adventures and exploits in their own play. Rather than limiting creative imagination new meanings emerge, roles are re-negotiated, and scripts re-written. These children de-construct and re-construct the characters in play. Moreover, what is deemed 'cool’ appears to have more to do with peer pressure. It is appealing to suggest that this is being driven by advertising and marketing but it may be that what happens in the playground, or at home is much more influential. It would appear from the existing data and this work that kids are faddish and their attention span short when it comes to toys. What they latch onto is the 'flavour of the month’ in a sort of spurious loyalty which alters according to what happens to be latest trend. Either way these children have a clearly formed set of opinions about what they like. In this respect they are not simply a soft target for marketing companies but discerning young consumers.

Unfortunately, we know relatively little about the process by which they come to establish these preferences and the role of marketing in this process. This research suggests that peer influence may hold the key as kids socialise in te playground, in the classroom and at home. Stories are shared, claims are made and the latest fads become a must. The most recent fad in Scotland was for 'Beyblades’, a Japanese battling spinning top based on a British cartoon shown on cable television. Sales soared and children queued or waited for new shipments with 1000 units selling out in less than 48 hours. This all happened without any significant marketing push, and the products have sold well in Japan and America before hitting the UK (SOS 2002). Yeats might not have been amazed by the spinning top, but shocked at the consumption practices of today’s children and the sheer abundance of materialism. As Seiter (1993) notes the 'A distinctive, peer orientated consumer culture now intervenes in the relationship of parents and children, and that intervention begins as early as two years of age’ (1993: 193). Much of the conflict is between mass-market licensed toys and, what have been identified as 'educational’ toys. The commercialisation often offends in its treatment of children as consumers, and economic targets, and in the attempt to by-pass parental approval. What we need to look at, however, is consumption through the eyes of these children, and while continuing to protect them from the 'perils’ of the market place, give them more respect as consumers and stop patronising them. This is equally offensive.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Sarah Ffelan worked on this project as an undergraduate student and undertook the focus groups. She has pursued her interest with Lego, 4-Kids Entertainment and more recently with Kellogg’s. Thanks to two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on the initial submission.

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Authors

David Marshall, University of Edinburgh, UK



Volume

E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2003



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