Children's Attention to Television Advertising


Scott Ward, Thomas S. Robertson, and Daniel Wackman (1971) ,"Children's Attention to Television Advertising", in SV - Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, eds. David M. Gardner, College Park, MD : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 143-156.

Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, 1971     Pages 143-156


Scott Ward, Harvard University

Thomas S. Robertson, University of Pennsylvania

Daniel Wackman, University of Minnesota

[This research was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health (HSM 42-70-74). The authors wish to thank David Levinson for his important contributions in the administration of this project.]

[Scott Ward is Assistant Professor, Harvard Business School and Research Associate, Marketing Science Institute. Thomas SO Robertson is an Associate Professor, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Daniel Wackman is Director of the Research Division, University of Minnesota School of Mass Communication and Journalism.]

This paper presents findings from an empirical investigation of the nature of children's commercial viewing behavior. It focuses on understanding the extent and nature of viewing behavior, determinants of viewing behavior, and some short-term consequences of commercial viewing.

Attention to television commercials would seem to be a necessary condition for learning from them, although the low involvement nature of commercial viewing may mean that this learning is relatively gradual, subtle and covert (Krugman, 1965, 1968, 1971). Young children may be especially susceptible to the formation of impressions and attitudes about products, services, and even people, as a function of viewing television advertising. Mass media may be a powerful agent in the socialization process and children may use advertising as a role model in the acquisition of cognitive orientations and skills relating to behavior as a consumer. They may also, of course, use television advertising as a source of information leading to immediate consumption demands (Ward and Wackman, 1971).


Viewing behavior includes several dimensions and characteristics. One dimension is the amount of commercial viewing; a second is the degree of attention to commercials, including the alternative and/or coterminus activities in which a child engages while viewing commercials, such as walking around the room or talking; and a third dimension includes the short-term consequences of commercial viewing, such as product or commercial-related conversations. This paper focuses primarily on the degree of attention and short-term consequences of commercial viewing and does not deal with amount of commercial viewing.

With respect to these dimensions of interest, certain characteristics of the situation are examined, including: (a) elements in the viewing context, including time of day and with whom the child is watching, (b) characteristics of television stimuli, including position of the commercial in the program and type of commercial, and (c) prior viewing behavior and attention to programming.

In outline form then, data were gathered concerning the following aspects of commercial viewing behavior

Degree of Attention

Attention at commercial onset

Attention during commercial

Short-Term Consequences

Affective verbal comments related to commercial or product

Characteristics or Determinants of Viewing

Viewing context (time and day of viewing, with whom child is viewing)

Characteristics of Commercial Stimuli (length of commercial, position within programming schedule, object of commercial -- product and brand)

Prior watching behavior


Since the primary interest is viewing behavior, an observational methodology has been adopted based on Steiner's (1966) study of the viewing behavior of adults. In that study Steiner used college students to unobtrusively observe the viewing behavior of one of their family members over a nine-day period. His data show variations in attention to commercials depending on such characteristics as type and length of commercial, program context, time of day, and sex and age of subject. In addition to viewing behavior, Steiner was also interested in overt reactions, non-verbal reactions, and alternatives to viewing.

The research procedures in the present study follow closely those of Steiner but with some modifications since the context is somewhat different. Mothers of 5-12 year-old children were recruited from women's service clubs sampled from various socio-economic levels in the Boston metropolitan area. The sample is, nevertheless, slightly skewed toward middle and upper socio-economic levels.

The mothers were trained in the use of observation sheets designed to record the various parameters of the viewing situation, the child's viewing behavior and his subsequent behavior. (Exhibit 1 provides excerpts from the training manual). Following training and practice periods, mothers were then instructed to unobtrusively observe a designated child during viewing periods selected by the researchers to represent the child's typical distribution of watching during the week, as previously recorded by the mother. Data were gathered over 10-day periods in April and May, 1971. Each mother observed for a minimum of six hours and a maximum of ten hours during this period.

Of the 180 mothers initially recruited, 135 returned useable observation sheets. The drop in response rate is due to misunderstanding of instructions, failure to observe the child long enough, or simply unwillingness to complete the data sheets. For the analyses reported here, data from the first 65 respondents were coded in three age groups: 5-7 years (n = 29); 8-10 years (n = 18); and 11-12 years (n = 18). A sample of observations was then selected in order to make analysis more manageable, amounting to one-fifth of the total observations. The sample observation base, therefore, includes 6,465 commercials watched by these 65 children during the 10-day period.


The key data relating to degree of attention and short-term consequences (product or commercial related comments) are shown in Table 1. Marginal percentages of observations are provided for attention to programming just before commercial onset, verbal reaction at commercial onset, attention during commercial and the incidence of verbal comments about the product or commercial.



The data indicate that children in the two youngest age groups (5-7, 8-10 years old) pay somewhat greater attention to programming than children in the older group (11-12 years old). Furthermore, the incidence of paying "no attention" to prior programming increases with age. Steiner (1966) found that adults paid full attention to prior programming in 70% of observations of network commercials -- a distinction which is no longer valid. This compares to children in the younger age groups paying full attention to prior programming in 58% of the observations and children in the oldest age group paying full attention in 50% of the observations. These data do not suggest that children are "entranced" by television relative to adults, although, of course, they could still be more susceptible to influence despite levels of attention.

At commercial onset, the most common observation is that the children do nothing, although older children are slightly more likely to express a "dislike" reaction ("oh no, not another one"), whereas younger children (under 10 years old) are somewhat more likely to express a liking reaction ("now watch this;" "this is a good one" etc.). The data indicate that the children engage in some behavior -- liking, disliking, or take a break -- about 25% of the time. Steiner's data (1966) indicate that adults engage in similar behaviors at commercial onset only about 10% of the time. This comparison would not seem to be in-line with the contentions of some social critics that children are unable to distinguish between programming and advertising fare. The relative degree of liking commercials by younger children versus older children does, however, indicate less cognitive resistance and perhaps the potential for greater influence.

During the commercial "full" attention decreases with age, although "partial" attention increases slightly. Talking with others during commercials occurs most often among the oldest children. Compared with Steiner's data (1966), adults and the two younger age groups exhibit comparable incidences of "full" attention during commercials. The 11-12 year-olds, however, exhibit far less "full" attention during commercials.

Regarding subsequent verbal behavior about the product or commercial -what has been designated as "short-term consequences" -- the data in Table 1 indicate that younger children are somewhat more likely than the oldest children to make some comment. The overall frequency of verbal comments is slightly greater than observed among adults in Steiner (1966). Furthermore, younger children are considerably more likely to make positive or neutral comments and less likely to make negative comments than older children. This again suggests the lack of resistance to persuasion on the part of younger children. Finally, comments by younger children are more likely to be about the product than the commercial.

The overall attention profile, therefore, shows younger children to be more intent on prior programming, more receptive to commercial interruptions, devoting more full attention to commercials, and commenting more about the product and in a more positive manner than older children. The data seem to suggest that younger children (5-10 years old) have not yet developed cognitive resistance to commercials and may, therefore, be more persuasible. There is no indication that younger children are unable to distinguish program and advertising fare.



Determinants of Viewing: The Context

One contextual variable which could affect attention to commercials is the time during the week when children are watching. The two peak viewing periods are Saturday mornings and early weekday evenings. Analysis comparing these two time periods indicates that older children pay less attention to Saturday morning programming (38% "full" attention) than early weekday evening programming (61% "full" attention). This may reflect their increasing sophistication and the fact that Saturday morning programming may be aimed at a younger age level.

Again, older children make more "dislike" comments at commercial onset on Saturday morning (20%) than on weekday evenings (6%). A similar attention pattern holds during the commercial; older children pay "full" or "partial" attention to 69% of weekday evening commercials but only 53% of Saturday morning commercials. This pattern among older children may reflect their lessening interest in "kid's products" or their satiation with such advertising and their developing interest in more "mature" products. This interpretation is difficult to uphold, however, since older children made positive verbal comments about 21% of the Saturday morning commercials, versus only 7% for the weekday evening commercials. However, they also made negative comments about 14% of the Saturday morning commercials, versus only 7% of the weekday evening commercials.

A further aspect of the context which should affect viewing behavior is the number and types of people who are watching television with the children. A limitation of this study is that the child's mother became a de facto viewing companion since she had to be present to unobtrusively observe the child. Thus, no data are available concerning the child's viewing behavior when he watches alone.

Data in Table 2 suggest that although the incidence of "family" viewing (in the presence of father and siblings, as well as the mother) increases with age, paying full attention to commercials during family viewing decreases with age. One interpretation of this finding is that older children use the occurrence of family viewing for interpersonal communication and that commercial interruptions provide the best opportunity for such interaction. This again indicates the older child's ability to divorce himself from commercial messages.

Determinants of Viewing: Characteristics of Television Stimuli

Several aspects of television stimuli were related to viewing behavior. A first characteristic is the length of the commercial (10, 20, 30, and 60-seconds). Data presented in Graph 1 indicate that the oldest children pay full attention to commercials less than the younger children, regardless of commercial length. It is conceivable, however, that this result could be a manifestation of the ease in coding attention levels to longer commercials. Within all three age groups, least attention is paid to 10-second commercials. With the exception of the youngest age group, attention tends to increase by length of commercial.

A second characteristic of television stimuli is the position of a given commercial within a "block" of commercials. Data in Graph 2 indicate that attention level decreases significantly during subsequent commercials for all age groups. For the oldest age group, however, attention level decreases most precipitously; full attention falls from 50% for the program to 43% for the first commercial to only 24% for later commercials. The youngest children have a full attention rate or 57% for the program, which decreases to 55% for the first commercial, and 46% for later commercials. The youngest children would seem to be more passive and willing to accept a string of commercials.







Analysis of results by the position of the commercial in the program (beginning middle, or end) indicates that the frequency of full attention for all three age groups is greatest for commercials at the beginning of the program (Graph 3). In addition, the oldest children show the severest drop in full attention to commercials as the program progresses. The continuing high attention level to commercials at the end of the program by young children may indicate that they are not aware of when the show is ending. Further evidence for this conclusion is that only 26% of the youngest children have left the room or are talking during commercials at the end of the program, compared to 36% of the 8-10 year olds and 47% of the 11-12 year-olds.

A final characteristic of television stimuli is the product category advertised and its effect on attention level. However, due to the wide variety of products and the different viewing times age groups, cell sizes would not permit meaningful analysis of attention levels by specific product categories. Some analysis is possible by combining product categories and focusing on those occurring most frequently. Data in Table 3 indicate attention to prior programming and viewing behavior during commercials for what have been labeled "more relevant" and "less relevant" product categories. The more relevant category includes food items whereas the less relevant category includes health and beauty aids and household cleaners.

Analysis of viewing behavior before food commercials indicates that the younger two age groups payed more attention than 11-12 year olds. The pattern is just the reverse for viewing behavior prior to commercials for less relevant products, probably reflecting the different program contexts for those types of commercials. The less relevant products are perhaps advertised during adult programming, which is more engaging to older children.

The drop in full attention during the commercial is roughly equivalent for all three age groups for food commercials. However, as Graph 4 indicates, children in the 5-7 age group actually increased their attention during less relevant commercials over their attention to prior programming. As age increases, attention to the "less relevant" commercials decreases.

This finding illustrates the danger of attempting to assess the "relevance" of types of advertising for children. If one defines relevance of products in terms of a child's direct consumption of them, and/or his ability to directly buy them, then clearly food products are more relevant than commercials for health and beauty aids and household cleaners. However, it may be that children are so familiar with food products -- through advertising exposure, direct consumption, and intra-family communication -- that advertising for food products is actually less relevant than advertising for products associated with adult roles. If one defines "relevance" in these terms -- products which illustrate adult roles -- then our "less relevant" product category is actually the more relevant category. The complexity of this line of reasoning, however, is reflected in the difference in results by age group and clearly more research is necessary.







Determinants of Viewing: Prior Viewing Behavior

A further determinant of commercial viewing behavior is the behavior of the child just prior to commercial exposure. Data in Table 4 indicate that, among children paying full prior attention to programming, full attention falls off during commercial exposure for all age groups. The smallest drop in full attention is among the 5-7 year olds, whereas the greatest drop is among the 11-12 year-olds. Older children are more likely to engage in other behaviors -- partial watching, getting up and moving around the room or leaving the room or talking -- than younger children.

An observation commonly made in the popular media and among commercial television's critics is that young children actually pay attention to commercials when they were not paying attention to prior programming. Data in Table 5 do not support this generalization. Of the observations of children who were paying no or partial attention to the program, only 12% of the subsequent observations indicated an increase to full attention during the commercial; there were no differences among children of different ages.


This paper has focused on the commercial viewing behavior of young children with particular emphasis on degree of attention to commercials and any resulting short-term consequences in terms of affective comments related to the product or commercial.

A number of general tendencies in viewing behavior have emerged.

- Children's attention levels fall when a commercial is shown.

- Attention continues to decrease during later commercials in a "block."

- Full attention is greatest to commercials at the beginning of a program and declines for commercials shown during or at the end of a program.

- There is a tendency for attention levels to be higher for longer commercials (60-second) than shorter commercials (10 and 20-second), although this may be a manifestation of the ease in coding attention levels to longer commercials.

- Verbal comments about the product or commercial are infrequent, but positive comments are more common than neutral or negative ones, comments are more likely to concern the product than the commercial.

Despite these general tendencies, some important differences occur by age.

- Older children pay less attention to commercials than the younger children and exhibit more negative and sophisticated reactions to television advertising.

- Decreases in attention from programming to initial commercials to later commercials are substantially greater than for younger children.

- Older children talk more during commercials but make fewer comments about the product or commercial. Comments are almost as likely to concern the commercial as the product and negative comments are almost as frequent as positive comments.





The profile which emerges is of older children jaded to commercials and paying less attention to them and making fewer comments about them -- especially positive comments. Two important indications of the changing nature of commercial impact among the 11 and 12-year-olds are their greater withdrawal of attention to commercials which occur during the program and their increased focus on the commercial itself, rather than the product advertised The ability to make the product-commercial distinction adds to the immunity of older children to resist involvement in the ongoing scenario.

Thus, differential behavior in viewing is indicated by age level. Older children have clearly developed a greater cognitive resistance to commercials in the form of lower attention and more critical reactions to advertising messages. Younger children (5-10 years-old) are not as well immunized and would appear to be potentially more persuasible. Although there is no indication that younger children are unable to distinguish between program and advertising fare, there is less resistance to commercial interruptions. The television medium is much more of a "massage" for younger children and they play a more passive role.


Cateora, P.R. An analysis of the teen-age market. University of Texas, Bureau of Business Research, 1963.

Krugman, H. Processes underlying exposure to advertising. American PsYchologist, April, 1968, 23, 245-253.

Krugman, H. The impact of television advertising: learning without involvement. Public Opinion Quarterly, 1965, 29, 349-356.

Krugman, H. The television generation and the new research needs. Paper presented at the American Association for Public Opinion Research, Pasadena, California, May, 1971.

Steiner, G. The people look at commercials: a study of audience behavior. Journal of Business, April, 1966, 272-304.

Ward, S. and D. Wackman. Television advertising and intra-family influence: children's purchase influence attempts and parental yielding. Marketing Science Institute. Working paper, 1971.



Scott Ward, Harvard University
Thomas S. Robertson, University of Pennsylvania
Daniel Wackman, University of Minnesota


SV - Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research | 1971

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