Changing Conceptual Views of Children's Consumer Information Processing

ABSTRACT - This paper will consider several conceptual distinctions for further conceptualization of children's consumer information processing. Two particular concerns are addressed: (1) the issue of the appropriateness of competence vs. performance models of children's abilities and (2) the implications of such models for understanding children's processing of television advertising under varying task situations.


Ellen Wartella (1982) ,"Changing Conceptual Views of Children's Consumer Information Processing", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09, eds. Andrew Mitchell, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 144-146.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 9, 1982      Pages 144-146


Ellen Wartella, University of Illinois


This paper will consider several conceptual distinctions for further conceptualization of children's consumer information processing. Two particular concerns are addressed: (1) the issue of the appropriateness of competence vs. performance models of children's abilities and (2) the implications of such models for understanding children's processing of television advertising under varying task situations.

This paper will examine several conceptual issues regarding models of children's consumer information processing of television advertisements. It will discuss findings which have been accumulating in the past several years which suggest that we may need to develop some conceptual distinctions regarding the nature of how children perform the task of processing television advertising information. I especially want to address two kinds of concerns in this literature: (1) the issue of competence vs. performance models of children's cognitive ability as appropriate models of children's consumer information processing; (2) in light of this discussion, the paper will comment on what we know about watching television advertising under varying conditions of viewing.

Let's consider the first issue. Models of children's consumer processing have been wedded to theories of cognitive development, particularly Piaget's theory of intellectual functioning. Similarly, most of the critiques of this literature have questioned the assumptions of Piaget's theory as a way of criticizing the body of children' s consumer studies. For instance, Chestnut's (1979) concerns about research on children's consumer information processing rests on his critique of Piaget's theory on methodological and conceptual grounds. Methodologically, he points to criticism of the confounding of effects of task design in Piaget's studies and the inappropriateness of using verbal response as a test of the young child's abilities. When tasks are improved and nonverbal methods employed, cognitive skills are no longer identified with specific stages (of development) he argues. Similarly, conceptual criticism focuses on the Piagetian assumption that cognitive structures are invariant with stage descriptions of development. As Siegel and Brainerd (1978) have pointed outS training studies indicate that children can be trained to solve conceptual problems and perform Piagetian tasks earlier than Piaget's stage theory would predict. This leads critics of the children's consumer information processing research to conclude that young children are both trainable and individual in their development. Knowing a child's age or stage level is not an adequate basis for predicting their behavior. Rather, appropriate measures can tap children's abilities and their abilities are greater than we think on the basis of global theories.

My reason for raising this critique is to place one body of criticism of consumer information processing more clearly into focus as a criticism within developmental psychology between competence models of development and performance models of development. Whether or not one is a Piagetians the issue is how do we describe the course of human development and how best do we develop models of children's functioning. Competence models are theoretical descriptions of abstract systems of the form or structures of children's ways of thinking in various cognitive domains, such as Piaget's theory of cognitive development, or Werner's orthogenetic principle, or Kohlberg's stage theory of moral development. Competence models tend to describe the idealized limits of children's abilities at different ages or stages of development, and they tend to be at a relatively high level of abstraction. They are wholistic or global. Moreover, as Overton and Newman (1981) point out, competence models aim to provide formal explanations of human development, that is, explanation of the necessary and universal features of cognitive development. Such theories attempt to describe and explain the constancy of behavior across various experimental conditions, situations and other sorts of environmental contingencies.

In contrast to such global theories which ignore variability in performance stand performance models of human development which examine the application of competence in actual thought or behavior - that is they examine the ways in which children actually perform in specific task situations. The difference between competence and performance models of human development have been widely acknowledged in the developmental literature, e.g. Flavell's (1970) notion of competence and performance differences in memory tasks; Werner's (1961) distinction of process/achievement and even Bandura (1977) in the area of social behavior makes a distinction between an acquisition phase (competence) and a performance phase in his theory of social learning. More recently Overton and Newman (1981) make a distinction between competence and activation utilization models of human development.

What are we to make of this distinction between competence and performance? Is it as some critics would have us believe that arguments which suggest that when the age guidelines of a competence model are not met then we should do away with all competence models? Is it that such models have neither heuristic value nor are appropriate models of theorizing in an area? I reject this notion. Competence models provide by and large a description of the necessary and universal features of development performance models are better for addressing the variability that appears in behavior. It is this variability either expressed as elasticity of age-related effects, or changing performance under difference task conditions, which is addressed by performance models. Since we measure children's abilities in specific tasks its likely we will find variations in their performance at given age levels.

My argument is similarly, that when we examine the specific domain of theorizing surrounding children's consumer information processing, we can see clearly the competence/ performance distinction. Early research sketched out the likely competence of children for understanding television advertising; subsequent studies have modified the global predictions to better specify under what conditions children elicit what sort of understanding of television. Two kinds of evidence from the performance studies suggest that young children, those four and five years old, do have some understanding of television advertising and furthermore, that even when their understanding is relatively minimal they can be trained to understand advertising purpose (Wackman, Wartella and Ward, 1979; Roberts et al., 1980).

For instance, estimates of the number of children who can verbalize an understanding of the purpose of advertising have variously been reviewed by myself and others (Wartella, 1980, 1981; Adler et al. 1977; Roberts et al. 1980) and indicate that age variations across studies in the percentage of children judged to understand the purpose of commercials are attributable to such factors as the backgrounds of the children interviewed, the context within which the measures were taken (survey or laboratory) and wording of questions. For instance, in my own research on kindergarten through sixth grade children, estimates vary as follows: When asked "what do commercials try to do?", 22% reported that commercials try to get them to buy products. Where kindergartners were shown commercials and then interviewed about the factual information in the commercials, even higher percentages understood selling intent. In response to the question, "What does this commercial for (product X) want you to do? approximately half of the kindergartners in various viewing conditions (and 625 in one condition) said that the commercial wanted them to buy or try the product (Wackman, Wartella and Ward, 1979). Others researchers report similar results.

Similarly training programs developed to teach kindergarten grade school children by Roberts (1980) and Wackman, Wartella and Ward (1979) indicate that with appropriate procedures even kindergartners can be taught to understand TV commercials persuasive function and to focus attention on specific product claims in commercials.

However, that does not mean that no age differences exist in children's consumer information processing. Young children do less well at both memory and comprehension tasks about specific advertising information and, in general, they understand the implications of "the persuasive aspect of TV" ads less well. These sorts of studies suggest then that one must examine the conditions under which children perform varying cognitive tasks, such as the task of processing television advertising information.

Competence models of development have often been presented as fixed and unchanging descriptions of how children of certain ages think and primarily the deficits of their ways of thinking. The age/stage guidelines are not fixed children can be taught to acquire certain notions earlier than a given theory's age limit. Nevertheless, I do not believe that competence models are fruitless. Nor to I subscribe to the equally extreme notion that younger children can perform just like adults. The implications of the competence/performance distinction raised here is that greater specification of the task of processing advertising information and specifically of the type of influence process presumed to occur can only arise by examining children's varying performance in a variety of specific situations. Here I find some recent evidence on children's memory for specific commercial messages instructive. Similarly, research in those few cases which have attempted to examine the relationship between processing of the advertisements and subsequent outcome measures such as purchase requests are useful.

For instance, Ross et al. (1981) recently examined how celebrity endorsement in toy commercials influences children's perceptual and cognitive responses to the advertisements in two separate experiments with 8 to 14 year old boys. Celebrity endorsement appeared to affect the boys product choice and the effect was at least as strong for older boys as for younger ones. Most importantly, the endorsement techniques influenced preference independently of cognitive 2nd affective response to the commercials. Indeed even for the older boys, understanding that an endorsement was used, that the events on the endorsed product commercials were staged, and being less deceived about the physical characteristics of the "endorsed" racers did not lead to less preference for the "endorsed" model racer over other brands. That is the older boys wanted the endorsed brand in spite of their presumed "cognitive defenses".

Other studies similarly are equivocal about the relationship among children's (1) ability to understand the specific purpose of advertising; (2) memory for the attribute messages or product claims made in the commercials; and (3) brand preference for the product advertised. A second interesting finding which has less to do with the relationship among these components of information processing, but more to do with the children's motivations for watching advertising is reported by Galst and White (1976). They found that the harder a preschool child worked to maintain TV commercials on a TV monitor, as compared to the program narrative, in an experimental situation, and the more commercial TV s he was exposed to at home, the greater the number of purchase requests directed to mothers in a supermarket observation after viewing. Differential motivation for attending to TV advertisements and for handling TV advertising information, then, seem to create individual differences in the conditions under which processing activities are performed and measured across children.

Performance based models of cognitive development suggest very strongly that the task being set for the child be well understood. These recent studies call into question several assumptions common in global models of the relationship between cognitive ability and children's memory for and response to television advertising. In particular, the assumptions that young children are highly involved in watching TV advertising and are actively trying to abstract meaning/messages/information from the advertisement which leads to positive or negative evaluations of the product and product choices, need to be more clearly examined. Here I would like to suggest that the more general literature on children's processing of television per se might be instructive. In particular, two notions are of interest: (1) evidence from this literature indicates the importance of understanding the symbolic structure of the message in order to model and predict learning, memory and other outcomes; and (2) there is evidence that TV as a medium of communication may engage cognitive activities at a less than optimum level.

We know very little regarding the nature of the structural aspects of television advertising narratives on television. As Brewer (1981) has argued in discussing general models of memory based on narrative studies, models of memory for a given type of discourse, such as a book, television program, film, or a television commercial contain both an underlying discourse structure and a particular type of discourse force. The structure of commercials, for instance, may be narrative, that is tell about a series of events in linguistic and visual form which are related in a casual chain, that is tell a story. Commercial structures may be expository, that is attempt to illustrate some logical abstract processes, such as explicitly making comparisons between two brands of the same product groups and comparing the worth of one brand over another. Lastly, they may be descriptive discourse, such as describing both visually and linguistically a given product and its attributes. However, all advertisements have the discourse force of trying to persuade. As Roberts et al. (1980) remind us trying to persuade is different from just giving information.

What is the structure of most commercials directed to children: are they narrative, expository or descriptive? Does memory for these different types of discourse structures vary? What is the structure of these types of expositions and how is memory for a given structure related to the discourse force of that structure? These are questions which need to be addressed to describe the "stimuli" of television advertising. In our training program (Wackman, Wartella and Ward, 1979) for instance, we found that training children on types of information ordinarily included in commercial messages such as concrete information about product elements improved kindergartners recognition of such product information in a subsequent experimental test of the effects of the training program. However, such training on the notion that commercials show products and attributes of products did not improve children's memory for the commercial/plot related elements in the story. Similarly Roberts et al. (1980) report that a series of instructional films which were produced to teach children about television commercials persuasive intent were effective at increasing 7 year old children's verbally reported skepticism about commercials. The effect was particularly strong when the children were asked about their trust in specific product claims and specific techniques such as endorsement techniques, as opposed to items measuring the children's overall trust in commercials. Moreover, the films were most effective with the heaviest television viewers, those who watched more than three and one half hours per day. Thus, children's knowledge of both discourse structures and the discourse force of advertising would appear to affect both memory for the advertising and belief in the claims. We don't know much about the different types of commercials studied in the variety of consumer processing literature. Are they comparable processing tasks or not? An analysis of discourse structures would help answer these questions.

Secondly, variations in the conditions under which exposure to advertising increases children preference for the advertised product lead to the question of the conditions under which children are or are not motivated to abstract information and evaluate the product claims. Work by Salomon (1979) on children's processing of television codes and messages indicates that American children engage in less "literate viewing" at relatively shallow levels of processing. He found that grade school children may "frame" television such that they tend to invest little mental effort into trying to abstract information from television content; and consequently, he argues that when little mental effort is invested, shallow information is abstracted. This sounds much like a "low involvement" condition for processing advertisements (Krugman 1965). By and large, however, research on children's consumer information processing of advertising have assumed television advertising to be highly involving for grade school children. To what extent are children engaging in shallow or depth processing of television advertisements? This is a question which should be addressed.

In conclusion, changing conceptual views of children's consumer information processing suggest that we pay closer attention to the task conditions of watching television. Children watch television for a variety of reasons and under a variety of conditions. In order to understand better what consumer information processing takes place, we need to describe better the nature of the children's interaction with this medium. What are the structural aspects of the discourse children are asked to process? How do children perform this task under different conditions of processing? Addressing such questions should lead to understanding better TV advertising for child consumers.


Bandura, Albert (1977), Social Learning Theory (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall).

Brewer, William F. (1981), "Literacy Theory, Rhetoric, Stylistics: Implications for Psychology," (University of Illinois Re ding Center Publication).

Chestnut, Robert W. (1979), "Television Advertising and Young Children: Pi get Reconsidered," (eds.) James E. Leigh and Claude R. Martin, in Current Issues and Research in Advertising (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan).

Galst, Joann, and White, Mary (March 1976), "The Unhealthy Persuader: The Reinforcing Value of Television and Children's Purchase Influencing Attempts at the Supermarket," Child Development, 47.

Overton, Willis F., and Newman, Judith L. (1981), "Cognitive Development: A Competence-Activation/Utilization Approach," -in Review of Human Development (Nev York: Wiley).

Roberts, Donald et al. (Summer 1980), "Developing Discriminating Consumers," Journal of Communication, 20, pp. 94-105.

Ross, Rhonda et al. (1981), "The Effects of Celebrity Endorsement in TV Ads: Children Persuaded Despite Cognitive Defenses and General Skepticism Toward Advertising," Report to the Federal Trade Commission, (University of Kansas, Department of Human Development).

Salomon, Gavriel (1979), Media Cognition and Learning (Nev York: Jossey-Bass).

Siegel, Linda S., and Brainerd, Charles J. (1978), Alternatives to Piaget (Nev York: Academic Press).

Wackman, Daniel, Wartella, Ellen, and Ward, Scott (1979), "Children's Information Processing of Television Advertising," Unpublished manuscript, University of Minnesota.

Wartella, Ellen (1980), "Children and Television: The Development of the Child's Understanding of the Medium," (eds.), G. Cleveland Wilhoit and Harold Debock, in Mass Communication Review Yearbook (Beverly Hills: Sage Publication).

Wartella, Ellen (1981), "Individual Differences in Children's Responses to Television Advertising," (eds.) Edward Palmer and Aimee Dorr, Children and the Faces of Television (Nev York: Academic Press).

Werner, Heinz (1961), Comparative Psychology of Mental Development, (Nev York: Science Editions).



Ellen Wartella, University of Illinois


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09 | 1982

Share Proceeding

Featured papers

See More


Unobserved Altruism: How Social- And Self-Signaling Motivations Shape Willingness to Donate

Jennifer Savary, University of Arizona, USA
Kelly Goldsmith, Vanderbilt University, USA

Read More


Moral Arguments Are Most Persuasive in Changing Attitudes of Opponents of Genetically Modified Foods

Sydney Scott, Washington University, USA
Yoel Inbar, University of Toronto, Canada
Paul Rozin, University of Pennsylvania, USA

Read More


Potions and Antidotes for Jekyll: What Summons Moral Identity in Product Choices

Young Joo Cho, Korea University, Korea
Y. Rin Yoon, Korea University, Korea
Jongwon Park, Korea University, Korea

Read More

Engage with Us

Becoming an Association for Consumer Research member is simple. Membership in ACR is relatively inexpensive, but brings significant benefits to its members.