Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches to Child Research


Langbourne Rust and Carole Hyatt (1991) ,"Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches to Child Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 18-22.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 18-22


Langbourne Rust, Langbourne Rust Research, Inc.

Carole Hyatt, Hyatt Associates, Inc.


Cathy and Sue are doing the week's shopping. Walking along together, pushing a half-full shopping cart, they turn down an aisle. Fruit drinks are on the right, cereals on the left. Cathy will pick out the drinks, Sue the cereals.

Each side of the aisle has 4 shelves, 40 feet long, crammed with packages on which every square inch is pushing out color, text, graphics and gimmicks. There is no way for a human mind to take in all these stimuli. Overload is reached at somewhere between 5 and 10 alternatives. Cathy and Sue are confronted with perhaps 100 times that many.

Cathy goes into a focused search. She'd made up her mind ahead of time to get the JUICY JUICE. It has 100% fruit juice, comes in aseptic boxes that are convenient to pack in a lunch bag, and Billy, the one child in the family to who takes his lunch to school, didn't complain when he took JUICY JUICE to school last week . Cathy scans the aisle, spots the section with the three-packs of aseptic boxes, and zooms in on the distinctive script-like text that identifies JUICY JUICE.

Sue takes a different approach. As she cruises down the aisle, the cereal boxes form an amorphous wall on her left. She continues along, her eye playing over the array but failing to lock securely onto anything. Then, something catches her eye. A face is looking at her: the familiar face of Tony the Tiger, with his eager, friendly, accepting smile.

As she turns her head towards Tony, locking into his gaze, her body rotates, too. She approaches him, reaches out with both hands and pulls him to her. Holding the box, this friendly familiar presence in the midst of jumbled clutter, she is pleased.

Sue is 7 years old. Cathy is 32. The moral is that children are a different kind of consumer.


Cathy and Sue, mother and daughter, have been recruited to participate in a market research project. Cathy is to be interviewed about fruit drinks, Sue about cereals. Cathy is interviewed first.

The interviewer shows Cathy a shelf with 5 brands of juice drinks on it and asks, "Cathy, which of these would you get for your children?" Cathy looks at each of the boxes, sees the one she's looking for and says, "JUICY JUICE." "Why?" "Well, it has 100% fruit juice, which makes me feel it's healthy, and it's real convenient, and Billy always finishes it, so he must like it."

The executive sitting behind a one-way mirror watching the interview nods and says, "Hmm, that's interesting. Makes sense to me. I think we should put more stress on the juice content of our own brand." And she goes away having learned something important.

Then it is Sue's turn -- cereals. First the shelf of boxes is revealed. There is Sugar Bear, and Fred & Barney, and Toucan Sam and Cap'n Crunch. It happens that these boxes almost never stand next to each other in the store. It also happens that Sugar Bear's box is yellow while the other three are red. And the Cap'n Crunch Box is the one closest to her. And just before Sue came to the interview she'd been watching a Smurf's re-run in which a commercial with Toucan Sam had played. "Sue, which of these cereals is your favorite?" "Cap'n Crunch." "Why?" "He's funny and I like him."

The executive sitting behind the mirror nods and says, "Hmm, that makes sense to me. We should make the character on our own brand funnier and more likeable." And he goes away with a lesson that may either be irrelevant or seriously misleading.


Children do not respond to things in the marketplace the way adults do, so traditional market research inquiries often miss what is going on.


* Adults can think about themselves objectively. Children can not. They are not reliable witnesses about their internal functioning. Asking children "Why" is dangerous. In focus groups, we have heard many insightful explanations of things that never, in fact, occur.

* Adults can contemplate alternatives in parallel while children are locked into serial processing. So their preferences are very unstable -- and poor predictors of future behavior.

* Adult consumers often plan their purchases. It makes sense for an advertisers to try to change adults' intentions to buy. But an intention planted in a child's mind is likely to dissolve in seconds.

* Adults size up a new product by focusing on its attributes. But kids understand product as entities. For them, familiarity and recognition are key. How they evaluate the attributes of a new product the first time they see it will not tell you how they will react in the marketplace.

* Adult marketers can understand adult consumers intuitively but they tend to read adult meanings into what they hear children say. Many wrong strategies have been hatched by unsupervised executives behind the one-way mirror.


Some of our work is qualitative in the sense that we converse with children; some of it is quantitative in the sense that we use numbers. But in both our qualitative and quantitative work, our objective is the same: bringing marketers and children closer together.

Many research projects begin with narrowly framed questions. "Should we use animation or live action for this new campaign?" for example, or, "Which of these three product concepts should we carry into further development?" or, "Should we stress the wholesomeness or the wide variety of choice at our fast food restaurant?"

The questions asked by marketers tend, not surprisingly, to reflect the parameters of day to day decision-making in the life of a marketing executive. But all too often, their marketer-centric conceptualization does not mesh with the realities of children's everyday intellectual functioning in the marketplace.


On an intellectual plane, we try to help our clients ask questions that will help them understand children in the marketplace. If preferences or likability ratings or verbal recall are not appropriate, we tell them why and point out measures (like recognition, attention or in-store behaviors) that would be more valid. But some of what we do goes beyond the asking and answering of questions.

Many corporations have difficulty working on children's products. Corporate cultures get in the way. Some companies, (especially those that have been successful with adults) are wed to visions of their products' unique benefits -- and cannot accommodate to a consumer that is not benefit-oriented. At other companies (especially those that have been successful with a narrow product line for many years), habit and convention determine how things get done. In both situations, it is necessary to go beyond the narrow research question and address the corporate need to shift the focus back to where it should be -- to the kids.


In the mid 1970's, Dr. Rust, (a developmental psychologist) was hired by NBC to be Associate Producer of a children's TV program called the GO SHOW. At the insistence of the VP of Children's Programming, George Heinemann, Rust was to learn how shows were assembled, before giving any advice or counsel to the creative staff. He was to sit in on all production meetings, shoots and editing sessions and not utter a word for the first month on the job. This he did. Not a word. It was interesting to note the effect that his presence, however silent, had on the way the creative staff functioned. A typical interchange took place with Rift Fournier, one of the program producers, in the editing room.

The room was dark. The editor, a production assistant and Fournier sat in a row of seats at the computer table, their faces dimly lit by a wall of monitors in front of them. Fournier called out the time codes for the upcoming edit. The tapes rolled for the preview. When they stopped, Fournier said, "Yup, that works." He turned to the editor. "That work for you?" Editor responded, "Yup." Then Fournier noticed Rust in the back, slouching in the shadows and keeping quiet. He hesitated a beat and turned back to the editor, 'Think it would work for kids?"

In addition slouching around in the shadows in the back of every room, researchers can do other things to keep corporate awareness of children high. Periodic seminars serve this end. Qualitative interviews keep executives looking at children and thinking of them as people. Periodic testings of products and communications help, too. Even research that S methodologically marginal helps marketers because it keeps kids top of mind.


A comedian with a good sense of timing, a storyteller with a good ear for dialogue, a teacher with a talent for finding the right book for the right child. There is a vast domain of skills that are shaped by experience but are not taught (and are probably not teachable) by books or memos or research reports. Skills like generating a good package design, creating a good commercial, formulating a good product, are as important to the success of a company as the skill of deciding whether to go with variant A or variant B. These have a large component of intuition, and although intuition-is grounded-on experience, it does not follow the strict rules of hypothetico deductive reasoning. Experimental designs and multivariate analyses can be extremely useful to people who make decisions about other people's creative work, but they are often irrelevant to the creative process itself. They can even be inhibiting. The following story, perhaps apocryphal, illustrates the point.

During the 1930's, in the early days of putting social science to work on marketing issues, a publisher decided to use research to find a book concept that would be assured of success. The researchers accepted the question as framed, went out to gather data, and established that the hottest topics of the day were Abraham Lincoln stories, dog stories and doctor stories. To everyone's amazement, however, the new book, Mr. Lincoln's Doctor's Dog proved to be a flop.

Creative enterprises need more than Mr Lincoln's Doctors Dog research. One of the problems with such mechanistic approaches to creative issues is that they are premised on a tight, a priori definition of variables. But creatives work best on a more concrete level. They are learn more from example than from theories, from anecdotes than from principles. They thrive on richness and variety of stimulus exposure, not restriction and control, which are the usual fodder for scientific abstractions.

Qualitative research done with a facility with a one-way mirror gives creatives a change to build on their store of concrete examples and stories. This kind of experience feeds into the creative needs in an especially powerful fashion.


It is no coincidence that so many of our most talented film and TV performers did their apprenticeships in media where they had direct, continuous audience feedback. Legitimate theater, music halls, the club circuit all give performers moment to moment feedback. Somehow they process that feedback. In time, the best of them develop an intuitive sense of audience perspective -and a skill at playing to it that is uncanny.

One of the observational measures we use evolved from the distractor method that was so useful in developing SESAME STREET and THE ELECTRIC COMPANY. By videotaping children's faces while they watch TV, we calculate the percent of audience looking at the TV at each moment, and make a videotape that superimposes the attention levels over the material that the children had been watching. Attention levels give an extremely sensitive index of viewer response. To creatives, it is like playing to a live audience. Over time, as their experience base broadens, they develop an intuitive sense of how to reach and hold children's interest in the TV.


We do not have a comprehensive theory that lets you deduce all the research tools to use in each situation. For example, although it is traditional for researchers to use qualitative research for diagnosis and quantitative for evaluation, there have been times we have used qualitative for evaluating alternative products and quantitative for diagnosing the strengths and weakness of an ad campaign. Designing a research program to help a client with a specific set of problems is not unlike creating new advertising strategy or developing a new product. Principles and theory contribute coherence and structure, but the actual creation is stimulated by examples and shaped by intuitions grounded in experience.


Here is an example that encapsulates some of our own experience, and reflects some of our intuitions and theories about research design. To protect the proprietary interest of our clients, we have mixed the elements of several projects together, and changed the product category.

The client was a multi-national food manufacturer with minimal experience marketing to children. The product was a lunch-box snack for children.

The company came to us initially asking for a couple of focus groups with kids to explore cartoon characters in general, and to evaluate some broad concepts they had for a new character to advertise their snack. This was the first time the full team, from agency and client, had worked together on a project.

We suggested they begin instead by taking a step backwards and get their bearings. The tea n needed to get to know each other as people, and they needed to establish a common language for talking about their market, objectives and strategies.


We began with a one-day seminar on the children as consumers, on the role of snacks in their lives, and how advertising worked -- with special emphasis on how cartoon characters functioned and what made some so much more effective than others.


Day 2 took the lessons of the seminar and put the participants to work in a variety of creative tasks. Researchers, brand and account people shared in the creative work along with the writers and artists.

Some of the exercises were aimed at getting people in touch with their own childhood ("Close your eyes, and in your mind's eye, go back to a time when you were very young. Picture, if you can, your favorite toy. You are playing with it. What are you feeling...."). Bringing adults back to their own youth not only gives a tremendous release, an unshackling of their creative thinking, but it also helps them conjure up those unique properties of childhood experience -- the intensity of its focus, the purity of its feeling -- that are so important to recognize when you are trying to communicate to them.

As the day progressed, more of the creative work was done in small groups. Characters grew from loose ideas into articulate concepts with supporting casts and coherent fantasy worlds. Some concepts split and got developed in parallel tracks. Many concepts were retired, some to re-emerge in new form, others to never be seen again Ideas were passed from group to group, so people could build on the good ideas of each other, and so that ownership for each idea would be shared by all. One of the participants was new to the country -- he was an expert in international marketing who had been moved in recently from overseas. He was there only as an observer. He knew none of the other people in the room and had no authority on the project. But triggered by the recollection of his favorite childhood toy, a little dragon, he planted the seed for one of the most charming concepts of the day. No matter that the idea didn't come from a creative, we were all vested in all the concepts that came forth that day.

The next morning, the concepts that by consensus had the most potential were drawn up by the artists, and back stories were written by the writers. And that afternoon, right after school, we showed them to children


Going immediately to the field has many advantages. The lessons of the seminar, reviewed during the workshop, are still fresh and have a chance to get confirmed, rehearsed and practiced while watching real kids. The creative concepts are still plastic. No memos have been written, no reputations committed to one or the other. Ownership is still shared. All the seminar participants came to the sessions and watched through the one-way mirror. The one-way mirror brings the power of live theater to the research business. Seeing the kids and their reactions to the still-wet copy, left an indelible impression on the whole team. No one could look at any subsequent generation of those characters without remembering the looks and comments of children as they saw them for the first time.

Best friends. Children were interviewed in pairs of best friends. This makes children more relaxed, open and unself-conscious with each other and the interviewer. There is none of the "feeling each other out" or jockeying for position which is inevitable when you bring strangers together -- and which delays larger groups or one-on-ones from getting down to business. With friend pairs, the warm-up is very brief, and they get right down to work. And the interviews are not so susceptible as larger groups are to being dominated by one or two outspoken personalities.

Team-Focus interviewing. We conducted the qualitative as a team. Hyatt ran the interviews while Rust sat in the back room with the client, guiding their observations and steering them away from adult interpretation -- essentially running the session as a tutorial. In projects where theory building is a priority, the team approach is also useful. A moderator working alone must delay the analysis until the end of the day when the memories are no longer fresh and mid-course corrections impossible.

Leave the kids alone for a while. After the various characters were shown to the children, the drawings were left on the wall and the interviewer left the room. The children tended to take this private moment to chatter about the experience they'd just been through, and how they had reacted to the characters. What kids reveal when you ask them questions is not always what they reveal spontaneously in an intimate exchange with a best friend.


In the debriefing after the qualitative, the strengths and weakness of each character were discussed. Characters with least potential were dropped. The team worked up a new set of alternatives, building on what they'd learned. By the next afternoon, a new set of boards and stories were ready, and a second set of qualitative interviews were run.

At this point in time the client had three solidly grounded character concepts, filled out in considerable detail, that children were reacting very positively to and that had the support of all the key corporate players. They knew not only that these characters were working, but why they were working, so the next stages of development could capitalize upon their strengths. All this had been accomplished in 4 days.

Some weeks later, more polished presentations of three of the characters, with plots and messages closer to real commercials, were prepared and tested qualitatively. With the diagnostic feedback from that research, production of animatics was begun. The next phase of research was quantitative.


Our standard copytest procedure was used. Each child was exposed to only one of the new characters. The children were 6 to 11 years old. The sample was 15 per commercial.

The purpose of the test was camouflaged. Children came in to watch a show. Viewing was done in groups of six at a time. They saw a 10-minute cartoon with two commercial breaks. The test commercial played in the middle position of both breaks. It was shown twice because we have found that children's reactions to a commercial often shift on second exposure. It was inserted in naturalistic clutter because that is the context in which commercials are viewed at home. The motivation of the home viewer is to watch the show, not a commercial. So this is the mental set we established in our test.

The layout of the room was standardized. Chair placement, set size, and set placement matched the previous copytests we have done on children's commercials. A low-level distractor (a random sequence of slides playing an adjacent screen) was provided to give the children something else to look at if their interest faded. Studies of at-home viewing has shown that most TV viewing goes on in a semidistracted environment. Children look away and get involved in other activities. There is coming and going in the room, toys on the floor, siblings or friends to interact with. Commercials have to compete with simultaneous distractions in the real world, so we provide simultaneous distractions in our test.

While the children sat and watched the shows, a video-camera recorded their faces. Subsequent analysis of the videotapes let us calculate the percent of children actually looking at the commercials every two seconds during their first and second exposure.

After the viewing session, the children were given one-on-one interviews. A picture-based brand choice item showed them 6 different snacks and had them mark all the ones they wanted. It turned out that viewers of Commercial A were most likely to choose the test brand. Open ended questions got children to reconstruct what they remembered from the commercial, and explored what they thought it said about the product. Communications was pretty good for all the commercials. Later questions got children to rate the commercial, the various characters, and some key attributes of the product. The latter ratings all asked for binary judgments: Is it sweet? Yes/no/not sure, etc. Children do not generally perceive qualities in a dimensional fashion. A product either has a property or it does not. By concentrating on yes/no's, we find that interviewing goes much faster and more pleasurably with young children, and we feel secure that it more accurately reflects the thinking they actually do in the real world, where children are anything but slow, deliberative and measured. A general rule we follow is that if a child has to stop and think before answering, she is invoking mechanisms she probably never uses in the marketplace.

In this study, the most actionable findings came from the attention data. Comparing the executions, we were able to establish that the commercial featuring Character A significantly outpulled the others. A check of the norms showed that it did very well indeed -- and it did so by holding on to older children, who often lose interest in animated characters. By examining the attention on a moment-to-moment basis, we were able to confirm that the character was strong. There was a tendency for interest to peak every time the character was actively involved in the plot -- even on second exposure.

There were two spots where attention fell. One was where the screen portrayed one thing while the soundtrack talked about something else -- a problem that frequently afflicts animatics and would be straightened out in a finished production. The other drop-off came when the scene cut abruptly to a new setting with a new secondary character. Viewers appeared to have gotten disoriented, and some of them just turned away. This problem required some rewriting to solve.


That is where things stand today. A final version is currently in production. The plan is to evaluate it before broadcast, using the same copytest procedures and comparing it to the full-production norms. Qualitative research will be done periodically to explore new poolouts, promotions and premiums -- and to keep the supply of fresh new stories "from the front" coming into corporate HQ. And every year or so an additional copytest will be run to see how well the copy is holding up, what parts are starting to wear out, and when it is time to come in with a new campaign.

The children will be the ultimate judges. Our job is to keep the client in touch with them. We have tried, by this example, to show how the tools we use, both qualitative and quantitative, serve this objective. They serve to keep the corporate culture focused on children, to provide a wealth of examples that can stimulate the creative process, give moment-to-moment feedback to shape intuition, and answer questions that are meaningful in the context of these unique consumers who are our children.



Langbourne Rust, Langbourne Rust Research, Inc.
Carole Hyatt, Hyatt Associates, Inc.


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18 | 1991

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