Children's Consumer Information Processing: Representation of Information From Television Advertisements

ABSTRACT - This paper considers several conceptual and methodological issues involved in examining how children represent TV information in their memory system. It is suggested that researchers examine children's constructed memory for advertising information as well as their verbatim memory for commercial elements. The kinds of interpretations and connections children make regarding the nature of the advertised product and its relationship to other similar products are proposed as ways in which children might "construct" meaning for the advertised information. Furthermore, the paper discusses how to measure children's memory for advertisements and suggests that both recall and recognition measures should be used. This is to insure that researchers do not underestimate young children's processing abilities.


Ellen Wartella, Daniel B. Wackman, and Scott Ward (1978) ,"Children's Consumer Information Processing: Representation of Information From Television Advertisements", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05, eds. Kent Hunt, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 535-539.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 1978      Pages 535-539


Ellen Wartella, The Ohio State University

Daniel B. Wackman, University of Minnesota

Scott Ward, Harvard University and Marketing Science Institute


This paper considers several conceptual and methodological issues involved in examining how children represent TV information in their memory system. It is suggested that researchers examine children's constructed memory for advertising information as well as their verbatim memory for commercial elements. The kinds of interpretations and connections children make regarding the nature of the advertised product and its relationship to other similar products are proposed as ways in which children might "construct" meaning for the advertised information. Furthermore, the paper discusses how to measure children's memory for advertisements and suggests that both recall and recognition measures should be used. This is to insure that researchers do not underestimate young children's processing abilities.


Models of adult consumer information processing have tended to distinguish those processes involved in viewer reactions to television advertising from those mental processes involved in product choice situations (Hughes and Ray, 1974). The activities of selecting, interpreting and making sense of advertising information are referred to here as representational processes since they concern how advertising information is represented in the child's cognitive system. This paper will focus on several conceptual and methodological issues surrounding the way investigators model children's representation of information from television advertising stimuli.

The notions presented here are an extension of previous work adopting a cognitive developmental perspective on children's consumer information processing by Ward, Wackman and Wartella (1977). The basic model of information processing outlined in this previous research has relied heavily on Piaget's theory of cognitive development to suggest major dimensions along which children younger and older than middle childhood vary. Perhaps best-known of these dimensions is that of perceptual boundedness: younger children's tendency to focus on the perceptual and surface characteristics of products and advertisements (Wartella and Ettema, 1974; Ward and Wackman, 1973). We have viewed these dimensions of cognitive growth and the general cognitive abilities available to children as "rules for processing information" at various levels of cognitive development (Kohlberg, 1969).

This initial conceptual model followed rather strictly Piaget's theory and was useful in isolating the general distinctions among grade school children's knowledge about TV advertising and products. For instance, between kindergarten and sixth grade, children acquire greater understanding of the purpose of advertising; they tend to select both more and varied kinds of information when recalling a television commercial and describing a product, and gradually use multiple attributes when comparing brands of a product group (Ward, Wackman and Wartella, 1977; chapters 3 and 4).

In our current research, our interest is to go beyond these general dimensions of children's consumer information processing and elaborate more fully various aspects of how children represent information from specific TV advertisements. Our research is still strongly cognitive developmental in perspective but less closely aligned to strict Piagetian formulation.


In our previous research we examined children's information processing transituationally; i.e., the same mental processes intervening between the input of a stimulus and the child's output of a response were assumed to occur both in the television viewing situation and in product choice situations. Consequently, we tended to focus on information processing activities which were similar in both task situations. For example, information selection from an advertisement was operationally defined as recall of elements in a commercial; and information selection about products was operationally defined as the kind of attributes children focus upon when they are asked to consider buying a new product (Ward, Wackman and Wartella, 1977). For purposes of describing general characteristics of children's thought about the consumer environment, this conceptual and methodological approach proved useful, as suggested above. However, in order to increase conceptual clarity of those activities involved in consumer information processing, it seems advisable to examine these two task situations independently. In this way, more specificity in points of divergence and similarity between the two processing tasks can be examined.

Furthermore, as Dawes (1975) points out, any model of information processing is necessarily circumscribed by the task being modeled. In particular, problem-solving tasks might best be viewed as conceptually distinct from non-problem solving tasks (Berlyne, 1970). While many of the same mental activities are involved in both situations, the tasks posed for the child information processor are probably much different.

For instance, a major distinction between the television viewing situation and the product choice situation is the degree to which each task is problem-oriented, wherein the child is seeking information to reach some solution or decision, such as a product choice. It would seem reasonable to assume that in most instances when young, grade-school children sit down in front of a TV set and watch a commercial there is little "planfulness" involved in how they select information and little "intention'' to seek information to use in a purchase decision. This assumption is based on the evidence of relatively low comprehension of the purpose of advertising by grade school children and only moderate awareness of TV advertising as a source of new product information across a wide range of products (Ward, Wackman and Wartella, 1977). [For instance, among kindergarten, third and sixth grade subjects surveyed, only four percent, 15 percent and 38 percent respectively, indicated that they recognized the selling motive when they responded to the question: Why are commercials shown on television (Ward, Wackman and Wartella, 1977; Table 4-4, p. 60). Further, when these same children were asked to name sources of new product information for toys, clothes and snack foods, fewer than one-third of the kindergartners, and only about one-half of the third and sixth graders mentioned TV commercials (Tables 4-2; p. 57).] Such directed and planful use of television advertising probably occurs only rarely, and most likely at particular times during the year, such as Christmas time when children are seeking gift ideas (Caron and Ward, 1975). On the other hand, when children are asked to "choose" a cereal at the store or are given money to spend on a product of their choice, the information processing task at hand involves directed thinking activities and intentional use of information to solve a problem, i.e., to "buy" the product that best satisfies the child's needs or desires.

This is not to say that children don't use information which they have learned from television commercials to reach a purchase decision; indeed, there is evidence that television viewing influences product requests at Christmas time (Robertson and Rossiter, 1977). This suggests that viewing TV advertising may directly affect product choice by influencing the child to buy a particular product, i.e., by raising the salience of product X above all other brands of a product group. Alternatively, TV advertising may influence the child's strategy for approaching a product decision, by suggesting certain attributes of brands in a product class to be considered, i.e., suggesting that the child buy the brand of a product class that has the most of attribute X (Wright and Barbour, 1975).

However, the crucial point is that television advertising most likely enters product decision-making tasks sometime after viewing the television advertisement even if during TV commercial viewing the child's desire for a product is raised. This suggests that we should examine children's memory of what they have seen and heard from television commercials since it is what they have stored and retrieved from memory which will influence their processing activities at the time of product decision-making.

We are interested here, then, in exploring how the information presented on the television screen is stored and retrieved from the child's memory system. Rather than focus on models of information processing which are directly problem-solving task-oriented, such as Newell and Simon (1972) and Pascual-Leone (1969, 1970), we have chosen to examine models of memory development for further conceptualization of how children select, interpret and comprehend TV advertising information.


The view of memory adopted here distinguishes between two types of memory: episodic memory, or memory for a specific event which occurred at a specific time and place; and semantic memory, or the accumulated knowledge one has acquired about the world (Brown, 1975). Piaget and Inhelder (1973) refer to the former as "memory in the strict sense" and the latter as "memory in the wider sense." Episodic memory involves memory for directly experienced occurrences, the actual input or verbatim recollection of experience and "for discrete perceptual instances that are distinct and separable from the larger unit ia which they occur" (Brown, 1975; p. 136). Thus, episodic memory is usually what is referred to as verbatim memory for a television commercial or program, as it involves remembering the elements of the television commercial. On the other hand, Brown (1975) notes that semantic memory involves "memory for meaningful systems of units in context." Such memory is constructive and holistic, and it is memory for the gist of a narrative or story, such as the overall "message" a viewer constructs from a TV commercial.

Further, as Brown (1975) points out, no particular interaction with an environmental stimulus is totally one type of memory experience or the other for a child; aspects of both episodic and semantic memory are involved whenever a child interacts with the environment. Children's semantic memory system, in the broadest sense their acquired knowledge about the world and their attendant cognitive abilities, skills and language, helps determine what they will "remember" about any specific episode or occurrence, i.e., it influences children's episodic memory:

"What the head knows has enormous effect on what the head learns and remembers... Older individuals will presumable store, retain and retrieve a great many inputs better or differently than younger ones, for example, simply because developmental advances in the content and structure of their semantic or conceptual systems render these inputs more familiar, meaningful, subject to gap filling or otherwise more memorable for them. (Flavell, 1977; p. 189)

This perspective maintains that memory is a constructive process. Memory "involves an imaginative reconstruction or construction built on extant knowledge" (Brown, 1975). Both at the point of storing and retrieving information from memory, the subject is constructing and reconstructing an internal representation of that information to be remembered (Paris, 1975).

One result of this constructive aspect of memory is that children attempt to integrate information they remember to comprehend the "gist" of the stimuli presented. Paris (1975) reviews several studies in which children in second and fifth grade were presented with a series of sentences which told a story. Later the subjects were given a series of sentences to read, some of which they had actually read earlier, some of which were new but preserved the meaning of what they had read, and some of which were new sentences that did not preserve the meaning. Paris reports that the children consistently confused the original sentences with those new sentences which preserved the correct meaning of the narrative. This finding (which has also been found for memory of pictorial stimuli) suggests that children integrate semantic information to construct a holistic meaning of that information. They go beyond the information given to integrate ideas and form inferences. Further, as this research points out, children's integration of information is sometimes at the expense of correct recognition of information they had actually seen or heard.

The perspective on memory outlined above has a very basic implication for research on children's information processing of television advertisements: researchers should examine more than verbatim or episodic memory for particular elements of commercials, such as brand name or product attributes mentioned. Examination must be made of the kinds of inferences and connections children make when integrating the advertised information into their semantic memory system, i.e., what overall message do the children take away from the commercial? As Paris' (1975) work suggests, even in the absence of children's faithful and accurate retrieval of specific elements from an advertised message, these children may still "remember" some constructed or integrated meaning from the message. It may be this "constructed meaning" from the message which children recollect from the advertisement during product decision-making situations.

In our current research, we are exploring several ways in which children might go beyond the information given in the TV commercial, including: (1) by drawing connections between the product and themselves, such as how they can use the product or what will happen to them after buying the product; (2) by making comparisons between the product advertised and other brands of that product class, such as how game X is the same as or different from other games the child has played; (3) by making inferences about the people and activities shown in the commercial to arrive at inferred attributes of the product. Researcher attention to such connections and inference-making should further elucidate cognitive characteristics of children's representation of TV advertising information. This is particularly the case since past research on information processing of advertisements has primarily examined children's selection and recall of commercial elements (Ward, Wackman and Wartella, 1977).

A second implication of memory research for consumer information processing studies concerns the kind of developmental differences in processing activities which may be observed. Verbatim memory of commercial elements and constructed memory for the commercial's meaning may not show the same type of developmental effects. Brown (1975a, 1975b) argues that where memory tasks involve primarily episodic memory, the researcher should expect a "levels difference" on the measure of memory retrieval For instance, various research studies have indicated that as children grow older they recall a greater number of elements (Ward, Wackman and Wartella, 1977); thus the level of recall performance increases with age. However, where memory retrieval tasks engage primarily the semantic memory system, Brown predicts that the researcher will find a pattern difference, some interaction of developmental level with the task variables. For instance, one might predict a "patterns difference" in the type of inferences children in grade school make about the television commercial message. Considering that children younger than middle childhood have been shown to have difficulty making comparative judgments about objects (Cellerier, 1972), such children might be less likely than older children to make connections between the product advertised and other brands of that product class. Older children might be more likely to make multiple kinds of connections and inferences about the advertising information.

This discussion of the kinds of constructed meanings children might make of advertising information and the types of developmental effects which might be hypothesized for children's representation of advertising information should serve to illustrate the relevance of memory research for conceptualizing children's consumer information processing. Furthermore, the literature on memory development has implications for the methodologies employed to measure processing activities.


Measurement of children's memory for television advertising information has typically employed open-ended recall measures (Rossiter, 1975; Rubin, 1972; Ward, Wackman and Wartella, 1977). Furthermore, researchers have focused primarily on verbal memory to the neglect of visual memory (Rossiter, 1975). Although the particular modality used to code information in memory is still open to debate (cf. Bransford and McCarrell, 1974; Brown, 1975; Piaget and Inhelder, 1973), it seems reasonable to allow for the possibility of multiple forms of representation--visual, verbal and imaginal. As Rossiter (1975) has suggested, multiple memory codes should be measured.

The issue of how best to measure retrieval of information from memory may be a thornier issue than previous research has acknowledged. Particularly, more attention should be paid to the distinctions between recall and recognition memory. While researchers may tend to think of recall and recognition questions as measurement tools, recall and recognition activities also constitute types of retrieval activities for the subject being interviewed. Moreover, recall and recognition memory place different task demands on the subject for actively retrieving information from memory.

Recognition involves external memory cues for the child, such that there is already something present in immediate experience to assist the retrieval process. There are no such external cues present in recall memory. In recall, the subject has to do more of the retrieval job himself: "recall is the more difficult process as it demands regeneration in the absence of the stimulus" (Brown, 1975. p. 111). Piaget (1968) and Brown (1975) have proposed that there is a developmental progression in the development of these retrieval activities, such that recognition memory develops earlier in the child than does recall memory. [Piaget (1968) introduces an intervening retrieval process called reconstruction memory which occurs when the child is presented with the elements of a pattern he was previously shown and is then asked to reconstruct the correct pattern from the elements. Piaget suggests that the developmental sequence of memory development moves from recognition to reconstruction to recall memory. Reconstruction memory seems less useful as a general measurement tool for advertising research and thus has been ignored here.] Several studies provide evidence that recognition is a more efficient memorial process than recall for children younger than middle childhood (A. L. Brown, 1975b; Ritter, et al, 1973; Kobasigawa, 1974). This research literature suggests that both recognition and recall measures should be used to examine young children's memory for television advertising information. It may be the case that previous research has underestimated what children are learning from television advertising. In our current research we are exploring this possibility.

A series of experiments are in preparation to examine kindergarten and third grade children's information processing of several specially produced commercials for hypothetical brands of candy and game products. A post-viewing questionnaire is under construction to measure children's recall and recognition of both discrete visual and verbal elements of the commercials and various kinds of inferences and connections children might make to integrate the commercial information. The general question strategy is to begin each type of question with a recall measure (e.g., "What product did the commercial show you?") and then to follow that open-ended recall question with a series of multiple-choice recognition items (e.g., "Was it: a) a raisin candy b) a chocolate covered raisin c) a chocolate covered peanut?). Through a revolving sequence of recall and visual and verbal recognition measures we are attempting to tap children's episodic and semantic memory for the product advertised and the TV commercial narrative message.

Pretest data collected in Columbus, Ohio on 18 kindergarten and 12 third grade children's episodic memory for advertised information about a chocolate covered raisin candy are presented on the next page. Recall and recognition measures were made after one TV commercial exposure. Children's memory for the type of product advertised, brand name, and two attributes mentioned about the candy was measured, first by a recall measure and then if the answer was either incorrect or incomplete, by a recognition measure. As the table indicates, third graders show better memory overall of the advertised product than do kindergartners, particularly when recall measures are employed. However, when recognition measures are used, the number of kindergartners "remembering'' the commercial elements improves considerably. Although these data refer to episodic memory, we are also utilizing recall and recognition measures to examine children's semantic integration of the advertised information.



The suggestion that recognition measures provide better estimates of children's verbatim memory for commercial messages is a rather obvious statement. Surprisingly, such recognition items are rarely employed. If the goal of the researcher is to identify optimally how much of the commercial message children do store in memory, then recognition measures should be used.

One argument which might be advanced for not using recognition measures rests on an implicit assumption regarding how advertised information is used in children's product decision-making. If it is assumed that information which can be recalled, i.e., self-generated without external cues, has the greatest impact on subsequent decision-making, then recognition memory of a TV advertisement would seem relatively unimportant. Alternatively, if it is assumed that children's product decision-making at least sometimes occurs in situations -where children do have cues to remind them about the advertised information, e.g., product choices which occur in stores, then recognition memory for advertised information may be relatively more important in product decision-making. However, until we know more about how and where children do reach decisions about product choice, and the kinds of situational factors which are present during decision-making, it is difficult to assess the validity of these alternative assumptions. Our current research strategy is to measure both recall and recognition memory since we are interested in assessing how much of the advertised information children do store regardless of which retrieval strategy is used in subsequent decision-making.

To summarize our position, we believe that research on children's information processing of television advertisements can be informed both conceptually and methodologically by considering the development of memory activities. Greater attention should be paid to semantic memory or how children integrate advertising messages into their general knowledge system. By examining how children construct meanings of the advertised information and represent that meaning in their memory system we hope to acquire greater understanding of how children use advertising information in subsequent product decision-making. This research perspective should lead to greater specificity in conceptualizing and measuring children's information processing activities.


D. E. Berlyne (1970) Children's reasoning and thinking. In P. H. Mussen (ed.) Carmichael's Manual of Child Psychology, third ed. New York: Wiley.

J. D. Bransford and N. S. McCarrell (1974) A sketch of a cognitive approach to comprehension: some thoughts about what it means to comprehend. In W. B. Weimer and D.S. Palermo (eds.) Cognition and Symbolic Processes New York: Winston.

A. L. Brown (1975a) The development of memory. In H. W. Reese (ed.) Advances in Child Development and Behavior, 10 New York: Academic Press.

A. L. Brown (1975b) Recognition, reconstruction and recall of narrative sequences by preoperational children. Child Development, 46, 156-166.

A. Caron and S. Ward (1975) Gift decisions by kids and parents. Journal of Advertising Research, 15, 4, 15-20.

G. Cellerier (1972) Information processing activities in recent experiments in cognitive learning--Empirical studies. In S. Farnham-Diggory (ed.) Information Processing in Children. New York: Academic Press.

R. M. Dawes (1975) The mind, the model and the task. In F. Restle, R. M. Shiffrin, N. J. Castellan, H.R. Lindman and D. P . Pisoni (eds.) Cognitive Theory, Vol. 1. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

J. H. Flavell (1971) First discussant's comment: What is memory development the development of? Human Development, 14, 272-278.

J. H. Flavell (1977) Cognitive Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Princeton-Hall.

G. D. Hughes and M. L. Ray (1974) Buyer-Consumer Information Processing. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press.

A. Kobasigawa (1974) Utilization of retrieval cues by children in recall. Child Development, 45, 127-134.

L. Kohlberg (1969) The cognitive developmental approach to socialization. In D. Goslin (ed.) Handbook of Socialization Theory and Research. Chicago: Rand McNally.

D. E. Liebert, J. N. Sprafkin, R. M. Liebert and E. A. Rubenstein (1977) Effects of television commercial disclaimers on the product expectations of children. Journal of Communication, 27, 118-124.

A. Newell and H. A. Simon (1972) Integration and inference in children's comprehension and memory. In F. Restle, et al, (eds.) Cognitive Theory, Vol. 1. New York: Wiley, 223-246.

J. Pascual-Leone (1970) A mathematical model for the transition rule in Piaget's developmental stages. Acta Psychologica, 63, 301-345.

J. Pascual-Leone and J. Smith (1969) The encoding and decoding of symbols by children: A new experimental paradigm and a neoPiagetian model. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 8, 328-355.

J. Piaget (1968) On the Development of Identity and Memory. Worcester, Mass.: Clark University Press and Barre.

J. Piaget and B. Inhelder (1973) Memory and Intelligence. New York: Basic Books

K. Ritter, B. H. Kaprove, J.P. Fitch and J. H. Flavell (1973) The development of retrieval strategies in young children. Cognitive Psychology, 5, 310-321.

T. S. Robertson and J. R. Rossiter (1977) Children's responsiveness to commercials. Journal of Communication, 27, 101-106.

J. R. Rossiter (1975) Visual and verbal memory in children's product information utilization. In B. B. Anderson (ed.) Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 3. Association for Consumer Research, 523-527.

R. S. Rubin (1972) An exploratory investigation of children's responses to commercial content of television advertising in relation to their stages of cognitive development. Unpublished Ph.D dissertation, University of Massachusetts.

D. B. Wackman and S. Ward (1975) The development of consumer information processing skills: contributions of cognitive development theory. Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 3. Association for Consumer Research.

S. Ward and D. B. Wackman (1973) Children's information processing of television advertising. In P. Clarke (ed.) New Models for Communication Research. Beverly Hills, California: Sage Publications. 119-146.

S. Ward, D. B. Wackman and E. Wartella (1977) How Children Learn to Buy: The Development of Consumer Information Processing Skills. Beverly Hills, Ca.: Sage Publishing.

E. Wartella and J. S. Ettema (1974) A cognitive developmental study of children's attention to television commercials. Communication Research, 1, 46-69.

P. Wright and F. Barbour (1975) The relevance of decision process models in structuring persuasive messages. Communication Research, 2, 246-259.



Ellen Wartella, The Ohio State University
Daniel B. Wackman, University of Minnesota
Scott Ward, Harvard University and Marketing Science Institute


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05 | 1978

Share Proceeding

Featured papers

See More


Consumers' response to branded longevity

Anthony Moussa, Paris School of Business

Read More


F13. A Story of Waste: Trust, Symbolic Adoption & Sustainable Disposal

Marwa Gad Mohsen, Babson College, USA

Read More


Brought To You Live”: On The Consumption Experience of Live Social Media Streams

Nofar Duani, New York University, USA
Alixandra Barasch, New York University, USA
Adrian Ward, University of Texas at Austin, USA

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.