Researchers Look At the 'Kid Vid' Rule: Overview of Session


Scott Ward (1979) ,"Researchers Look At the 'Kid Vid' Rule: Overview of Session", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 7-11.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 7-11


Scott Ward, Harvard Business School


This panel of leading researchers in the children's area was convened immediately following the initial session on policy issues in children's advertising. Each of our five speakers delivered a brief summary of his or her general position. These were followed by a lively question and response session. The five speakers were:

Charles Atkin, Michigan State University

Marvin Goldberg, McGill University

Thomas Robertson, University of Pennsylvania

Ellen Wartella, Ohio State University

Scott Ward, Harvard University

Illustrative comments of each speaker are presented in this paper. Due to the complexity of this topic, and its current importance, readers are cautioned to view these as illustrative comments only, and to pursue greater depths in the expanding literature on children's consumer behaviors.


This summary describes the key conclusions drawn from my 70 page statement submitted to the Federal Trade Commission inquiry into children's advertising. The conclusions are based on an extensive review of available research evidence drawn from almost 100 sources, including my own series of investigations conducted over the past six years.

The most important conclusions will be briefly listed. Then, a more detailed statement will be provided for each topic area.

* Children pay attention to about 10,000 commercials per year, including 1,000 Saturday morning ads for toys and food products.

* Children under eight years old display little understanding of the persuasive intent of advertising and tend to trust the claims made in commercials.

* TV advertising plays a dominant role in shaping children's preferences for toy and food products. Children who heavily view TV ads are far more likely to request and to consume such products.

* Children are persuaded to want cereal because a favorite commercial character promotes it or a toy premium is included in the box; nutritional value is not a salient factor.

* TV commercials contribute to intra-family conflict when frequent food and toy requests are rejected by parents. Ads also create some disappointment and irritation for children.

* Parents do not play a strong direct role in educating children about TV advertising, and they support additional regulations and reductions in child-oriented TV advertising.

Among the remedies for problems associated with children's advertising, the evidence indicates several proposals would be effective: a ban on ads directed to young children, restrictions on practices such as fantasy source characters and premium appeals, limitations on the amount of advertising time, and PSA-style disclosures about nutrition and health.

1. Characteristics of Advertising Directed to Children: Content Analysis Evidence

A growing number of content analysis studies have sampled children's commercials and systematically tabulated the message attributes in terms of type of product, source characteristics, message appeals, information content, and style of presentation.

These studies show that food products, particularly cereals, are most frequently advertised. Toys are heavily promoted in the months leading up to Christmas. The three basic types of sources are fantasy characters, child characters, and adult figures; most performers and announcers are male. The attractiveness of the characters is far more emphasized than their expertise regarding the product.

The message appeals tend to be emotional rather than rational, contain exaggeration of benefits, and emphasize fun themes. Premium offers are featured in a substantial proportion of ads for cereals and eating places.

Information about substantive qualities of the products is seldom promoted in ads. Food ads feature sweetness or chewiness more often than vitamin attributes. Stylistically, ads tend to be fast-paced and light rather than serious in tone.

Thus, the ads don't provide a solid basis for judging the pertinent merits of the product. The product is associated with irrelevant characters, irrelevant premium offers, fast-paced action in a non-serious tone, and implicit emotional claims promising fun and exaggerated satisfaction. The ingredients, cost, and materials are not emphasized nor are disclaimers effectively communicated in many instances.

2. Children's Exposure and Attention to TV Advertising

Children watch slightly more than three hours of commercial television per day, with Saturday morning viewing accounting for less than 10% of their exposure time. Although children can potentially see 20,000 ads per year, attention studies indicate that actual exposure is considerably less than this. Program attention level drops slightly at the onset of an ad, drops somewhat during the course of the commercial, and drops substantially further for subsequent commercials in a block. Thus, during a time slot when children are watching television, they probably pay close attention to about 40% or 50% of the ads that appear during that period. The estimate for the total number of ads closely attended is likely to be less than 10,000 per year; no more than 1,000 Saturday morning commercials are probably viewed.

3. Children's Understanding of the Nature of Advertising

The level of sophistication regarding the nature of advertising increases sharply with age. Children up to age eight display low levels of understanding of selling intent and little conceptual distinction between programming and advertising. As youngsters develop through late childhood, they demonstrate an increasingly advanced grasp of selling intent, the biased nature of product presentation in an advertising message, and the substantive difference between programs and ads.

4. Belief of Television Commercials

Inferences regarding children's acceptance of advertising claims depends on the measurement procedure employed. When given a dichotomous forced-choice question asking whether ads are true or untrue, the proportion of children who exhibit generalized distrust rises from about one-fourth of the pre-eight year olds to three-fourths of those over ten years old. However, these studies have not tapped intermediate levels of disbelief, and rejection of specific advertisements and persuasive claims isn't prevalent. Although children are skeptical about assertions in commercials for familiar toys, they readily accept technical claims of a medical or nutritional nature. Heavy viewers of commercials are more likely to believe ads than light viewers.

5. Influence of Commercials on Children's Product Preferences

There is ample evidence that TV advertising plays a dominant role in shaping children's product preferences. Both children and mothers cite commercials as the leading source of awareness of preferred toys and foods. Both experiments and surveys show how exposure to advertising increases desire, asking, and consumption of advertised products. Children who heavily view TV advertising are far more likely to request that parents buy food and toy products for them.

Furthermore, the evidence indicates that advertising stimulates higher usage levels for those consumable products available in the home. There is some tendency for this impact to generalize to other brands; thus, generic consumption is stimulated as well as brand preferences.

Among the source and message factors which produce the strongest effects, premium offers and frequency of repetition appear to make some contribution.

6. Learning About Nutrition From Food Advertising

Among the factors that children weigh in selecting cereals, nutritional value does not seem to be a salient dimension. There is some evidence that children are persuaded to want the cereals for non-substantive reasons--because their favorite character likes the cereal or because they will obtain a toy premium in the box--which are the types of appeals featured most prominently in advertising. However, there are indicators that the limited nutrition-relevant information presented in ads can serve to heighten the importance of this attribute of cereals and to make the balanced breakfast more salient--at least for those who pay attention to that brief segment of the commercial.

Some findings suggest that children's beliefs about the nutritional value of various foods and sugar are shaped by advertising. In general, children are not critical evaluators of claims made in food advertising; they tend to accept the validity of strength benefits and attribute competence to cartoon sources.

The balanced breakfast concept, which is mentioned in most cereal ads, is not well understood by younger children. Rather than informing young viewers about the need for other foods at breakfast, this "disclaimer" may actually give the impression that cereal alone is sufficient. In addition, the ads do not seem to provide adequate awareness of the sugar levels in presweetened cereals or the cariogenic risks associated with sugared cereals, compared to other sweet foods.

7. Other Undesirable Consequences of Advertising

The evidence indicates that TV commercials have an effect on intra-family conflict and child unhappiness. First, parents reject approximately one-third to one-half of child requests for products. This leads to parent-child conflict in about half of all families; such arguments are generally mild and infrequent. The evidence shows that children who see the most advertising have considerably more conflict.

About one-third to one-half of the children become unhappy, angry, or disappointed after denials of food and toy requests; again, the rate is considerably higher among those seeing the most advertising. In addition, some children may become dissatisfied when actual products fall short of the advertised image. Advertising interruptions of program enjoyment produce irritation in many viewers.

8. Parental Mediation and Attitudes Regarding Children's Advertising

Parents do not play a strong direct role in educating children about television advertising. Most simply do not watch these ads with their children, and less than half of the mothers say they teach their children about advertising.

Clearly there is strong public support for additional regulations and reductions in child-oriented TV advertising. Recent surveys show that a majority favors an outright ban, representing a shift from studies done earlier in the 1970's. Regulation by the industry or an independent group is more widely favored than government restrictions.

9. Effectiveness of Proposed Restrictions on Advertising

The Federal Trade Commission Staff Report offers five possible remedies for the potential unfairness and deceptiveness of children's advertising. These include (a) disclosures of nutritional or health information within ads, (b) nutrition or health messages outside ads, (c) limitations on the amount of advertising, (d) limitations of advertising techniques, and (e) bans on all ads directed to younger children and on those ads directed to older children for products posing dental health risks.

Affirmative disclosures within advertisements may not be comprehended by younger children; most do not comprehend the standard disclaimers presented in contemporary toy commercials. However, there is limited basis for optimism: tests of modified versions of toy disclaimers, featuring simplified or conspicuous statements, show greater effectiveness; and researchers demonstrated that children are capable of learning nutrition information presented with a graphic device in the form of a stylized robot. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that advertisers would produce disclosures of sufficient length, prominence, and clarity to achieve similar effectiveness. Thus, the disclosure remedy does not appear to be highly promising at this time.

Affirmative disclosures outside advertisements would involve PSA-style messages to counterbalance the generic influence of advertising. There is considerable evidence that current PSA's have an impact on child audiences. Studies show that children pay close attention and learn the content of these messages; behavioral effects have also been demonstrated. Thus, similar types of spot messages promoting nutrition or warning about cavity risks are likely to be an effective remedy.

Limitations on the amount of advertising might involve reductions in advertising time to four or six minutes per hour on Saturday morning. To calculate the possible impact on stimulation of product desires and undesirable outcomes, the responses of current light vs. heavy viewers can be examined. Children who now watch a light diet of advertising have an exposure rate similar to the proposed reduced level. The research shows that these children, compared to heavily exposed viewers, are less likely to accept commercial claims, request products, consume advertised products, argue with parents over purchases, and experience unhappiness and dissatisfaction due to commercials. Thus, some beneficial outcomes might be expected if time limitations were instituted.

Restrictions on advertising techniques is a more ambiguous issue, since proscribed practices have not been specified. There is evidence that many children believe that fantasy characters in commercials are competent to discuss the merits of food products, and that these characters have an influence on product preferences. In addition, premium offers are effective in selling food products and contribute to parent-child conflict. Techniques such as these might be restricted, along with other practices identified in subsequent investigations. The need for centralized regulations is given greater impetus by the findings that parental teaching about advertising techniques isn't widespread.

Banning of advertising directed to children under eight who are too young to understand and evaluate commercials is the final remedy. Evidence supporting the case for a ban includes findings that children's commercials feature sophisticated techniques designed to appeal to the unique vulnerability of young children, the large quantity of ads viewed by young children, their low level of understanding of selling intent and uncritical acceptance of commercials, the strong impact on young children's product desire and requests to parents, their advertising-based inappropriate reasons for food product preferences, the contribution of advertising to parent-child conflict and child unhappiness, and the minimal role played by parents in mediating advertising.


The comments that follow stem first from my own direct experience in observing 1,000 or so children over a series of six or seven studies. Somehow one senses the importance of this type of first hand knowledge, when even researchers tend to refer to "my son" or "my daughter'' in substantiating their judgments regarding TV's impact on children. Second and more substantively, of course, the findings suggested by the program of research Gerry Gorn and I have conducted at McGill leads me to a particular perspective regarding the issues we are discussing here today.

Researchers must be careful to balance the immediate policy questions of the day with broader policy alternatives. The particular administration we deal with today may change tomorrow, and the policy options that might now seem unrealistic, may seem quite plausible to a new administration. Thus, while a researcher interested in focusing on questions of social concern should not divorce himself from the real policy options of the day, he ought not constrain himself totally within the parameters of a given administration. To do so would be too much of a "reactive" position.

The opportunity to be considerably more "proactive" is typically available to the researcher when he simulates alternative experiences for individuals through the manipulation of experimental conditions. While some experimental conditions may reflect specific policy options, the researcher can also creatively structure additional conditions, and in so doing he may actually become a change agent himself. While questions of one's own values, biases, etc. may arise, I don't think these are critical and can readily be overcome through standard experimental procedures (keeping experimenters blind, etc.). This is more or less the position we took in developing our "Snack Food" study (Goldberg, Gorn, and Gibson, 1978). The conditions we structured included a TV viewing situation in which children saw a neutral animated cartoon program with either commercials for sugared snacks or PSA's for fruits and vegetables, etc. In these conditions we sought to reflect either current reality or one of a number future realities now sought by the FTC. We went still further, however, asking what would be the impact of TV programming that focused on the nutrition issue. Indeed we found this option was most effective in reducing the number of highly sugared foods children selected.

Just as the researcher ought not let government policies totally bound the perspective he uses in framing his research questions, the same caution ought to be a part of his approach to industry. As a case in point, advertisers typically focus on brand-shifting strategies. In their minds advertising to children is largely intended to shift children away from a competitor's candy bar or sugared cereal to the one they are espousing. The researcher must be alert to this limited perspective. The cumulative effect of each advertiser attempting this strategy is an enormous quantity of candy bar and sugared cereal commercials, certainly relative to those available for less sugared or processed foods. If one's perspective relates to the broader question of TV's effects on the child's total diet, the research questions that would follow would likely be quite different from those of the advertising researcher assessing the effectiveness of a given commercial.

It was suggested earlier this morning that the burden for the FTC is essentially to demonstrate that "grade school children are unaware of long run consequences of eating too much sugar". This seems to me to be an overly narrow and cognitive view of how children are influenced by TV commercials. Our research has shown that while it is true that children may know which foods are, or are not, healthy, this is not really the issue. A more fundamental question is whether children's exposure to TV commercials is such that they are ever motivated to use the healthy-unhealthy dimension in considering what foods to eat. Because the vast majority of foods advertised on children's TV are highly sugared, the child's frame of reference is such that after 2-3 hours of viewing per day, the only alternatives that are likely to be evoked are those he has seen on TV, and by and large these are the highly sugared, processed foods. Joan Gussow (1972) makes this point by analogy to adults; she suggests that just as adults tend to reach for a Budweiser or a Seven-up when thirsty and not the tap for water, so too do kids reach for the products they have been exposed to so exclusively on TV. TV precludes children from active consideration of foods other than those they see on TV. Especially with young children, the notion of "monkey see, monkey do" seems a more appropriate description of their behavior than models which posit intervening cognitive considerations of the nutritional value of these foods.

I would hypothesize that once PSA's espousing a variety of less sugared foods were juxtaposed alongside the current array of TV food commercials, children would begin to actively question the relative merits of different kinds of foods. Once provided with a fuller picture of the array of foods available to them, they would become more capable of considering the tradeoffs associated with different food values (nutrition, fun, etc.). Far from leading to some predetermined notion of "what is right for children" this goal of exposing them to a diversity of foods only has balance in the child's diet as an intended outcome. I doubt if many would consider this as an instance of an overly directive or heavy hand of government.


My comments concerning the impact of advertising on children will focus on the question of what constitutes "effects."

The first point to be made is that it is not necessary to show behavioral effects. There may be many reasons why behavior does not occur -- most obviously the fact that parents are generally the purchasers of goods and services. If television advertising changes or enhances children's beliefs or attitudes, then this is indeed an effect. The argument that there is no resulting behavioral manifestation is largely irrelevant as to whether advertising influenced children.

It should not be overlooked that reinforcement is also an effect. The implications of reinforcement are to enhance existing attitudes and habits. Thus, to suggest that there is no "effect" in promoting presweetened cereals, since children already prefer presweetened cereals, is misleading. Such reinforcement may heighten preference for such products or extend this consumption pattern, whereas it might otherwise wear out over time.

It is sometimes suggested that advertising effects are limited, since parents act as mediators. Nevertheless, there is only limited explicit mediation which occurs within the family concerning consumption and there is limited co-viewing of television with children (Adler, et al., 1977). Furthermore, mediation does not always reduce advertising effects in terms of beliefs and attitudes and in at least two studies by Ward and Robertson (1971) and Robertson, Rossiter and Gleason (1979), parental mediation has been shown to build more favorable attitudes toward consumption. Thus, it is inappropriate to argue that advertising influence is unimportant since parents negate such effects.

Finally, it should be noted that almost ail research on advertising and children has focused on short-run effects. The more serious issue may well be the long run socialization effects regarding consumption priorities and patterns. Exposure to thousands of commercials per year must have "some kind of effect" on children and change them in ways that we do not really understand. Herein lies a major avenue for future research.


As Gerald Thain mentioned earlier this morning, I think there are two different questions to be addressed in the rulemaking proceedings:

* To what extent does children's exposure to TV advertising lead to harmful effects?

* To what extent does exposure to TV advertising lead to social benefits for children?

Most of the research on the impact of TV advertising on children, it seems to me, has focused on the first question rather than the second. Let's look at the evidence for both questions.

Regarding the first point, consider particularly the cognitive impact of TV advertising. Extant research evidence indicates that children below middle childhood (between ages 7 and 9) have difficulty understanding the persuasive intent of advertising. While there are some problems with the measures used to examine children's understanding of the purpose of advertising, (for example, mainly abstract questions), I think it is doubtful that other measures will diverge from the present findings. In particular, I would like to point out that the Giannini and Zuckerman study -- which has been referred to earlier as demonstrating that kindergartners do understand the purpose of advertising -- has grave problems. It measures recognition of program and advertisement characters, but recognition of characters is not evidence of understanding persuasive intent. Beyond this, recognition by the children was only at a chance level. In short, I do not find this study convincing or contrary to other research.

Regarding behavioral effects of TV advertising, there is evidence of modeling effects from Atkin's and Goldberg's work. These were briefly highlighted earlier in this session.

Lastly, turning to the second question posed by Thain, it seems to me that few research studies have addressed the issue of what social good is served by advertising to children. Most studies have examined only short-term effects of advertising messages, not long-term effects. In particular, we do not have any studies in the literature which indicate to what degree early exposure to advertising leads to increased consumer skill development later in the child's development. Nor do we know whether early exposure to TV advertising leads to later understanding of the nature of advertising's persuasive intent. Indeed, I do not believe there is even one longitudinal study of TV advertising's impact on children.


Reacting to the session speakers, and trying to integrate implications of research on advertising and children, I would like to make four points: First, it seems quite clear that younger children are different from older children. That is not very surprising. What is surprising is the argument some appear to be making, namely that younger children "really can" understand advertising, so that no special attention needs to be given to them.

I'll try to make the second point in terms of a question: even if one attempted to hide advertising from the eyes of very young children, does anyone seriously think that primary demand for candies, popcorn, toys, and so forth, would decrease? In this regard, it is important to recognize that reactance to laboratory conditions in much experimental work can lead to shaky external validity of results. This is particularly critical in the sensitive public policy area such as advertising to kids. In one experiment, for example, it was reported that candy advertising increased children's desire for the generic product category (i.e., primary demand) -- rather than impacting on brand-level (selective) demand. This might have been so in the lab, but it flies in the face of primary demand data which show virtually no change in demand in this product category since the turn of the century.

The third point is that some products are not so good for kids. It is not so black and white an issue that one can say that "if it's not good, ban the product; if it's OK to sell it, it's OK to advertise it." Sticky candy, or sticky raisins, both contain sugar, and both stick to the teeth. Given my second point, the question is: what practical, realistic steps can be taken so that kids use products better (e.g., brush their teeth after eating, evaluate products they see in stores, process advertising and packaging better, etc.)?

That leads to my fourth point. Given that banning advertising is not very practical, in that it would only limit brand competition, not impact on primary demand for "bad" products, the most effective route may be to try and train kids to understand products and advertising better. The question is, can kids be trained, and if so, how? I am less than optimistic about public service, mass media (e.g., PSA) efforts in this direction. There is precious little of the control and precision one needs for effective education. The school curriculum seems to be a much better forum.

In research Dan Wackman has conducted in Minnesota, it appears that even kindergarten age children can be trained to better evaluate advertising. As data in Table 1 show, children exhibited much greater understanding of the concept of commercials, and persuasive intent, after a one-week, specially designed curriculum program. Research several months later shows stability of results, although by this time, the children's progress through developmental stages helps.


In conclusion, I tentatively offer that education can be effective. There are clearly major problems with a full-scale policy effort along these lines, most notably business' historic cynicism with "consumer education" (pretty well-founded cynicism, in my view) and the FTC's unwillingness to compromise. Nonetheless, I am increasingly becoming personally convinced that this route holds most promise, and that the effort is worth making.


Adler, Richard P., et al., Research on the Effects of Advertising on Children. Washington, D.C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1977, Chapter 10.

Goldberg, Marvin E., Gerald J. Gorn, and Wendy Gibson, "TV Messages for Snack and Breakfast Foods: Do They Influence Children's Preferences?", Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 5, September 1978, pp. 73-81.

Gussow, Joan, "Counternutritional Messages of TV Ads Aimed at Children", Journal of Nutrition Education, 4, 1972, pp. 48-52.

Robertson, Thomas S., John R. Rossiter, and Terry C. Gleason, Televised Medicine Advertising and Children. New York: Praeger, 1979.

Ward, Scott and Thomas S. Robertson, "Adolescent Attitudes Toward Television Advertising: Preliminary Findings," in Television and Social Behavior, Vol. IV. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1971, pp. 526-553.



Scott Ward, Harvard Business School


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06 | 1979

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