Children and Advertising

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Most children have their first encounter with advertising messages while they are watching television. It is common for children to begin television viewing by the time that they are two years of age, long before they have developed the reading ability that is required to make advertising in print media accessible. Because children at this age lack the cognitive skills and abilities of older children or adults, they do not understand commercial messages in the same way as do more mature audiences, and hence they are more susceptible to the influence of advertising. A substantial body of research evidence documents age-related differences in how children understand and are affected by television advertising.

Children's Exposure to Television Advertising

It is estimated that the average child views more than forty thousand television commercials each year, most of which are fifteen to thirty seconds in length. Advertisers target the youth market because of its strong contribution to the consumer economy. According to 1998 data, children who are fourteen years of age and under spent $24 billion and influenced $188 billion in family purchases.

Approximately 80 percent of all advertising to children falls within four product categories: toys, cereals, candies, and fast-food restaurants. This pattern has remained remarkably stable since the 1970s. During the fourth quarter (October- December) of each calendar year, a seasonal shift in advertising practices occurs with toy commercials airing much more frequently during the pre-Christmas months.

The most common theme or appeal (i.e., persuasive strategy) that is employed in advertising to children is to associate the product with fun and happiness, rather than to provide any factual product-related information. For example, a commercial that features Ronald McDonald dancing, singing, and smiling in McDonald's restaurants, without any mention of the actual food products that are available, reflects a fun and happiness theme. This strategy is also found frequently with cereal advertisements, which often include the appearance of characters (e.g., Tony the Tiger, Cap'n Crunch) to help children identify the product. In contrast, most commercials fail even to mention the major grain used in each cereal unless it is included as part of the product name (e.g., Corn Flakes).

Another common feature of advertising to children is the use of product disclosures and disclaimers such as "batteries not included" or "each part sold separately." However, studies make clear that young children do not comprehend the intended meaning of the most widely used disclaimers. For example, Diane Liebert and her associates (1977) found that fewer than one in four kindergarten through second-grade children could grasp the meaning of "some assembly required" in a commercial; in contrast, the use of child-friendly language such as "you have to put it together" more than doubled the proportion of children who understood the qualifying message.

The phrase "part of a balanced breakfast" is a disclosure that is frequently included in most cereal advertisements to combat the concern that sugared cereal products hold little nutritional value for children. Consistent with the data on toy disclaimers, research by Edward Palmer and Cynthia McDowell (1981) shows that most children below seven years of age have no idea what the term "balanced breakfast" means. Rather than informing young viewers about the importance of a nutritious breakfast, this common disclaimer actually leaves many children with the misimpression that cereal alone is sufficient for a meal.

Children's Comprehension of Television Advertising

Children must acquire two key information-processing skills in order to achieve "mature" comprehension of advertising messages. First, they must be able to discriminate (at a perceptual level) between commercial and noncommercial content. Second, they must be able to attribute persuasive intent to advertising and to apply a degree of skepticism that is consistent with that knowledge to their interpretation of advertising messages. Each of these capabilities develops over time as a function of cognitive growth in conceptual and analytical ability.

Program-Commercial Discrimination

In their earliest years of television viewing, children do not yet recognize that there are two fundamentally different categories of television content: programs and commercials. Most children who are younger than four to five years of age exhibit low awareness of the concept of commercials, frequently explaining them as if they were a scene in the adjacent program. When this confusion diminishes, children first recognize the difference between programs and commercials based on either affective cues (e.g., "commercials are more funny than programs") or perceptual cues (e.g., "commercials are short and programs are long").

Most children's television shows include program-commercial separation devices (e.g., "We'll be right back after these messages") whenever a commercial break occurs. However, several studies indicate that these separators generally do not help child viewers to recognize advertising content. This likely occurs because most separation devices are not perceptually distinct from the adjacent programming that surrounds them; in fact, many separators feature characters who appear in the show that the commercial has just interrupted.

Popular program figures are frequently used in advertising that is directed to children. When an advertisement includes one of the same characters who is featured in an adjacent program, the practice is known as "host-selling." For example, Fred Flintstone appearing in an advertisement for "Fruity Pebbles" cereal that is shown during a break in the Flintstones cartoon show would be considered host-selling. A study by Dale Kunkel (1988) shows that this type of advertising makes the task of discriminating between program and commercial content particularly difficult for young children.

In sum, a substantial proportion of young children do not consistently discriminate between television program and commercial content. By about the time they are four or five years of age, however, most children develop the ability to distinguish between these two types of content quite well at a perceptual level. Still, this ability is only the first of two critical information processing tasks that young children must master in order to achieve mature comprehension of advertising messages.

Recognition of Persuasive Intent

The primary purpose of television advertising is to influence the attitudes and subsequent behavior of viewers. For adults, the recognition that a given message is a commercial triggers a cognitive filter or defense mechanism that takes into account factors such as the following: (1) the source of the message has other interests and perspectives than those of the receiver, (2) the source intends to persuade, (3) persuasive messages are biased, and (4) biased messages demand different interpretive strategies than do unbiased messages. When all of these considerations can be taken into account, then a child can be said to have achieved mature comprehension of the advertising process.

Young children, by virtue of their limited cognitive development, typically lack the ability to recognize the persuasive intent of television advertising until they reach seven to eight years of age. Prior to this point, children are generally egocentric and have difficulty taking the perspective of another person. This makes it difficult to recognize that commercial claims and appeals are likely to be biased or exaggerated in order to portray the advertised product in the most favorable light.

Some researchers, such as Thomas Donahue and his associates (1980), have argued that children may understand persuasive intent at a slightly earlier age. Such claims are made on the basis of evidence that indicates that younger children may report that a commercial wants the viewer to buy the advertised product. Such awareness, however, does not necessarily reflect an appreciation of persuasive intent. Just because a child understands that an advertisement seeks to sell a product, it does not automatically follow that the child will recognize the bias that is inherent in persuasive messages and therefore view advertising claims and appeals more skeptically. Overall, the weight of the evidence indicates that most children who are younger than about seven to eight years of age do not typically recognize that the underlying goal of a commercial is to persuade.

Effects of Television Advertising on Children

The effect of television advertising on children can be categorized according to both the intended and unintended effects that result from advertising exposure. For example, a cereal advertisement may have the intended effect of generating product purchase requests and increasing product consumption, but it may also contribute to unintended outcomes such as misperceptions about proper nutritional habits and/or parent-child conflict if a child's attempt to get a parent to purchase the product (i.e., purchase-influence attempt) is rejected.

Intended Effects

Many studies document the effectiveness of commercial campaigns at influencing child viewers' recall for the product, desire for the advertised product, and—depending on the age of the child—either purchase-influence attempts or actual purchase of the product.

Experimental studies that compare children who are shown a particular commercial with those who are not provide some of the most direct evidence of advertising effect. While it is typical for half or more of the children in a control group to report spontaneously a strong desire for a given toy or cereal (i.e., even without being shown a related commercial), exposure to an advertisement leads to statistically significant increases in children's desire for the advertised merchandise. From another perspective, survey research indicates that children who watch greater amounts of television (and hence are exposed to a higher volume of advertisements) tend to make a greater number of purchase-influence attempts when they are shopping with their parents at the supermarket.

Certain advertising strategies tend to enhance the effectiveness of advertising appeals to children. For example, advertising for cereals and fast-food meals often emphasize premium offers, such as a small toy figure included along with the product. In a study by Charles Atkin (1978), where researchers unobtrusively observed parents and children shopping at the supermarket, it was found that almost half of the children who were making product-purchase requests in the cereal aisle were influenced by premium offers.

Research also makes clear that children's purchase-influence attempts have a relatively high degree of success. Frequent parental yielding to children's purchase requests has been reported in studies that rely on parent self-reports as well as unobtrusive observation of behavior in the supermarket. In sum, although the process may be indirect, television commercials that are targeted at children are highly effective at accomplishing their intended goal of promoting product sales.

Unintended Effects

Although each advertisement may have as its primary purpose the goal of promoting product sales, the cumulative effect from children's long-term exposure to television advertising may exert far broader sociological influence. Some researchers have argued that one of the long-term effects of children's exposure to commercials is an increase in materialistic attitudes, although this is particularly difficult to establish because few children in the United States grow up without extensive media exposure, and thus no control group is available for comparative purposes. In other areas, however, several unintended effects of advertising have been more convincingly demonstrated.

One of the most visible of these unintended effects is the influence of television advertising on children's eating habits. Commercials for candies, snacks, sugared cereals, and fast foods represent a large proportion of the advertising that is presented during children's programs, while advertising for more healthy or nutritious foods is rare. Consequently, children tend to develop poor nutritional habits, mistakenly assuming that the products that they see advertised are an appropriate diet whenever they are hungry.

Advertisements for alcoholic beverages such as beer products, even though they are not intended for children, are nonetheless seen by many young viewers. Exposure to alcohol advertising exerts influence on young people's alcohol expectancies (e.g., when it is appropriate to drink; what happens when one drinks), which have in turn been shown to predict drinking behaviors later in life.

Another important area of unintended effects involves parent-child conflicts that emerge when children's purchase-influence attempts are refused. Parents obviously cannot honor all purchase requests that are triggered by television advertising. Studies have shown that a majority of children become angry, disappointed, or argumentative when purchase requests are denied. The frequent purchase requests that are associated with children's heavy exposure to television advertising may place a strain on parent-child interaction at times, an issue of consequence largely because of the sheer volume of commercials that are viewed by most children.


Children are a vulnerable audience, with limited information-processing capabilities that constrain their early understanding of the nature and purpose of television advertising. Because of these limitations, young children are more easily persuadable than are older children or adults. They are more trusting of advertising claims and appeals, and they are more susceptible to commercial persuasion. This situation has led over the years to varying legal restrictions on television advertising to children. Advertisers may air no more than 10.5 minutes of commercials during each hour of children's programming shown during weekends, and they may air no more than 12 minutes of commercials per hour during week-days. In addition, certain advertising practices such as host-selling are prohibited by the Federal Communications Commission. Even with these policies in effect, this topic area remains controversial. Given the huge economic stakes that are associated with marketing to children, debates are likely to continue with regard to the need for further regulation to protect children's interests.

See also:Advertising Effects; Alcohol in the Media; Children's Comprehension of Television; Nutrition and Media Effects; Parental Mediation of Media Effects.


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Dale Kunkel

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Children and Advertising

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