Children understanding of advertisements

  One key issue that has been raised in the arena of children’s advertising in the United States is young children’s ability of understanding promotions. In this section, the main theoretical perspectives will be introduced and then children’s ability to recognize advertising, as well as their recognition of persuasiveness intent will be explored.

1.     Theoretical perspectives

    Many researchers have suggested that the child’s ability to comprehend advertising is determined by their current cognitive stage. This suggestion is based on Piaget’s theories of cognitive development.
Piaget’s theories identify four stages of child development that can be stated as follows:

    • Sensorimotor; from birth to two years.
    • Preoperational; from two to seven years.
    • Concrete operational; from seven to eleven years.
    • Formal operational; from eleven to adulthood.

Though Piaget’s theories were not developed for the understanding of commercial messages, it has been used by many researchers to help to explain the development of children’s understanding of advertising.

John, D. R. (1999a: p. 183-213), for example, suggested that in the “preoperational stage” children can distinguish advertisements from programs based on the perceptual cues, and they perceive promotions as truthful and funny. This means that children at this stage might distinguish commercials on the basis of perceptual cues rather than any understanding of persuasive intent.

Moreover, Roedder (1981: p. 144-153) used Piaget’s theories to focus on children’s ability to process information and came up with a theory that suggests that as children grow older, they become more adept at information processing, which is, the acquisition, encoding, organization, and retrieval of information from memory.  In this regard Roedder(1981: p. 144-153) categories children according to their ability to process information into three categories:
    1. Limited processors: aged less than eight years and are more dependent on short-term memory.
    2. Cued processors: aged eight to twelve years and can retrieve information if prompted.
    3. Strategic processors: are those from twelve years and over, those have the ability to store and retrieve information.

From the above categorization of children, it is clear that “limited processors,” simply accept advertising as entertaining, informative, and truthful. In contrast, children in the concrete operational stage have a better understanding of advertising.

On the other hand, Lawlor and Prothero (2002:p. 481-499) found that the age, pointed by Piaget and Roedder, at which children could begin to understand the persuasive intent is similar; for  Piaget in the concrete operational stage (from seven years), for Roedder in the cued processor stage (from eight years).

John (1999a: p.66-15) concluded his research on young children and advertising by stating that there is little reason to believe that the majority of children below the age of seven or eight years have a command of advertising’s persuasive intent

2.     Identification of advertising

    The ability to distinguish advertising from surrounding programs is seen as one of the key stages in understanding advertising (Kunkel, 2001: p.375-394). Children should be able to identify advertisements as distinct from programs before they can understand its nature and intent, but there is a debate about when this ability is evident in children. The estimates ages of children ability to identify commercials range from as young as three years (Levin, Petros, & Petrella, 1982: p.933-937) to more than six years (Bjurstrom, 1994).

3.     Understanding of the purpose of advertising

    Children’s understanding of advertising moves through several stages. At first, they are unaware of advertising and cannot distinguish it from the surrounding program content. Once a distinction can be made, usually by the age of five, and based on perceptual cues, children view advertising as entertaining and fun (Barrie G, Caroline O & Mark B, 2005: p.38).
According to Young(1990) the ability to understand the aim of commercials is important to determine its truth or falsity.
This type of understanding progressively develops through a number of stages. Robertson and Rossiter (1974) illustrated these stages in a study of boys aged between six- and 11-years-old. Robertson and Rossiter asked children questions about the existence of advertising and their purpose and came up with several antecedents of attributions of advertising intent.

What they found was the awareness of assistive  intent across all age groups but only half of the six- and seven-year-olds were able to attribute persuasive intent to advertisements. One of the factors in children demonstrating the latter understanding was prior personal experience of disappointment with a product not living up to its advertised claims.

    To conclude, according to Levin et al. (1982: P. 933-937), children’s awareness of advertising can occur at a very young age, as researchers have found that some children at the age of three can distinguish programs and commercials.

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