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A Theory of Advertising to Children 11

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Our review and theorizing suggests that children have limitations as ad receivers, but these constraints tend to diminish as the child matures. For example, prior research has noted that as children become older, they (1) are more likely to be better able to distinguish ads from programs, (2) develop a greater understanding of advertising’s persuasive intent, (3) have greater knowledge of advertising tactics, (4) have higher levels of ad skepticism, (5) possess a greater ability to understand ad disclaimer content, and (6) use and understand brand attribute information in ads. Importantly, the description of children as limited, cued, and strategic processors of information (Roedder, 1981) appears to somewhat adequately distinguish among children and their abilities to deal with advertising. Specifically, it seems that those younger than 8 years of age are quite limited in these abilities, while those over 12 have at least some of what might be viewed as adult-like capabilities.

There are, of course, exceptions to this generalized set of findings. One deals with children’s use of cognitive defenses. As noted by Brucks et al. (1988), even older children (those in the 8–12 age group) need to be cued in order to use their cognitive defenses when processing ad information. In addition, it seems that even adolescents may have certain characteristics that may make them more vulnerable to certain types of advertising information compared to younger children (Pechmann et al., 2005). Specifically, it has been demonstrated that adolescents (as compared to younger children) will be more likely to seek out ad information for risky products (Fox, Krugman, Fletcher, & Fischer, 1998).

Interestingly, the advertising environment for children appears to be distinct from that which faces adults in a number of ways. It seems, for example, that the number of ads targeted at children has increased over the years and that these ads tend to be dominated by male actors and spokespersons. Moreover, the ads are complex in nature, with one estimate suggesting that between one-third and two-thirds of all ads directed at children contain disclaimers (Stern & Harmon, 1984; Muehling & Kolbe, 1998). While disclaimers are thought to improve a receiver’s ability to process information, it is uncertain whether or not this is the case, especially in the case of children and how they process advertising stimuli. Moreover, studies also suggest that ads targeted at children are likely to be more image based (as compared to information based) (Reece, Rifon, & Rodriguez, 1999). Further, it seems that advertisers are using differing strategies to target children as opposed to adults. Such a notion suggests that parents’ monitoring of the children’s ad environment is critical if they are to aptly socialize their children in this regard.

Finally, it seems that many of the effects of advertising on children will be moderated by their interactions with socialization agents such as parents and peers. In particular, the efficacy of these moderation entities, especially those having to do with parents (and other caretakers of children within families), is open for further investigation. This is especially pertinent in terms of assessing how parents might moderate the EGs mentioned here (i.e., adding to or detracting from the strength of these relations). As noted, except for a few exceptions such as Carlson et al. (2001), there has been almost no research on the effects of family environments (as defined by parental types or “styles” as mentioned previously) on the children of these unique family environments regarding advertising-related outcomes. Consequently, we believe that family environmental conditions represent a ripe opportunity for assessing the viability and strength of the EGs developed in this chapter within and across contexts such as family considerations.

In sum, the EGs developed for this chapter represent an attempt at building a foundation for developing a theory of advertising to children. While we are not insinuating that the EGs we have produced are exhaustive, we do believe that they represent a solid base for understanding the scope of how advertising and children interact. We hope that these EGs then serve as an impetus for additional research focusing on establishing further their viability as central tenets of what we know about advertising to children.


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By Russell N. Laczniak and Les Carlson

Source: “Advertising Theory,” Ed. Shelly Rodgers and Esther Thorson, Routledge, New York, 2012

Les Carlson holds the Gold Distinguished Professorship at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is Past President of the American Academy of Advertising and former editor of Journal of Advertising. He received the AAA outstanding contribution to research and Kim Rotzoll Awards.

Russell N. Laczniak is Professor of marketing and John and connie Stafford Faculty Fellow at iowa State university. He was editor of Journal of Advertising and is Past President and treasurer of the American Academy of Advertising.

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