What a hot topic! Have been thinking about this topic for some weeks now, and reading academic articles to tease out how our youngsters actually learn about the persuasive intent of advertising. As we would expect, the picture is incredibly complex – just like the image on the screen below.
At the basic level, children learn about advertising and about the intent of advertising (to persuade them to like something, buy something, think about something, talk about the “something”) from multiple sources and agents.
We already know that children need to build up what we call “persuasion knowledge” or “PK” in order to be able to fully understand advertising’s intentions. We also know that without PK, children cannot really activate their defenses against advertising, either. For a long time, there have been arguments about the actual age at which children can build their PK (persuasion knowledge). For example, many researchers believed that it was impossible for the youngest children, such as those around two or three years of age, to have much understanding at all of advertising, or even of the meaning of consumer brands. But, research over the past decade or so clearly shows us that even three year old children (and, some two year-olds) do have an understanding of the symbolic nature and meaning of brands, and how these brands act as social symbols.
If children have such an ability then, we might be able to say that our youngsters could show earlier abilities to build up their PK, because one of the first steps in “having” PK is called recognition: that is, the child’s ability to discern programming content from advertising content. But, to say this, means we are equating a consumer brand to actual advertising “content” and I am not yet convinced we can say that.
We might ask, how can such young children have these mental abilities? If we think through how children develop, we find that individual differences prevail, however, each child develops cognitive abilities as they grow and interact with their families, at preschool, with friends, and just as a result of general, ongoing socialization. Much of their cognitive development includes the development of what we call “Theory of Mind”, which refers to the ability of children to take a social perspective; that is, they have the capacity to think about the mental states of others as well as thinking about their own. So this capacity gives our kids the ability to think about the intentions, wants, needs and desires of other people – and to do this means that children can “theorize” about what others might do or want in the future.
We rely on several insightful researchers for this work, and I mention them here: Louis J. Moses and Dare A. Baldwin (2005), who undertook an extensive literature search to assess the study of children’s cognitive development, and wrote “What Can the Study of Cognitive Development Reveal About Children’s Ability to Appreciate and Cope with Advertising?”
And, we should be indebted to two academic researchers also from North America, for their wonderful work explaining exactly how children understand the symbolism behind consumer brands: Anna R. McAlister and T. Bettina Cornwell (2010) who researched and wrote: “Children’s Brand Symbolism Understanding: Links to Theory of Mind and Executive Functioning”.
So, to go back to the question at the top of this post: how do young children understand advertising, and how are they persuaded by advertising?
So far, what we can say is that children need lots of opportunities to build up their PK (persuasion knowledge) so that they can increase their advertising literacy. I mentioned a key step in this process is helping children learn to recognize actual program content (e.g. a funny cartoon or Sesame Street) from advertising content (e.g. an animated character jumping out of a box of Froot Loops to show what fun it is to eat the cereal…). We would say that this recognizing ability is the first step towards developing PK. There are a couple of other steps, too: children need the ability to analyze and to evaluate the persuasive messages.
Taking these abilities one at a time, then: let’s look at analyzing. Some early research in 2003 (Brian Young, University of Exeter), stated that in general, children understand the commercial function of advertising well before they have understanding of it’s persuasive function. So what does “analyzing” refer to? The ability to explain something about the message, to understand what the message is trying to communicate, to understand that the message is commercial, and what this means for them. “Evaluating” the message means that the children have an ability to determine if the message is truthful; is it relevant to them; what might be the consequences of doing what the message suggests, both personal and social.
These are sophisticated skills! We must help our children acquire these skills. We can do that by watching media with them, and by talking with them about what they see, and helping them understand how advertising looks different from their favorite programs, and what advertising is trying to achieve. Some researchers are concerned that with the proliferation of different ways that children can consume media, they are not getting the family discussions they need about what they are watching, because more and more “watching” for many children is happening without family involvement. Something to think about, for sure.
So, to finish for today, I am writing an academic article using these understandings, to show how children use social media for brand interactions, and what this might mean for their development as young people.
Dear Readers, thank you for persevering with reading this dense post. If nothing else, writing this has helped me clarify how to write the forthcoming very difficult academic piece.
A perfect flower from our garden, photographed at 6.30 am April 17th.