Children's Cognitive Responses to Advertising

Merrie Brucks, University of North Carolina
Marvin E. Goldberg, McGill University
Gary M. Armstrong, University of North Carolina
ABSTRACT - We advocate a cognitive response approach for researching children's reactions to advertisements. We suggest that the factors especially likely to influence children's use of cognitive defenses include state of cognitive development, knowledge about advertising, knowledge about the product, spontaneous information processing abilities, emotional involvement with the ad or product being advertised, and verbal ability. Each of these factors and its hypothesized relationship to children's counterarguing is discussed.
[ to cite ]:
Merrie Brucks, Marvin E. Goldberg, and Gary M. Armstrong (1986) ,"Children's Cognitive Responses to Advertising", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 650-654.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 650-654


Merrie Brucks, University of North Carolina

Marvin E. Goldberg, McGill University

Gary M. Armstrong, University of North Carolina

[This research was partially supported by a grant from the Business Foundation of North Carolina through the University of North Carolina.]


We advocate a cognitive response approach for researching children's reactions to advertisements. We suggest that the factors especially likely to influence children's use of cognitive defenses include state of cognitive development, knowledge about advertising, knowledge about the product, spontaneous information processing abilities, emotional involvement with the ad or product being advertised, and verbal ability. Each of these factors and its hypothesized relationship to children's counterarguing is discussed.


The long debate over the fairness of television advertising to children hinges on whether advertising messages unfairly manipulate children. To address this is sue, researchers have explored the extent of children's "cognitive defenses," generally defined as children's knowledge of the selling intent of commercials and an associated distrust of commercials. But the fact that cognitive defenses exist does not mean that children actually use these defenses when exposed to advertising. We advocate a cognitive response approach for researching children's actual use of cognitive defenses.


Such research has examined children's acquisition of "cognitive defenses," or more specifically, comprehension of the selling intent of advertising (e.s., Donohue, Henke, and Donohue 1980; Rossiter and Robertson 1974; Ward, Wackman, and Wartella 1977). It appears that most children do not develop a conceptual understanding of the selling intent of advertising until at least 8 years of age. Full comprehension say not occur until 11 years of age. However, it should be noted that research findings concerning the age at which these cognitive defenses are acquired differ, depending on the researcher's definition and operationalization of cognitive defenses. (See Goldberg and Gorn 1983; Roberts and Bachen 1981; and Wartella 1984 for reviews of this literature).

The existence of cognitive defenses does not mean that children actually use these defenses when they are confronted with advertising. To address this issue, several studies have examined children's judgments and preferences as a function of viewing television commercials. These studies suggest that children do not use their generalized understanding of selling intent as a cognitive defense in many situations.

In one study, Ross et al. (1981a) assessed the accuracy of judgment of children from kindergarten to sixth grade regarding the presence of actual fruit in three types of cereals and beverages advertised on television: "real fruit"; "non-fruit" and "artificially fruit-flavored" products. Showing the children these commercials resulted in greater accuracy (regarding the presence of actual fruit) in the "real fruit" and "non-fruit" conditions but greater inaccuracy for the artificially fruit-flavored product condition. These effects were noted regardless of age. The authors concluded that the strategies employed in the commercials for artificially flavored products appeared to overwhelm children's growing general skepticism, resulting in miscomprehension of the messages.

Similarly Ross et al. (1981b) reasoned that if an understanding of the selling intent and strategies of commercials and a corollary distrust of them is sufficient '-defense", older children should be less influenced by extraneous information in a commercial, such as the use of a racing car celebrity or real racing footage in selling a toy racing car. In fact, manipulating the presence or absence of these extraneous factors in commercials shown to older and younger boys resulted in a main exposure effect: the celebrity endorser and real racing footage were effective regardless of age of the boys. go interactions were noted. Older children were no more accurate than younger children in processing the extraneous information presented in the commercials. She researchers concluded that, at least in this television viewing situation, the older children failed to employ the television-related cognitive defenses they may have acquired.

Another study suggests that commercials may cause children to act inconsistently with their established set of preferences (Roedder, Sternthal, and Calder 1983). This study indicated that fourth grade children may respond solely to the momentary influence of a commercial when making product choices, ignoring their prior product preferences. By eighth grade, children appear to select their preferred alternative regardless of advertising. These results may be interpreted as evidence of an "overwhelming" effect of advertising on young children.

So examine the use of cognitive defenses acquired through consumer education, Roberts et al. (1980) showed children an instructional film, which was designed to teach children to adopt a more analytical/critical perspective when viewing TV commercials. A control group saw an irrelevant film. Several days later the researchers returned to show children some commercials. In order to assess the effectiveness of the instructional film, they posed questions to the children regarding each commercial they saw. For example, for a commercial with Bill Cosby endorsing Jello, they asked: "Does Bill Cosby know more about Jello than most people? (Responses could vary along a 4 point scale). Results showed that children who viewed the instructional film were more skeptical than those who viewed the control fila. However, this approach begs the question as to whether the issue (in this instance, of celebrity endorsers) was actually salient for the children as they watched the commercials. Specifically. a child who indicated skepticism about Bill Cosby's expertise in response to the researchers' questions may not have questioned Cosby's expertise while viewing the Jello commercial. More generally, we contend that research that poses direct questions to a child may evoke in the child a vigilant, critical orientation, regardless of whether this orientation existed prior to questioning.

In the Roberts et al. (1980) study. larger differences between control and experimental groups were found for the younger as opposed to the older children. Older children in the control groups provided responses skeptical of the commercials even in the absence of the training fila. It may be, however, that all we can safely conclude from this type of direct question is that as children grow older (at least by age 11) they learn to give socially "correct" responses:

Children's increasingly negative attitudes toward TV advertising do not mean much...they merely acquire an adult-like attitude against TV advertising as a social institution; an attitude which bears little relationship to advertising's actual effects (Rossiter, 1979, w. 232).


The evidence available suggests that "going into" a commercial viewing situation children have a generalized awareness of the selling intent of commercials. Yet there is also evidence that "coming away" from a commercial, children tend to manifest attitudes and behavior suggesting that any generalized awareness has not operated as an effective defensive mechanism. What appears to be missing is evidence of children's actual cognitive experience while watching commercials. What thought processes do children engage in during the TV viewing situation? To what extent and under what conditions do they generate the counter-arguments that would be the main substance of a cognitive defense? Moreover do attempts to teach children to adopt an analytical/critical perspective (as with the instructional film in the Roberts et al. 1980 study) succeed in generating counterarguments? Cognitive response measures (responses to a probe such as "What thoughts and feelings were going through your mind as you watched the commercial?") would appear to be an ideal measure in this regard. Counterarguments, which require using prior knowledge to "argue" against implicit and explicit advertising messages, indicate the actual use of cognitive defenses. Other elaborative cognitive responses include support arguments, which are thoughts in favor of advertising messages, and source derogations, which are thoughts critical of advertisers or advertisements (Wright 1973).

Cognitive response measures avoid the potential biasing effect of overly direct questions, and provide data that are directly pertinent to the ongoing processing of information. These data may complement the more inferential findings reviewed above (i.e., Roberts et al. 1980; Roedder, Sternthal, and Calder 1983; Ross et al. 1981a.b).

Some researchers have suggested that cognitive response measures may not fully capture a child's thoughts because children cannot always articulate what they think (e.g., Calder, Robertson, and Rossiter 1976). On the other hand, other researchers contend that cognitive response measures may be the most valid indicator of a child's capacity to defend himself/herself against persuasive TV messages, that unless the child can articulate a concept, he or she cannot really understand it.

...language and cognition are closely related. Without words a child cannot escape from his or her own egocentrism; he or she cannot grapple with concepts as opposed to merely feeling emotions. More specifically the message in advertising (persuasion, selling) cannot be understood or defended against without the use of language (Geis, as cited in FTC. 1981. w. 29: emphasis added).


What conditions are most likely to facilitate the use of cognitive defenses by children? We might assume that the situational and source factors found to be related to counterarguing in adults (e.s., time pressure, source credibility, etc.) will also be related to counterarguing in children. more interesting, perhaps, are individual factors (e.g., knowledge, involvement), which usually differ widely between the adult and child context.

Specifically, we suggest that the factors especially likely to influence children's use of cognitive defenses when exposed to advertising include stage of cognitive development, knowledge about advertising, knowledge about the product, spontaneous information processing abilities, emotional involvement with the ad or product being advertised, and verbal ability.

Stage of Cognitive Development

The traditional cognitive development approaches view progress in children's cognitive skills as a series of stages through which children pass as they grow from infancy to adulthood. Piaget's theory is the best known of the stage theories. (See Flavell 1963, Piaget 1983, Piaget and Inhelder 1969). According to this theory, cognitive development occurs in four main stages: the sensorimotor stage (0-2 years), the preoperational stage (2-7 years), the concrete operational stage (7-11 years), and the formal operational stage (11 through 15 Years ) .

In the sensorimotor stage, the infant's behavior is not at all mediated by thought. In the preoperational stage, the child develops the ability to think in terms of symbols (language and mental imagery), but has poorly organized ways of thinking- about objects, events, and ideas. The preoperational child tends to focus on dominant percept">l attributes of objects (e.g., height) while ignoring other attributes (e.g., width). Thought is guided almost entirely by the perceptual characteristics of the immediate environment. Thus it is highly unlikely that elaborative cognitive responses to advertising messages would occur in this stage.

In the concrete operational stage, the child may consider several attributes of an object simultaneously. The child has conceptual skills that allow effective cognitive mediation of perceptual activity, but these thoughts are generally limited to the domain of concrete objects. In contrast, in the formal operational stage, the individual's thoughts may be guided by abstractions (e.g. theories, values, and ideas) that are not directly related to the child's perception of the physical environment. It appears likely that individuals in the formal operational stage would be able to drawn upon prior knowledge to generate elaborative cognitive responses.

The question remains, however, whether 7 to 11 year olds (concrete operational stage) are capable of elaborative cognitive responses. Based on Piaget's theory, one might expect concrete operational children to produce elaborative cognitive responses only when concrete knowledge of the product exists in memory. For example, when viewing a commercial for a robot toy that uses closeups to make the toy look bigger, a child who knows the toy is only 6 inches tall may think "They're not that big." In the absence of such product knowledge, however, the child may be unable to apply the abstract concept that advertising is biased (and uses special techniques to show products in the best possible light) in order to generate the counterargument, "It may not be very big." The hypothesis that product knowledge (which is relatively concrete) is more effective in the concrete operational stage than advertising knowledge (which is more abstract) in producing elaborative cognitive responses in children has yet to be empirically tested.

Although Piaget's theory has proved useful in describing age-related cognitive activities, it lacks sufficient mechanistic detail to explain what causes these age-related differences (Roedder 1981). The information processing perspective suggests that age differences in children's cognitive activities result from differing abilities to store and retrieve information. Based on an extensive review of the children's information processing literature, Roedder (1981) proposed three stages of development: limited, cued, and strategic processing. Limited processors do not have the capability to use storage and retrieval strategies as a means for processing information. Cued processors do not spontaneously use such strategies, but they can do so when prompted or cued. Strategic processors possess and use the skills necessary to store and retrieve information. The ages associated with these stages depend on the cognitive activities involved. For the latest-developing activity, the allocation of attentional effort to central rather than incidental material, the suggested ages are: limited, under 8 years of age; cued, 8-12 years; and strategic, 13 years of age and older. Thus, we may not expect children to be fully able to focus attention on important message arguments and spontaneously counterargue until they are 13 years old. Children 8 to 12 years old may need prompting to focus their attention and to counterargue, while children under 8 may be in capable of doing so at all. Thus, Roedder's theory leads to an empirically testable hypothesis regarding the effect of cueing or prompting on elaborative cognitive responses in the three stages. Specifically, cueing should improve children's use of cognitive response strategies in the middle age group, but it should have little or no effect in the youngest and oldest age group.

The view that post-infancy changes in cognitive activities are "fundamental, qualitative. and stage-like" has been increasingly questioned in recent years (Flavell 1985). The alternative view is that children sake continuous progress in their cognitive activities. If this is true. then the role of stage theories like Roedder's and Piaget's is to simplify communication, rather than to provide an accurate description of developmental progress.

Whether or not progress occurs in stages, it is well-documented that children become more and more adept at information processing activities as they grow older. But is this increased facility for cognitive activities due to biological development or can it be explained by other factors. It has been argued that the acquisition of knowledge, rather than sse itself, causes the observed increase in facility for information processing (Chi 1981. Flavell 1985).

This distinction is particularly important regarding the public policy issue of advertising to children. If children's ability to defend themselves against persuasive attempts can be substantially affected by acquiring knowledge, then consumer education for children is a potentially useful option. On the other hand, if children's ability to defend themselves against persuasive attempts is blocked by age, then protective regulations may be appropriate. In the next section of the paper, we discuss children's knowledge and its role in cognitive responses.

Children's Knowledge

As children develop, they acquire factual and conceptual knowledge about themselves and the world around them. This is termed "declarative knowledge." In an advertising context, the relevant aspects of declarative knowledge are knowledge about the product being advertised and knowledge about advertising in general. Children also acquire "procedural knowledge", knowledge about how to solve problems and accomplish tasks. In this context, the relevant aspect of procedural knowledge is knowledge of elaborative cognitive responses as a strategy for processing advertising messages. Children must have both declarative and procedural knowledge in order to form cognitive elaborations in response to advertising.

Based on a review of research in cognitive development and cognitive psychology, Siegler (1983) suggested several conclusions about the effects of a child's knowledge on information processing activities. First, knowledge influences the recall of newly presented material. Second, memory improves during periods of development in which there is little improvement in procedural knowledge but substantial improvement in declarative knowledge. Third. age-related differences in measures of basic capacities and information processing strategies may be attributable to changes in declarative knowledge. Fourth, in some circumstances, differences in declarative knowledge outweigh all other age-related differences.

Product Knowledge. It has been shown that product knowledge facilitates cognitive responses in adults (Edell and Mitchell 1978). However, empirical research on the role of product knowledge on children's cognitive responses to advertising has not been published (although at least one study is currently underway (Costley 1985)). In the light of Siegler's conclusions, it is likely that Edell and Mitchell's results will extend to children as well as adults.

Advertising Knowledge. Much research has been conducted on children's knowledge of the purpose of advertising. The implicit assumption is that children who know that advertising is a biased source will critically evaluate advertising messages, and thus be no more persuasible than adults. Roberts (1982) suggests that children must understand four concepts about advertising before their advertising knowledge can provide them with a usable cognitive defense. Children must recognize (1) that the advertiser and viewer have different perspectives and interests; (2) that the advertiser intends to persuade; (3) that all persuasive messages are necessarily biased; and (4) that biased messages demand different interpretation strategies that do informational, educational, or entertainment-oriented messages. Note that this last concept is procedural rather than declarative knowledge. Roberts further suggests that all four aspects of knowledge typically do not occur until age 10 to 11. Earlier research suggested that children "understand" the persuasive intent of advertising by 7 or 8 (Wartella 1984), but this research generally considered only the first one or two of these four advertising concepts.

The role of advertising knowledge is different from the role of product knowledge in affecting children's cognitive responses to advertising messages. Product knowledge provides a reference point with which to compare information provided in advertising. For example, a child with prior knowledge of Auto-bots who sees closeups of Auto-bots in a TV commercial may think "Auto-bots aren't really that big." Advertising knowledge, on the other hand, alerts the child to the possibility of hyperbole, puffery, and exaggeration. Advertising knowledge might elicit a cognitive response like, "There they go again, using special techniques to make a product look bigger than it really is."

Procedural Knowledge. As Roberts (1982) implied, procedural knowledge is necessary in order for declarative knowledge to have an effect on cognitive responses. If a child does not know how to critically evaluate messages, then his or her store of declarative knowledge cannot be used. Unfortunately, it seems difficult to instill procedural knowledge about information processing strategies in children. For example, in one study, young children were taught the mnemonic strategy of verbal rehearsal. but used it only when told to do so (Keeney, Cannizzo. and Flavell 1967). This finding has been replicated under a number of conditions (Flavell 1985). This robust finding led Roedder (1981) to define a class of "cued-processors," children who do not use sophisticated information processing strategies spontaneously. In order to provide cued processors with an adequate cognitive defense it say be necessary to provide a cue (perhaps in the form of a public service announcement) during children's TV viewing hours in order to remind them to adoPt a critical processing strategy.

It has yet to be empirically determined at what ages children become capable of producing elaborative cognitive responses under cued conditions. Below this age. children are incapable of cognitive responses even if they do have product knowledge and know the selling intent of advertising, since they lack the necessary procedural knowledge. Eventually, children become capable of spontaneous cognitive responses, but this age, too, re sins to be empirically determined.


The term "involvement" has come to mean several different but related concepts. In this paper, involvement means degree of "personal relevance" of the message or consequences (Petty, Caccioppo, and Schumann 1983). Petty and Caccioppo (1981) proposed the Elaboration Likelihood Model as a way to understand the effects of involvement on attitude change in adults. This model contends that "as an issue or product increases in personal relevance or consequences, it becomes more important and adaptive to forming a reasoned and veridical opinion. Thus, people are more motivated to devote cognitive effort required to evaluate the true merits of an issue or product when involvement is high rather than low." If this adult model is also appropriate for children, we would hypothesize that children will produce more elaborative cognitive responses when a commercial is personally relevant than when a commercial is not relevant.

We might imagine, however, that children (particularly very young children) might not be motivated to form a "reasoned and veridical" opinion when an advertised product is personally relevant to them, say, for example, Cabbage Patch dolls or Transformers for 9 year old girls and boys, respectively. Casual observation suggests that emotional reactions dominate reasoned and veridical thinking in such situations. In fact, the relationship between level of involvement and number of elaborative cognitive responses may be negative if affective reactions replace cognitive reactions. One might speculate that children need experience with budget constraints and purchasing in general in order to understand the importance of carefully considering purchase alternatives. Thus, we hypothesize that the ELM model does not extend to young children.. Specifically, high involvement results in equal or fewer elaborative cognitive responses than low involvement. [Note, however, that this hypothesis is dependent on the "personal relevance" definition of involvement. According to Batra and Ray (1983), lack of cognitive response is associated with low involvement by definition.] This hypothesis remains to be empirically tested. If true, further research on what factors affect the child's transition to the adult model would be interesting and important.

Verbal Ability

It is believed that verbal ability affects the measurement of cognitive responses in adults (Wright 1980). Children display a much wider variance in verbal ability than do adults, most obviously between age groups, but within age groups as well. Thus, it is argued that verbal ability is a particularly important factor to control for in studies of children's cognitive responses. Alternatively, it may be insightful to assess the degree of convergence between level of verbal ability and extent of counterarguing.


We have argued that cognitive responses are an appropriate measure of the use of children's cognitive defenses to advertising. The individual factors believed to moderate the use of cognitive responses in this context are stage of cognitive development, knowledge about products, knowledge about advertising, knowledge about how to process biased information, degree of involvement, and verbal ability.


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