In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Children and Advertising

  • Introduction
  • Children’s Advertising Media
  • Message: Media and Child Receiver Interactions

Communication Children and Advertising
Russell N. Laczniak, Les Carlson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0102


How does advertising affect children? This topic has been debated since the 1970s. Some contend that advertising provides children with needed information so that they can effectively function as consumers. Others contend that advertising misleads children about products and brands, thus leading them to make suboptimal purchase decisions. Yet others contend that despite advertising’s potentially positive effects of conveying information, children do not have the ability to effectively process it. Moreover, the debate continues. Importantly, much empirical research has been performed that sheds light on precisely how advertising influences children. This article provides one overview of this research. When one is investigating the topic of advertising to children, it is important to think about the area’s distinctive aspects and identify its unique elements. These aspects include ad sponsors, messages, and media. This article centers on the identifier term “ad.” While the lines between advertising and other forms of communication have been blurred in recent years (especially with respect to advertising to children), the article focuses on studying phenomena that are unequivocally identified within the traditional domain of advertising. While some studies related to this topic have looked beyond this traditional domain, the focus here is simple and traditional.

Definitions Pertinent to Children and Advertising

A definition of “children” was derived by resorting to literature from developmental psychology. The domain of developmental psychology was utilized because advertisers often target specific audiences with their messages and, traditionally, these messages have cognitive and emotional influences on audiences. Since psychologists study the development of individuals’ cognitive and emotional reactions to stimuli, it seemed logical to use developmental psychologists’ thinking when defining children. The most influential developmental psychologist was Jean Piaget. Piaget and others note that children are unique in that they lack certain aspects of a fully matured adult. Piaget and Inhelder 1968 defines children as those individuals who are developing toward adulthood. This characterization carefully distinguishes children, who have limitations in their cognitive and emotional systems, from adults with disabilities by noting that children are likely to have adult-like abilities in the future. Consequently, children are defined here as ad receivers who, while not yet having the abilities of adults with regard to advertising and its effects on them, are progressing toward adulthood and concomitantly will acquire these abilities as they age. Importantly, this definition appears to be consistent with the Federal Trade Commission’s description of children as not yet having adult-like capabilities to deal with advertising (John 1999). Combined, these definitions suggest that advertising to children deals with “paid forms of communication from identified sponsors using mass media with the intention of persuading an audience that primarily includes those who are progressing toward adulthood but who are not yet considered to be adults” (Laczniak and Carlson 2012, p. 137). Given the developmental definition of children being employed, it should be apparent that not all children are the same, a view that has been born out in prior work. For example, while some studies distinguished between children according to their Piagetian stage of development (Soldow 1983), others simply distinguish between younger and older children (cf. Pechmann, et al. 2005), with the former group referred to as preadolescents and the latter as adolescents.

  • John, Deborah Roedder. 1999. Consumer socialization of children: A retrospective look at twenty-five years of research. Journal of Consumer Research 26 (December): 183–213.

    DOI: 10.1086/209559

    This article introduces consumer socialization as stages of children’s development as they relate to becoming consumers and children’s understanding of the marketplace. A review of prior work is presented in order to show evidence of these stages and the characteristics of children’s consumer socialization development pertinent to each stage.

  • Laczniak, Russell N., and Les Carlson. 2012. A theory of advertising to children. In Advertising theory. Edited by Esther Thorson and Shelly L. Rodgers, 135–148. Routledge Communication Series. New York: Routledge.

    This chapter focuses on developing a theory of advertising within the context of children as the targeted audience of advertisers and advertising. Prior literature on advertising to children is reviewed to determine a set of empirical generalizations that have received support in previous studies. For example, research indicates that children are targets of advertising and are influenced by ads.

  • Pechmann, Cornelia, Linda Levine, Sandra Loughlin, and Frances Leslie. 2005. Impulsive and self-conscious: Adolescents’ vulnerability to advertising and promotion. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 24.2: 202–221.

    DOI: 10.1509/jppm.2005.24.2.202

    The authors provide a review of adolescent development from a variety of perspectives from both the hard and social sciences. Findings indicate that adolescents are more impulsive than adults and are more vulnerable to higher-risk products, as well as consumption decisions that are more likely to engender addictive tendencies.

  • Piaget, Jean, and Barbell Inhelder. 1968. The psychology of the child. New York: Basic Books.

    A basic textbook overview of developmental psychology. It posits that children develop through a series of stages until adulthood.

  • Soldow, Gary F. 1983. The processing of information in the young consumer: The impact of cognitive developmental stage on television, radio and print advertising. Journal of Advertising 12.3: 4–14.

    DOI: 10.1080/00913367.1983.10672843

    Reports that children were classified according to cognitive development stage and then compared with regard to ability to identify a package in radio, print, and television ads. Expectations for package identification performance were based on these cognitive stages as well as advertising format. Results did not conform to speculation, as younger children performed as well as older children in certain aspects of the study.

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