Advertising responses are the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors generated by exposure to a commercial message (Petty & Cacioppo 1996). Responses to advertising can be divided into three general types: cognitive, affective, and behavioral responses. Studies on cognitive responses focus on recall or recognition of advertisements and brands. Affective response studies concentrate on likes and dislikes of advertisements and brands. Finally, behavioral response studies investigate the extent to which people are persuaded by advertisements; for instance, to purchase the advertised brand.
Advertising research has shown that the extent to which consumers respond to persuasive information varies greatly across different stages of life (Friestad & Wright 1994; John 1999). In particular, children are more receptive to persuasive information than adolescents and adults, because they have less experience and domain-specific knowledge that they can use while processing advertisements. It has been suggested that children are more easily swayed by an attractive advertisement, because they are less able than adolescents and adults to come up with critical thoughts and counterarguments while being exposed to persuasive information (Young 1990).
During childhood and adolescence, children develop various advertising-related competencies, which are increasingly known as “advertising literacy”. These competencies function as a filter when processing advertising messages. For instance, children who are not yet capable of understanding the selling purpose of advertising may see commercials primarily as entertainment, while children who do realize that advertising is intended to persuade are more likely to critically evaluate its content.
John (1999) has distinguished five competencies of advertising literacy that emerge in the developmental sequence from preschool to adolescence: (1) distinguishing commercials from programs, (2) understanding advertising intent, (3) recognizing bias in advertising, (4) understanding of advertising tactics and appeals, and (5) applying advertising knowledge and understanding. The acquisition of the various advertising literacy competencies can, in large part, be explained by children’s cognitive and social development.
A first step in the acquisition of advertising literacy is the ability to make a distinction between advertising and program content. It has been shown that children in early childhood (4–7 years) have difficulty distinguishing commercials from television programs and view advertising primarily as entertainment (Martin 1994). Second, during middle childhood (ages 8 –11), children are progressively more able to recognize advertising, and show a basic understanding of advertisers’ motives and intent. Several authors have argued that children’s understanding that advertisers intend to sell should be distinguished from their understanding that advertisers intend to persuade (Young 1990; Martin 1994; John 1999). These authors assume that the understanding that advertising exists to persuade people and is, therefore, inherently biased requires more sophisticated cognitive and social skills. As a result, the third advertising competency, recognizing bias and deception in advertising, is likely to develop at a later stage in childhood than understanding of selling intent.
The fourth competency of advertising literacy, more specific insight into advertisers’ tactics and appeals, requires advanced cognitive and social skills. It is, generally, assumed that this competency does not develop until early adolescence (ages 12–14). This development is likely to vary for different types of tactics. For example, understanding of camera and editing techniques may emerge at an earlier stage than the more abstract understanding of product symbolism in advertising, which includes, for instance, linking the product with social or sexual success.
Finally, the development of advertising literacy is not only a matter of obtaining the necessary knowledge and understanding, but also of acquiring the information-processing skills that enable the viewer to apply the advertising knowledge and understanding while processing an advertisement. Information-processing theories suggest that children in early childhood lack the skills to come up with critical thoughts and counterarguments when watching commercials, while children in middle childhood need to be cued to raise counterarguments (Roedder 1981; John 1999). During the adolescent years, they become capable of independently accessing and applying advertising literacy skills when watching commercials. From this age onwards, advertising responses are comparable to those of adults.
As yet, advertising research has predominantly focused on children’s ability to discriminate between commercials and programs and their understanding of advertising intent (Martin 1994). Although it is assumed that recognizing bias and deception in advertising and knowledge of advertising tactics emerge later in the developmental sequence, it is unclear at what age these more sophisticated aspects of advertising literacy emerge. Moreover, there is a lack of knowledge on the differential impact of the different aspects on the cognitive, affective, and behavioral responses to advertising. To gain a full understanding of advertising responses across the life-span, future research should recognize the conceptual complexity of advertising responses and assess at what age different advertising competencies emerge.
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