Development and Persuasion Processing: An Investigation of Children's Advertising Susceptibility and Understanding

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Cognitive development
Emotional development
Persuasion susceptibility
Persuasion understanding
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Lapierre, Matthew Allen

Over the past 40 years, research on children's understanding of commercial messages and how they respond to these messages has tried to explain why younger children are less likely to understand these messages and are more likely to respond favorably to them with varying success (Kunkel et al., 2004; Ward, Wackman, & Wartella, 1977), however this line of research has been criticized for not adequately engaging developmental research or theorizing to explain why/how children responde to persuasive messages (Moses & Baldwin, 2005; Rozendaal, Lapierre, Buijzen, van Reijmersdal, 2011). The current study attempts to change this by empirically testing whether children's developing theory of mind, executive function, and emotion regulation helps to bolster their reaction to advertisements and their understanding of commercial messages. With a sample of 79 children between the ages of 6 to 9 and their parents, this study sought to determine if these developmental mechanisms were linked to processing of advertisements and understanding of commercial intent. Moreover, the current study tested whether these aspects of cognitive and affective development explain children's understanding of and reaction to advertisements above and beyond age and cognitive ability as earlier researchers have proposed (e.g., Chernin, 2007; Kunkel et al., 2004). The results suggest that children and media researchers would be well advised to consider how these more recent advancements in developmental research influence persuasion understanding and responses to commercial messages. In particular, this study found that children with less developed theory of mind are less likely to understand why advertisements are shown on television, that children who struggled to control their reactions to emotionally exciting stimuli asked for more consumer products and fought with their parents more about these requests, and children with less developed executive function were more likely to ask their parents for more consumer goods. However, with this last set of findings, they should be interpreted with caution due to the large number of hypothesis testing. These results also offer important insights into how developmental mechanisms influence consumer behavior along with new entry points for the study of how individuals develop as consumers of persuasive messages. Moreover, while the results of this study are not uniformly conclusive, there are interesting implications for how children are sold to and what constitutes fair practice based on these developmental differences.

Joseph N. Cappella
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