Awareness of Advertising’s Intentions Depends on Understanding of Others' Mind
A Journal of Communication study reveals that children’s understanding of commercial messages highly depends on their understanding of the beliefs, thoughts, emotions, and intentions of others. The more developed this understanding, the more likely children are to comprehend that commercials are designed to get people to buy an advertised product. Contrary to the common assumption, children’s advertising knowledge does not depend on their age or language skills.
- The better children (6-9 y/o) understand that others have beliefs, thoughts, emotions, and intentions that are different than one’s own (Theory of Mind), the more they are aware of advertising’s selling intentions.
- Age or linguistic competence play no role in the understanding of advertising’s selling intent.
- For policymakers and intervention developers it is important to realize that children’s recognition of advertising’s selling intentions depends on their Theory of Mind rather than on age or linguistic competence.
Is children’s understanding of commercial messages related to their cognitive development?
79 children between 6 and 9 years of age (mean age: 7 years old; 49% were boys)
The suburbs of a large city in the northeastern United States
This study was part of a larger study at the University of Pennsylvania exploring children’s consumer behavior. First, children’s understanding of commercial messages was assessed. Children were shown three commercials, after which their comprehension of advertising’s selling intent (the understanding that commercials are designed to get people to buy an advertised product), and persuasive intent (the understanding that commercials are designed to get people to like an advertised product) were measured. Children’s linguistic competence was assessed by presenting them a page containing pictures with the request to provide the word that matched the picture.
During a second session -14 days later- four tasks were completed with the help of puppets to asses children’s Theory of Mind (ToM: the ability to understand that others have beliefs, desires, emotions, and thoughts that are different than one’s own): (1) a task to asses first-order of false belief (understanding of the fact that other people have thoughts different than one’s own), (2) a task to asses second-order of false belief (understanding that people’s thoughts about others could differ from their own), (3) a task to asses real-apparent emotion (understanding that the words and facial expression someone uses does not always resemble their real emotion), and (4) a task to asses interpretive ToM (understanding that what someone says is not necessarily what they mean).
Facts and findings
- The better children performed on the ToM tasks – specifically on the first- and second-order false belief tasks- the more aware they were of the selling intent of advertising.
- Thus, children’s awareness of advertising’s selling intent depends on their understanding that other people have thoughts different from their own and that other people have thoughts about others that differ from their own.
- Children’s age or linguistic competence did not predict their awareness of the selling intent.
- No link was found between children’s ToM and their knowledge of advertising’s persuasive intent.
- A possible explanation could relate to the difference in complexity in revealing advertising’s selling and persuasive intent: knowledge of selling intent may be a simpler concept to understand than knowledge of persuasive intent. As a result children’s understanding of the persuasive nature of advertising develops at a later age than their understanding of advertising’s selling intentions.