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Children & Youth Markets: A Psychological Perspective - Key Questions
Socialisation has a long history in sociology and social psychology and refers to how people acquire the knowledge, skills and disposition to become capable members of society. This is something that happens throughout our lives as we learn what is expected in terms of our mental actions that drive our behavior. Consumer socialisation is an extension of this and has been defined by Ward (1974) as "the process by which young people acquire skills, knowledge and attitudes relevant to their function as consumers in the marketplace". John (2008) proposes that "consumer socialisation be viewed as a developmental process occurring in a series of stages as children become socialised in their roles as consumers". There is an implicit assumption that we all progress inevitably to an adult state of being mature participants in the consumption practices of our society; however, it must be kept in mind that society is full of different disparate groups who consume in different ways.
Research surrounding the consumer behavior of children began in the 1950's and an impressive body of research now exists covering a range of related topics, one of which being the stages of consumer socilisation (John, 1999). However, this cannot be considered in isolation from the stages of cognitive and social development which underpins the stages of consumer socialisation. A number of theorists have developed stage models to explain the changes in cognitive and social development including Piaget's (1936) stages of cognitive development, Selman's (1980) stages of social perspective taking, Barenboim's
(1981) stages of impression formation and John's (1999) stages of information processing.
Piaget's (1936) theory is regularly used as a basis to understand the developments in children's consumer socialisation. This theory postulates that cognitive development is comprised of four main stages; sensorimotor (0-2 years), preoperational (2-7 years), concrete operational (7-11 years), formal operational (11+ years). A variety of cognitive differences exist between these stages but primarily children in the preoperational stage are perceptually bound to observable aspects of the environment, are characterised by centration and are egocentric. In contrast children in the concrete operational stage have developed the ability to think more deeply about the stimuli in their environment, can consider multiple dimensions at once and are able to consider that others have differing perspectives to their own. By the time a child reaches the formal operational stage they have started to think more like an adult and have more complex thought processes, including the ability to think in a more abstract and hypothetical way.
These developments have been evaluated to form the three stages of consumer socialisations which consider the implications of the changes in cognitive developments in relation to consumer activity; the perceptual stage (3-7 years), the analytical stage (711 years) and the reflective stage (11+ years). In the perceptual stage, consumer knowledge is based on perceptual features alone and distinctions are made on single dimensions. As younger children in this stage struggle to consider more than one dimension Kunkel (1988) suggests that they will view television as a "monolithic entity" and will be unable to distinguish advertisements from television programs. By the child reaches age 5, they can generally distinguish between advertisements and television programmes, however children's egocentrism in the perceptual period means they are unable to understand the persuasive nature of advertising. Children at this stage interpret the advertisement as providing factual information and their egocentric outlook prevents them from understanding that the advert can be interpreted as a persuasive message. A study by
Gaines and Esserman (1981) showed that only 1% of 4-5 years olds understood that the "goal of an advertisement was to try and make you buy things" (Pine and Nash, 2002) and this only rose to 28% in 6-8 year olds. This argument is used regularly by proponents of an advertising ban to children as they "lack the cognitive skills to defend themselves against attractive and cleverly produced advertising messages" (Valkenburg, 2000) which makes them particularly vulnerable, and susceptible to manipulation by advertising.This egocentric perspective and centration limits the child in terms of another aspect of consumption: purchase influence and negotiation. When children see a desirable item they center their attention on it and have difficulty resisting (Ebbeson, 1970), purchase influence is then exerted by means of grabbing and screaming. The fact that children in this stage also expect reality to match perception, can lead to dissatisfaction. As adults we appreciate that marketers exaggerate and show products in the best possible lights and build this into our expectations of the product. However, young children are perceptually bound and so do not understand that products will often not match up to the gloss and glamour of how they were portrayed. Children are exposed to the world of commerce from a young age and are immersed in the shopping process as they regularly accompany their parents to the shops. It is through these observations that they can develop a basic understanding of the shopping process and the exchange of money for goods and services. Part of the consumer socialisation process includes the acquisition of scripts which are the rules and regulations of a culture that are picked up rather than specifically taught. Children pick up a shopping script through observation and, for example, learn that you have to pay for items rather than just take them. The limitation in this stage of only being able to consider a single dimension means that when making decisions about purchases, children differentiate on the basis or one perceptual feature, for example shape or colour,
this has implications for marketers who can create their products in some of the brightest primary colours in order to appeal to their target market. Value is placed on material goods from an early age, but desire for these material goods are driven by novelty and quantity rather than any understanding of the status some goods can confer. This is why collectables such as cards and stickers are so popular with children within this age group and marketers can capitalise on this desire by continually bringing out new cards or stickers.
As children move into the analytical stage they begin to distinguish on the basis of more functional attributes and discriminate on multiple dimensions at once. An understanding of the selling intent of advertising arises as children can now consider multiple perspectives. They are often able to recognise the bias and deception in advertising and start to become highly critical of it. Children over the age of 8 are therefore considered to have a "cognitive defense" (John, 1999) against advertising which shields them from being unfairly persuaded. However, although children over the age of 8 may understand the intent of advertising, they still have limited critical ability to fully utilise their understanding; up until the age of 12 children often have to be aided in order to fully enhance information storage and withdrawal (Young, 2010) as they are within the cued processors stage. Therefore, although the understanding is there by age 8, advertising still has a greater effect on children up until the age of 12 than it does on adults. The accessibility of the understanding evolves with age as processors develop (John, 1999) and it is not until children reach the stage of strategic processors that they really have the same level of defense against advertising as adults.
Children in the analytical stage also differentiate products based on their underlying functional attributes and purchase decisions are made on this basis rather than simple perceptual cues. Awareness of brands increases dramatically in this period which also explains why children at this stage understand the social meanings and status attached to certain products and social motivations for consumption begin to emerge, along with materialistic tendencies. Negotiation strategies become more sophisticated and children bargain and compromise, this stems from their increased understanding of the shopping process and their ability to see their parent's perspective on a situation rather than just their own. This is a move from egocentrism to allocentrism.
Finally, as children reach the reflective stage an understanding of a variety of marketplace concepts becomes more mature and complex and children have a stronger focus on the social aspects of consumption. Although children in this stage remain critical of advertising, they develop a social interest in it and advertisements become valued as a device for social interaction. The most
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