lescent development, but unlike prior reviews (Cauffman
and Steinberg 1995; Steinberg and Scott 2003), we focus on
marketing and public policy implications.
Our review indicates that adolescents tend to be more
impulsive and self-conscious than adults because of the neu-
robiological changes that occur during this critical develop-
mental period. Thus, adolescents may be especially attracted
to risky branded products that, in their view, provide imme-
diate gratification, thrills, and/or social status. Because of
the adolescent brain’s rapid change or “plasticity,” harmful
products may pose more of a risk to adolescents than to
adults; for example, the likelihood of addiction appears to be
higher. The main implication of our review is that policy
officials may want to consider comprehensive federal legis-
lation to protect adolescents from advertising and promo-
tions for high-risk, addictive products as much as is feasible
given constitutional constraints. Of particular concern are
marketing materials that seem to be especially attractive to
adolescents, including depictions of risky, impulsive behav-
ior and psychosocial, image benefits. However, we note that
several important research questions remain unanswered,
and we recommend that further studies be conducted in
areas that we identify subsequently.
Boundaries and Risks of Adolescence
Adolescence is commonly defined as the interval between
the onset of puberty and the transition to adult roles (Stein-
berg et al., in press). The temporal borders of this develop-
mental period are not precise. At the lower boundary, the
onset of puberty involves a series of overlapping physiolog-
ical changes, including a rise in hormones, the onset of men-
struation for females, and the maturation of the ovaries or
gonads. These changes may begin as early as ages 6 to 8 and
may not end until ages 15 to 17 (McClintock and Herdt
1996). However, on average, menstruation begins at
approximately 12–13 years of age in industrialized nations
and later in nations plagued with malnutrition and disease
(Eveleth and Tanner 1990; Herman-Giddens et al. 1997).
The age at which youths reach the upper boundary of ado-
lescence and take on adults roles, such as self-supporter,
spouse, and parent, also varies considerably across people
his article provides a multidisciplinary review of
research that is related to an important and timely pub-
lic policy issue: Is adolescence a period of heightened
vulnerability to the influence of advertising and promo-
tions? We conduct this review in response to the growing
concern that marketers may be unfairly exploiting adoles-
cents (Kasser and Kanner 2004; Linn 2004; Quart 2004),
particularly tobacco and alcohol marketers (King et al.
1998; Pucci and Siegel 1999). The concern about exploita-
tion is based in part on the belief that adolescents may be
especially susceptible to marketers’ influence attempts
(Cohen 2000; Pollay et al. 1996; U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services 1995b).We address the issue of ado-
lescent vulnerability by reviewing the basic research on ado-
lescents’ cognitive and emotional development that has
been conducted in three academic disciplines: neuroscience,
psychology, and marketing. We also examine how the U.S.
tobacco and alcohol industries try to protect adolescents
through self-regulation and the tobacco settlement.
We begin with the assumption that adolescents are sus-
ceptible to influence by advertising, including tobacco and
alcohol advertising, which we base on several comprehen-
sive reports that reach this conclusion (Hastings and Aitken
1995; Lynch and Bonnie 1994; U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services 1995a; Wakefield et al. 2003). We then
address a fundamentally different set of questions: Are ado-
lescents more susceptible to advertising and promotions
than adults? If so, why and under what circumstances? To
address these questions, we review the basic science of ado-
Vol. 24 (2) Fall 2005, 202–221
© 2005, American Marketing Association
ISSN: 0743-9156 (print), 1547-7207 (electronic)
Impulsive and Self-Conscious: Adolescents’
Vulnerability to Advertising and Promotion
Cornelia Pechmann, Linda Levine, Sandra Loughlin, and
In this article, the authors review basic research on adolescent development in neuroscience,
psychology, and marketing. The findings indicate that adolescents are more impulsive and self-
conscious than adults. In addition, the adolescent brain’s plasticity makes it more vulnerable to harm.
Thus, there is emerging justification for restricting adolescents’ exposure to advertising and promotions
for high-risk, addictive products, especially if impulsive behaviors or image benefits are depicted.
Cornelia (Connie) Pechmann is a professor, Paul Merage School of
Business (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), Linda Levine is an associate
professor, Department of Psychology and Social Behavior (e-mail:
email@example.com), Sandra Loughlin is an academic researcher,
Department of Pharmacology, and Assistant Director of the University
of California, Irvine, Transdisciplinary Tobacco Use Research Center
(UCI TTURC) (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), and Frances Leslie is a pro-
fessor, Department of Pharmacology, and Director of the UCI TTURC
(e-mail: email@example.com), University of California, Irvine. The
authors acknowledge the assistance of Louri Groves and financial
support from UCI TTURC (Research Grant DA 13332).
In this article, we adopt the conventional view that ado-
lescence is roughly synonymous with teenager, or ages 13–
19. Note, however, that studies indicate that the period of
adolescence has lengthened in the United States. In particu-
lar, many scholars argue that adolescence begins at approx-
imately age 10 and does not end until the early 20s (Stein-
berg 2002). Research shows that boys and girls report
feeling sexually attracted to others at around age 10, an age
that corresponds to maturation of the adrenal glands in many
children (McClintock and Herdt 1996). Furthermore, youths
often pursue graduate degrees and delay careers, marriage,
and parenthood, remaining economically dependent on their
parents well after they reach the age of 20.
Most youths manage the transition to adulthood success-
fully, but adolescence is undoubtedly a period of heightened
susceptibility to many disorders. Many behavioral and emo-
tional problems, such as substance abuse and eating disor-
ders, are rarely observed before adolescence. Others, such as
major depression or bipolar illness, increase in prevalence in
adolescence (Steinberg et al., in press). A recent review
(Dahl 2004) reports that morbidity and mortality rates dou-
ble between the early school years and late adolescence.
Major causes of death and disability are related primarily to
adolescents’ difficulties in controlling either their emotions
(e.g., violence, depression, suicide, homicide) or their
impulses (e.g., eating disorders, substance abuse, health
problems related to risky sexual behaviors, reckless driving)
(Blanken 1993; Fingerhut and Warner 1997; Snyder and
Neurobiological Bases for Adolescent
New noninvasive brain imaging techniques, especially func-
tional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), permit investi-
gators to characterize the structure and activity patterns of
the adolescent brain. Complementary animal studies have
begun to examine the unique physiological, morphological,
and neurochemical properties of the adolescent brain. These
studies reveal adolescence to be a period of rapid brain
development and maturation. The adolescent brain’s plas-
ticity may cause vulnerabilities because structures and sys-
tems that are undergoing massive change are highly suscep-
tible to negative environmental input.
Brain Structures and Systems
To comprehend the advances in neuroscience that have
begun to clarify the functional characteristics of the adoles-
cent brain, it is necessary to understand the basic brain sys-
tems that underlie motivated behavior. A complex circuit of
linked brain structures plays a crucial role in the integration
of environmental information with internal drives and mem-
ories to produce motivated behavior. This circuit is known
as the limbic system (see Figure 1).
Circuits at both cortical and subcortical levels process
sensory information about the environment. A key subcorti-
cal structure is the amygdala, which serves a vital role in
social cognition by transforming experiences into feeling
(Adolphs 2001; Haxby, Hoffman, and Gobbini 2002). Sen-
sory information transmitted to the amygdala is rapidly ana-
lyzed for its emotional content and then is sent to other brain
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 203
structures that process movement and memory. If incoming
sensory information is aversive, the amygdala will respond
with fear and will activate behavioral responses through
striatum and brain stem outputs (Davis and Whalen 2001).
This rapid subcortical processing of sensory input permits
an automatic behavioral response to threats that may affect
survival. The amygdala plays a similar role in appetitive
drives, such as sexual behavior (Everitt et al. 2003). The
amygdala, which is phylogenetically one of the older sub-
cortical brain regions, is also a principal target for stress and
gonadal hormones (Newman 1999; Sapolsky 2003). These
hormones serve important roles in regulating amygdala
response to the environment, and they contribute to sex dif-
ferences in social behavior (Hamann et al. 2004; Newman
Incoming sensory information is also relayed to the sen-
sory cortex, where it is processed and transferred to an asso-
ciation cortex for integration with other sensory modalities.
This integrated sensory experience is then relayed to the
prefrontal cortex, which serves an executive, decision-
making role in that it uses prior experiences to guide behav-
ioral responses (Arnsten 1997). Activation of the prefrontal
cortex inhibits inappropriate responses and environmental
distractions and permits planning and execution of orga-
nized behavior. In adults, activation of the prefrontal system
can inhibit amygdala activity (Grace and Rosenkranz 2002);
thus, planned behavior resulting from prior experience can
override impulsive responses to the environment.
Neuronal activity in these limbic circuits can be modu-
lated by monoamine neurotransmitter pathways that origi-
nate in the hindbrain, including norepinephrine, serotonin,
and dopamine (Joyce, Goldsmith, and Gurevich 1997). In
particular, dopamine serves a critical role in defining the
salience of an environmental stimulus and in regulating
motivated behavior (Grace and Rosenkranz 2002; Kelley
2004; Wise 2004). Dopamine is released in the ventral stria-
tum in response to novel stimuli and natural rewards, and it
acts as a “go” signal to activate exploratory behavior.
Dopamine release in the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala
also regulates emotional learning by “stamping in”
stimulus–reward and response–reward associations.
Changes in Brain Structure and Function
The brain does not grow in overall size after about the age
of six, but substantial structural and functional reorganiza-
tion occurs throughout adolescence (Giedd 2004; Gogtay et
al. 2004; Koshibu, Levitt, and Ahrens 2004; Sowell et al.
2001). Most of this structural change appears to progress
independent of puberty and is a function of age and experi-
ence. The outer cortical layers of the brain are made up of
densely packed neurons interspersed with glial support
cells, and there are complex connections between them.
Synapses, or points of contacts between neurons, are also
abundant; there are tens of thousands of such contacts per
millimeter. The underlying layers contain long projections
between cortical regions and outgoing connections to sub-
cortical neuronal groups. These pathways are insulated by
myelin-forming support cells to speed electrical conduction.
Myelinated projections appear white in fresh brain sections
because of their high fat content and are called white matter.
Cell dense neuronal tissue appears gray and is called gray
The increasing cognitive capacity of the adolescent brain
coincides with a decrease in cortical gray matter thickness,
which is believed to result from a loss of synapses between
neurons and a concomitant strengthening of remaining
synapses. This process, which has been well documented in
both humans and animals (Huttenlocher 1979; Klintsova
and Greenough 1999; Moody 1998), is known as
experience-dependent plasticity. Adolescence is a period of
massive, experience-dependent pruning of unnecessary
synapses; gray matter density in the whole brain peaks at the
age of 11.5 in girls and 14 in boys and declines thereafter
(Durston et al. 2001; Giedd 2004). At the same time, the
brain exhibits an increase in white matter content, which is
believed to reflect increased nerve insulation, or myelina-
tion, and a resulting increase in the efficiency of impulse
204 Adolescents’ Vulnerability to Advertising and Promotion
The developmental changes that are observed in gray and
white matter content are not homogeneous; they show
regional differences throughout the brain, indicating differ-
ent rates of maturation for different structures. Time-lapse
sequences show that cortical regions associated with more
basic functions, the primary motor and sensory cortices,
mature earliest, and there is little further change in gray mat-
ter density during adolescence (Giedd 2004; Gogtay et al.
2004). Cortical areas involved in spatial orientation, speech,
and language are next to mature. Higher-order cortices
involved in executive control, attention, and motor coordi-
nation are last to mature and are actively restructured during
adolescence, as is the temporal association cortex that inte-
grates memory, audiovisual association, and object-
Both human and animal studies have shown that some
other brain regions and neuronal projections also mature rel-
atively late. There is a striking increase in the volume of the
amygdala throughout adolescence, particularly in males
Figure 1. Simplified Schematic of the Neural Circuitry Underlying Motivated Behavior
Notes: The amygdala processes environmental sensory cues for emotional content and stimulates automatic and impulsive behavioral responses. The pre-
frontal cortex receives highly processed sensory information and mediates planning of appropriate behavioral outcomes. The prefrontal cortex can
inhibit impulsive behavior driven by the amygdala, but it matures late in adolescence.
(Durston et al. 2001; Koshibu, Levitt, and Ahrens 2004).
Neuronal interconnections between the amygdala and the
prefrontal cortex, which enable cognitive control of emo-
tional processes, are also relatively immature at the begin-
ning of adolescence and do not complete their development
until adulthood (Cunningham, Bhattacharyya, and Benes
2002; Killgore, Oki, and Yurgelun-Todd 2001). The hip-
pocampus, which encodes context and is critically involved
in memory formation, continues to increase in size through-
out adolescence, particularly in females (Durston et al.
2001; Koshibu, Levitt, and Ahrens 2004). The cerebellum,
which regulates the timing of motor and cognitive
sequences, continues maturating into young adulthood (Dia-
As a result, young adolescents in particular demonstrate
several weaknesses in cognitive processing compared with
adults. Such weaknesses include poorer frontal lobe execu-
tive function (Adleman et al. 2002), worse visuospatial and
delayed verbal memory (Sowell et al. 2001), and slower
reaction time (Spear 2000). The cognitive control of reflex-
ive eye movements, which depends on executive function
and is related to behavioral inhibition, does not mature until
adulthood (Luna et al. 2001). Adolescents also show poorer
computational efficacy of the prefrontal cortex than adults,
perhaps in part because they are less able to activate brain
regions, such as the cerebellum, that underlie processes
related to timing and sequencing (Luna and Sweeney 2004).
The massive structural changes in the brain and associated
experience-dependent plasticity that occur during adoles-
cence cause this to be a critical period in limbic system
development that is highly sensitive to environmental input.
A recent study demonstrated this plasticity by comparing
adolescents who were learning to solve algebraic equations
with adults who were experienced in algebra (Qin et al.
2004). The same brain regions were activated for both ado-
lescents and adults, but practice decreased neural respond-
ing in the parietal cortex and increased it in the striatum only
Adolescents’ enhanced plasticity in response to new chal-
lenges affords learning advantages but may underlie their
greater vulnerability to environmental toxins and stresses.
The rapid rate of change within limbic structures, such as
the cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala, also makes adoles-
cents particularly vulnerable to long-term damage (Ander-
sen 2003). Stress-related psychopathologies often emerge
during the adolescent maturation of the limbic system
(Walker, Sabuwalla, and Huot 2004). Although transient
adjustment problems are common, in some teenagers, such
problems can portend a lifetime of mental disorders. Fur-
thermore, certain consumption behaviors pose a greater risk
when initiated in adolescence as opposed to adulthood, as
we discuss subsequently.
Adolescence is also associated with substantial changes in
the circulating levels of steroid hormones. Adrenarche, or
adrenal puberty, occurs at or before the age of ten and
results in an elevated release of adrenal androgens in both
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 205
males and females. The adrenal androgens have substantial
activational effects on both brain and periphery and are
implicated in the development of pubic hair, acne, and the
onset of sexual attraction in both sexes (Auchus and Rainey
2004; Herdt and McClintock 2000). Release of the adrenal
stress glucocorticoid hormones does not rise dramatically in
parallel with that of adrenal androgens. However, glucocor-
ticoid secretion and regulatory control do show significant
changes in adolescence, indicating that stress responses to
environmental stimuli are maturing (Gomez, Houshyar, and
Dallman 2002; Romeo et al. 2004; Viau et al. 2005). Evi-
dence suggests that adolescents are hypersensitive to the
effects of stress and that stress hormones may produce long-
term changes in brain structure and function (Walker,
Sabuwalla, and Huot 2004).
Menarche, or gonadal puberty, is associated with elevated
circulating levels of sex steroids, which produce the periph-
eral manifestations of pubertal growth and development.
The onset of gonadal puberty in the developed world is
occurring much earlier today than in previous generations
(Herman-Giddens et al. 1997), though there is no evidence
that the timing of adrenarche is labile. Gonadal steroids also
have pronounced effects on brain function. Emotional
response and social dominance behavior are associated with
the pubertal surge of gonadal steroids (Buchanan, Eccles,
and Becker 1992; Rowe et al. 2004). Gonadal steroid
actions during adolescence also play critical roles in the
maturation of brain circuitry underlying adult sexual behav-
ior (Sisk and Foster 2004).
Neuronal Activation and Cortical Function
Among adolescents, the increased gonadal hormone actions
on the amygdala and other subcortical regions enhance exci-
tatory drive for social behaviors and exploration. Yet the
cortical inhibitory control systems that are responsible for
planning and organized behavior are immature. The mis-
match in excitatory drive and inhibitory control during early
adolescence has been likened to “starting the engine with an
unskilled driver” (Dahl 2004, p. 17). In animals as well, the
prefrontal cortex and associated inhibitory control are not
fully mature until adulthood (Benes, Taylor, and Cunning-
ham 2000; Lambe, Krimer, and Goldman-Rakic 2000;
Lewis 1997). Thus, immature executive control is believed
to underlie the greater risk-taking behavior and novelty
seeking that is a hallmark of adolescence across all species
Because of ethical limitations in human research, much
understanding of the underlying mediational processes
comes from research on rodents and nonhuman primates
(Spear 2000). This research has established that in adults,
dopamine and norepinephrine projections to the prefrontal
cortex mediate important regulatory control over excitatory
output cells (pyramidal cells) and intrinsic inhibitory cells
(interneurons) (Arnsten 1997; Goldman-Rakic, Muly, and
Williams 2000). Whereas moderate activation of these
transmitter inputs optimizes prefrontal cortex function and
executive planning, overactivation by stress “shuts down”
prefrontal function and permits reflexive, habitual, and
impulsive responses to control behavior. Dopaminergic
inputs to prefrontal pyramidal cells continue to mature
throughout adolescence into adulthood (Benes, Taylor, and
Cunningham 2000; Lambe, Krimer, and Goldman-Rakic
2000; Tseng and O’Donnell 2005).
In the nonhuman primate and rodent, an “overshoot” of
dopamine input to some parts of the prefrontal cortex has
been observed during puberty, with a subsequent decline to
adult levels (Lewis 1997). Furthermore, neurochemical
studies reveal concurrent changes in the receptor proteins
that mediate dopamine’s actions. Dopamine receptor levels
in the rodent prefrontal cortex and striatum peak just after
puberty and then decline to substantially lower adult levels
(Andersen et al. 2000; Tarazi and Baldessarini 2000). Thus,
for a given level of neuronal activation, there will be greater
dopamine release and receptor stimulation in adolescents
than in adults.
Dopamine signaling in the prefrontal cortex and its stri-
atal outputs in response to novel stimuli play a critical role
in experience-dependent neuronal plasticity and instrumen-
tal learning (Kelley 2004; Waelti, Dickinson, and Schultz
2001; Wise 2004). Thus, hyperreactivity of dopaminergic
response during adolescence is undoubtedly critical to the
maturational processes that occur in prefrontal systems.
Because there is an inverted U-shaped relationship between
dopamine signaling and prefrontal cortex function, how-
ever, it could be predicted that the hyperresponsiveness of
dopaminergic systems impairs cognitive function in adoles-
cents under milder stress conditions than adults. This is con-
sistent with behavioral observations that adolescents per-
form many cognitive tasks as well as or better than adults
under low-stress or “cold cognition” conditions (Ernst et al.
2003; Leslie et al. 2004), but they exhibit markedly dis-
rupted performance under conditions of even mild stress or
“hot cognition” (Gardner and Steinberg, in press).
Figure 2 illustrates this inverted U-shaped relationship
between dopamine neuronal activation and prefrontal cortex
function. The adolescent (versus adult) function is shifted to
the left, showing adolescents’ greater sensitivity to stimulus
activation. The dotted arrow represents response to a mild
stress-induced stimulus. This stimulus produces optimal
cortical function among adults (peak of black line) but sub-
optimal function among adolescents (to the right of the peak
of the gray line).
Neuroscience research indicates that the prefrontal cortex,
which is critical for inhibitory control, is not fully developed
until late adolescence or early adulthood. Furthermore, hor-
monal levels and hormonal receptivity are elevated during
adolescence, and thus lower levels of stress or emotion can
cause inhibitory systems to go “offline” more readily. Thus,
it appears that a temporal gap exists between the onset of
puberty and its powerful urges and emotions and the later,
more gradual development of regulatory mechanisms
(Steinberg et al., in press). Next, we discuss several impli-
cations for adolescent behavior and decision making.
206 Adolescents’ Vulnerability to Advertising and Promotion
Adolescent Impulsivity and Risk Seeking
Adolescents’ strong pubescent urges lead to sensation seek-
ing, which is defined as the need for and pursuit of varied,
novel, and complex experiences (Zuckerman 1979). Martin
and colleagues (2002) assess sensation seeking in adoles-
cents between the ages of 11 and 13. They find no signifi-
cant correlation between sensation seeking and age, but they
find a significant correlation between sensation seeking and
pubertal stage among both sexes. Adolescent pubertal
development also leads to more intense sexual impulses
(McClintock and Herdt 1996; Neemann, Hubbard, and Mas-
ten 1995). As transient traits, attraction to novelty combined
with strong sexual feelings may be adaptive by promoting
behaviors that are essential to the transition from adoles-
cence to adulthood, in particular, venturing outside the fam-
ily unit and reproducing with nonfamily members (Spear
2000). Unfortunately, risky and maladaptive behaviors may
Whereas adolescents experience more intense urges, the
skills required to control these urges are in short supply;
such skills do not develop with the onset of puberty but
rather improve gradually with age and experience (Cauff-
man and Steinberg 2000; Dahl 2004). Inhibitory or impulse
control—also referred to as the cognitive regulation of emo-
Figure 2. Hypothesized Age Differences in the Relationship
Between Dopamine Neuronal Activation and
Prefrontal Cortex Function
Prefrontal Cortex Function
Dopamine Neuron Activation
Notes: In both adolescents (gray line) and adults (black line), there is an
inverted U-shaped relationship between dopamine activation and
prefrontal cortex function: Mild activation produces enhancement
of cortical function, whereas strong activation produces inhibition.
Thus, a relatively mild stress-induced stimulation (dotted arrow),
which yields optimal cognitive function for an adult (peak of black
line), yields impaired cognitive function for an adolescent (to right
of peak of gray line).
tions, executive control, or, more colloquially, self-
control—refers to the ability to inhibit, delay, or modify an
emotion or impulse or its behavioral expression to avoid
negative outcomes and attain long-term goals (Thompson
1994). The skills that are necessary for this include plan-
ning, monitoring, evaluating, and reflecting. They are evi-
denced when a person focuses attention on a problem and
blocks out irrelevant thoughts or when a person forgoes an
immediate reward in favor of a more valuable outcome to be
achieved subsequently. Such emerging abilities have been
linked to the maturation of the prefrontal cortex, a brain
region involved in long-term planning and deliberate deci-
sion making that does not fully develop until late adoles-
cence or early adulthood. Compared with adults, adoles-
cents report less use of cognitive strategies, such as
distraction and positive reappraisal, to regulate emotions
(Folkman et al. 1987; Gross et al. 1997).
Impulsive and Risky Behavior
Because adolescents experience strong pubescent urges and
have weak inhibitory control, they are more likely than
either children or adults to pursue reckless and risky activi-
ties (Cauffman and Steinberg 2000; Greenberger 1982;
Spear 2000; Steinberg and Cauffman 1996; Wulfert et al.
2002). In a survey of adolescents between the ages of 11 and
15 (Maggs, Almeida, and Galambos 1995), 80% reported
engaging in one or more problem behaviors during the pre-
vious month, such as disobeying parents, school miscon-
duct, substance use, driving while intoxicated, unprotected
sex, theft, or fighting. It has been argued that reckless
behavior is so prevalent during adolescence that it is the
norm rather than the exception (Moffitt 1993; Trimpop,
Kerr, and Kirkcaldy 1999). However, some adolescents are
more impulsive than others, which affects their likelihood to
engage in substance abuse. Chambers, Taylor, and Potenza
(2003) find that adolescents who made impulsive choices
(preferring a lesser, immediate compensation rather than a
greater, delayed compensation for study participations)
reported a greater use of cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana.
Similarly, longitudinal studies have found that high levels of
impulsivity predict adolescent substance use (Colder and
Research also indicates that adolescents’ psychological
immaturity, or weak inhibitory control, is a significant pre-
dictor of their risky decisions and actions. Cauffman and
Steinberg (2000) administered questionnaires to more than
1000 8th, 10th, and 12th graders and to college students
(ages 12–48). The questionnaires assessed psychological
maturity, such as participants’ tendency to limit impulsivity,
consider the long-term consequences of their actions, and
forgo immediate gratification. Participants also responded
to hypothetical scenarios about antisocial and risky behav-
iors. The results indicated that psychosocial maturity
improved as a function of age through approximately age
19. Responsible decision making (as assessed by hypotheti-
cal scenarios) was significantly less common in adolescents
than in young adults. Psychosocial maturity was a key pre-
dictor of responsible decision making.
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 207
Furthermore, adolescents tend to experience more frequent
and intense negative emotions, diminished positive emo-
tions, and greater emotional volatility than both younger and
older people. Several longitudinal studies have shown that
negative affect increases from preadolescence to adoles-
cence (Buchanan, Eccles, and Becker 1992). Larson and
Richards (1994) collected data from 55 Chicago family
members, including mother–father–adolescent triads, and
from 483 additional children in Grades 5–9. Participants
completed reports of their activities and emotions when
paged at random moments during the day. Across the thou-
sands of times they recorded their feelings, adolescents
reported more intense and frequent negative emotions. They
also experienced positive situations as less pleasurable than
older or younger people. Indeed, between late childhood and
early adolescence, the number of reports of feeling “very
happy” dropped by 50%. Even in response to seemingly
identical events, adolescents experienced more negative
emotion and less positive emotion than younger children or
adults. In a related study (Larson et al. 2002), 220 youths
provided reports on their daily emotions in Grades 5–8 and
again four years later when they were in Grades 9–12. The
youths’ average emotional state became increasingly nega-
tive with age until about Grade 10 (approximately age 16).
A different study indicates that youths’ negative affect may
remain elevated through age 18 (Holsen, Kraft, and Vitterso
Other studies have likewise found negative moods to be
common in adolescence. Whalen and colleagues (2001)
used surveys and electronic diaries to examine heath behav-
iors, mental health symptoms, and moods. Adolescents with
mental health symptoms (depression, delinquency, and
aggression) reported feeling sad on 16%–40% of occasions,
angry on 26%–55% of occasions, and anxious on 35%–60%
of occasions. A review of research on depression in adoles-
cents concluded that they have higher rates of depressed
mood than either children or adults (Petersen et al. 1993). A
total of 14 studies on adolescents were reviewed, all involv-
ing nonclinical samples, and more than one-third of adoles-
cents met the criteria for clinical depression. The findings of
an fMRI study of face recognition are consistent with the
notion that adolescents experience more negative emotions
than adults (Nelson et al. 2003). Whereas adolescents exhib-
ited greater cortical brain activation in response to angry or
fearful faces, adults showed greater cortical activation for
happy and neutral faces.
In his review of this literature, Arnett (1999) concludes
that though not all adolescents experience “storm and
stress,” emotional turmoil is more likely during this period
than others. No single explanation accounts for the changes
in emotional experience that occur in early adolescence or
for the return of relative emotional stability in late adoles-
cence or early adulthood. “Raging hormones” are a popu-
larly cited cause. Research confirms that the hormonal
changes that accompany puberty indeed contribute to nega-
tive moods and emotional volatility in early adolescence
(Arnett 1999; Brooks-Gunn, Graber, and Paikoff 1994).
However, this hormonal contribution seems to be relatively
small and is accentuated by contextual factors, such as
stressful life events.
Compared with younger and older people, adolescents
tend to experience a larger number of stressful transitions
and negative life events. Early adolescence is accompanied
by bodily changes, transition to schools that are often larger
and more demanding, changes in peer expectations, and
changes in relationships and roles within the family (Larson
et al. 2002). In contrast to younger children, adolescents
often face these challenges with less reliance on the adults
who provided structure and guidance during childhood
(Steinberg et al., in press). People’s interpretations of chal-
lenging events also play an important role in determining
their emotional reactions. Larsen and Ham (1993) propose
that advances in the ability to think abstractly may increase
adolescents’ cognitive awareness of the implications of
events and actually make adolescents more vulnerable to
negative events. Affect may stabilize in late adolescence as
a result of both an increased ability to regulate emotions and
less change in adolescents’ daily experiences.
Inhibitory Control Given Emotional Turmoil
Negative emotions (e.g., feelings of anger, depression, anx-
iety) may further disrupt adolescents’ already tenuous con-
trol over their impulses and urges. Research shows that reg-
ulating emotional distress often takes precedence over
impulse control. People who experience emotional distress
value short-term pleasures that may relieve their distress. In
a series of studies, Tice, Bratslavsky, and Baumeister (2001)
induced negative affect in undergraduates, which increased
their tendency to eat fattening snacks, pursue immediate
gratification, and engage in frivolous procrastination. This
tendency to indulge immediate impulses was eliminated
when participants were informed that the mood-induction
procedure would elicit a negative mood that was unchange-
able for a certain period of time.
Shiv and Fedorikhin (1999, 2002) manipulated the con-
text in which undergraduates were asked to choose between
an impulse product (chocolate cake) that was associated
with positive affect but unfavorable cognitions and a non-
impulse product (fruit salad) that was associated with less
positive affect but more favorable cognitions. When partic-
ipants were asked to choose quickly and were preoccupied,
they were more likely to select the positive affect, impulse
product. This pattern was particularly pronounced for those
who scored high on impulsivity. The implication is that
when adolescents’ processing resources are constrained
because of factors such as high negative affect, they may be
especially prone to acting on their impulses. Consistent with
this view, Whalen and colleagues (2001) find that teenagers
who reported high levels of negative emotions also reported
elevated urges to engage in risky health behaviors. Tercyak
and colleagues’ (2002) findings indicate that adolescents
with negative affect disorders may be more persuaded by
cigarette advertisements. In this study, adolescents with
clinical symptoms of depression and evidence of cigarette
ad receptivity (e.g., a favorite cigarette advertisement) were
more likely to have smoked at least once (71%) than nonde-
pressed youths with evidence of cigarette ad receptivity
208 Adolescents’ Vulnerability to Advertising and Promotion
Yet another study (Gardner and Steinberg, in press)
investigated adolescent decision making in conditions of
high arousal or hot cognition as opposed to low arousal or
cold cognition (Metcalfe and Mischel 1999; Steinberg et al.,
in press). Adolescents (ages 13–16), older youths (ages 18–
22), and adults (ages 24+) completed questionnaires that
assessed risk preferences and risky decision making and a
behavioral driving simulation task that assessed risk taking.
Participants completed the measures either alone (low
arousal) or in a group with two same-aged peers (high
arousal). The results showed that risky decisions and behav-
iors decreased with age. Furthermore, participants in a high-
arousal (versus low-arousal) state focused more on the ben-
efits of risky decisions and took more risks. Finally, adoles-
cents and older youths were more strongly affected by high
arousal than adults. In conclusion, considerable evidence
suggests that adolescents’ heightened negative arousal con-
tributes to their tendency to engage in risky, impulsive acts.
Cognitive Risk Assessment
Researchers have also examined potential limitations in
adolescents’ cognitive risk assessment in laboratory settings
that are characterized by low emotion, low arousal, or cold
cognition. Specifically, researchers have asked the follow-
ing question: Are adolescents less knowledgeable and/or
less concerned than adults about the potential consequences
of risky behavior? The answer is unclear; the findings have
been mixed. Several studies have shown that compared with
adults, adolescents exhibit greater optimistic bias or the ten-
dency to view the risks of various behaviors as lower for the
self than for others (Weinstein 1980). For example, Levine
and colleagues (2005) find that adolescents in Southern Cal-
ifornia viewed the attacks of September 11 as having greater
impact on peers than on themselves; their parents did not.
Another study finds that adolescents expected to experience
less harm as a result of engaging in risky activities than did
their parents (Cohn et al. 1995). In a survey about smoking,
significantly more adolescents than adults stated that they
could smoke for a few years and then quit before experienc-
ing serious health consequences because they would not
become addicted (Arnett 2000).
Furthermore, researchers have used gambling tasks to
compare the relative weights that adolescents and adults
attach to risks versus rewards. The results indicate that com-
pared with adults, adolescents’ choices tend to be driven
more by rewards and less by risks (Furby and Beyth-Marom
1992; for a review, see Steinberg and Scott 2003). In
another study (Moore and Gullone 1996), adolescents were
asked to generate a list of common risky behaviors and rate
them in terms of the perceived pleasantness of positive out-
comes, the perceived unpleasantness of negative outcomes,
and the likelihood of both types of outcomes. Adolescent
risk taking was shown to be strongly influenced by the per-
ceived pleasantness of positive outcomes. Parsons, Siegel,
and Cousins (1997) find that both risks and benefits influ-
enced adolescents’ intent to engage in risky behavior, but
benefits were a better predictor of actual risky behavior.
In contrast to these findings, however, other studies com-
paring decision making in adolescents and adults reveal
more commonalities than differences. The general consen-
sus is that the major gains in the capacity to think abstractly
and make reasoned decisions in low-arousal settings occur
between childhood and adolescence rather than between
adolescence and adulthood (Keating 1990; Steinberg and
Cauffman 1996). In laboratory studies in which adolescents
are asked to think through hypothetical scenarios and reach
decisions, adolescents have been found to make decisions
using the same basic processes as adults (Beyth-Marom et
al. 1993). This similarity holds even for complicated deci-
sions, such as whether to abort a pregnancy (Lewis 1987).
Moreover, instead of displaying ignorance about risks, ado-
lescents rate the likelihood of some negative outcomes (e.g.,
accidental pregnancy, drunk driving accident) as greater
than do adults and as greater than is indicated by the statis-
tics for their age groups (Fischhoff et al. 2000; Millstein and
Halpern-Felsher 2002a, b; Quadrel, Fischhoff, and Davis
Thus, the research findings are somewhat inconclusive
about whether adolescents display weaknesses in cognitive
risk assessment compared with adults. Some studies suggest
that adolescents focus more on gains and less on losses than
adults. Other studies indicate that adolescents are both
knowledgeable and concerned about risks and sometimes
even overestimate risks. However, these studies have been
conducted in cold cognition or low-arousal settings. Ado-
lescents tend to make riskier, more impulsive decisions than
adults in hot cognition settings because of their relative
inability to regulate strong emotions and urges, as we dis-
With the onset of puberty, adolescents experience more
intense urges. Yet the ability to resist acting on urges is not
fully developed until late adolescence or early adulthood.
Furthermore, adolescents often experience strong negative
emotions that may overwhelm their already weak inhibitory
control. When they experience strong negative moods, they
may indulge immediate impulses and use risky, addictive
products. We discuss implications for marketing and public
Adolescent Self-Consciousness and
Reliance on Consumption Symbols
Research shows that the capacity to engage in abstract
thought develops in early adolescence. In a classic study,
researchers directed participants of various ages to reason
through a variety of scientific and social problems (Inhelder
and Piaget 1958). They found that in contrast to younger
children, adolescents and adults manifest the ability to think
about multiple variables in systematic ways, to formulate
hypotheses, and to understand abstract concepts and rela-
tionships. Although this growing ability to think abstractly
is an asset, it tends to cause adolescents to experience self-
consciousness and social anxiety until they develop relevant
Because adolescents develop the capacity to engage in
abstract reasoning about their own and other people’s
thoughts, they may envision social threats to their well-
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 209
being that they never previously considered (Larson and
Richards 1994). For example, they may construct negative
images of how they appear to others during social encoun-
ters (Clark and McManus 2002; Pine 2001; Spurr and Stopa
2002). As a result, adolescents report feeling self-conscious
and embarrassed about two to three times more often than
do their parents (Larson and Richards 1994). Rosso and col-
leagues (2004) explicitly examine the relationship between
abstract reasoning and social anxiety among 20 adolescents
between the ages of 9 and 18. The adolescents completed a
neuropsychological battery and measures of social anxiety.
Reported social anxiety increased moderately with age,
though not significantly at this sample size, and greater
abstract reasoning skill was significantly associated with
greater social anxiety.
Two objective challenges of adolescence, forming a per-
sonal identity and fitting in socially with peers, likely con-
tribute to adolescents’ heightened self-consciousness.
According to Erikson (1968), the primary developmental
task of adolescence is the struggle to formulate an identity
that is independent of parents, a struggle that typically lasts
until late adolescence or early adulthood. In the midst of this
struggle, it is understandable that adolescents would be self-
absorbed and self-conscious. Furthermore, adolescents often
turn to peers to help them forge identities that are indepen-
dent of their parents, which may make them even more self-
Research indicates that susceptibility to peer influence
peaks in early adolescence and then slowly declines during
high school (Steinberg and Scott 2003). For example, when
adolescents are presented with hypothetical dilemmas in
which they must choose between an antisocial behavior sug-
gested by peers and a prosocial behavior, they are more
likely than younger children to follow peers (Steinberg and
Silverberg 1986). Adolescents are also more likely than
younger children to identify peers as their most important
role models (Brown 1990). Finally, in adolescence, the
amount of unsupervised time spent with peers increases dra-
matically, and there is a corresponding decrease in the time
spent with parents or other adults (Brown 1990; Larson and
Richards 1991). This closer level of social engagement with
peers seems to lead to higher levels of self-consciousness,
particularly among girls (Rankin et al. 2000). Among ado-
lescents, just being around peers has been found to increase
arousal (Gardner and Steinberg, in press).
According to Solomon’s (1983, 1992) symbolic interaction-
ism theory, adolescents’ self-consciousness and social anxi-
ety should tend to make them more receptive to image
advertising and high-status, heavily advertised brands. The
theory posits that consumers often buy products not for their
functional attributes but rather for their image attributes or
value as consumption symbols. That is, products are often
bought because they are believed to project positive social
roles or images, which in turn leads to higher perceptions of
self-worth. A main tenet of the theory is that in periods of
transition, a person’s uncertainty about his or her ability to
attain a desired role state can cause a greater reliance on
consumption symbols. During transition periods, people use
consumption symbols to signal to themselves and to others
that the desired end state will be attained. Because adoles-
cence is a major transition period associated with consider-
able self-doubt, it follows that adolescents should be highly
attracted to high-status consumption symbols. Adolescents
should also be highly attuned to image advertising because
it is a primary mechanism by which brands convey their
value as consumption symbols. The goal of most image
advertising is to suggest that the featured brands help a per-
son look better, feel better, attract sexual interest, and
impress friends (Masten 2004).
Research indicates that adolescents show a heightened
interest in consumption symbols compared with younger
children. However, the findings conflict as to whether inter-
est in brands peaks in early or late adolescence or early
adulthood. In one study, high school students reported more
brand preferences than middle school students (Moore and
Stephens 1975). Another study found age (12–18 years old)
to be positively correlated with brand knowledge and ad-
based information search (Moschis and Churchill 1979). An
investigation of clothing purchase habits of people between
the ages of 9 and 19 determined that age was positively
associated with peer influence, interest in advertisements,
reliance on brand names, and a desire for the latest fashions
(May and Koester 1985).
However, some studies suggest that young adults are even
more brand conscious than adolescents. Belk, Bahn, and
Mayer (1982) find that an understanding of brand images
and consumption symbols emerges by age 8 (second grade),
increases through adolescence, peaks in college, and
declines thereafter. Likewise, music preferences apparently
form around age 24 rather than during adolescence (Hol-
brook and Schindler 1989). Yet in a survey about catalog
clothes shopping (Simpson, Douglas, and Schimmel 1998),
it was middle school students (ages 12–14) who reported
being most concerned about brand name, style, and the lat-
est fashions, not high school students (ages 15–18). Thus, it
appears that adolescents have a heightened interest in
brands, but the age at which this interest peaks is not yet
known and might vary depending on factors such as product
Receptivity to Image Advertising
A few studies in the tobacco area suggest that there are age-
related differences in receptivity to image advertising. Pol-
lay and colleagues (1996) used econometric models to relate
brand-specific advertising expenditures to cigarette brand
market shares among both adolescents and adults during the
period from 1974 to 1993. They obtained data on advertis-
ing expenditures and adult market shares from standard syn-
dicated sources, and they estimated brand market shares
among adolescents from health surveys. They found that
brand-specific advertising expenditures had three times
more influence on brand shares among adolescents than
among adults. In addition, from 1989 to 1993, when R.J.
Reynolds promoted Camel using the Old Joe cartoon char-
acter, Camel’s share of the youth market increased from 8%
to 13%, whereas its share of the adult market remained sta-
210 Adolescents’ Vulnerability to Advertising and Promotion
ble at 4% (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
1994). Many studies in both the United States and abroad
have shown that adolescents are more likely than adults to
smoke the most heavily advertised cigarette brands (e.g.,
Pierce et al. 1991).
Other researchers have found that self-images and ciga-
rette smoker images are more closely aligned among ado-
lescents who smoke or intend to smoke than among non-
smokers (Barton et al. 1982; Burton et al. 1989; Chassin et
al. 1981). In other words, smokers or likely smokers per-
ceive themselves as fitting the image of a smoker, which
suggests that they use cigarettes to project that image. Addi-
tional studies indicate that cigarettes serve as an important
cue in social perceptions and that cigarette advertising helps
make this cue more salient (Pechmann and Knight 2002;
Pechmann and Ratneshwar 1994). Specifically, researchers
have found that adolescents responded differently to unfa-
miliar peers on the basis of whether the peers were shown
smoking or not smoking and whether the adolescents
viewed smoking-related (versus control) advertisements.
Cigarette advertisements enhanced adolescents’ perceptions
of smokers and also increased their intent to smoke; anti-
smoking advertisements had the opposite effects. Kelly,
Slater, and Karan (2002) removed the lifestyle images from
beer, cigarette, and soft drink advertisements and found that
this lowered adolescents’ ratings of the advertisements,
brands, and products.
Self-Consciousness and Consumption Symbols
Additional studies link adolescents’ self-consciousness and
self-doubt to image advertising receptivity. Martin and
Kennedy (1993) examined female students’ responses to
glamorous female models in image advertisements. They
found that 8th and 12th graders were more likely to compare
themselves with the models than 4th graders. Those with
low self-esteem were more likely to draw such comparisons.
Among 8th and particularly 12th graders, exposure to the
glamorous models also raised the bar or comparison stan-
dard for what it means to be attractive. In this study, expo-
sure to the glamorous models did not affect self-rated phys-
ical attractiveness, but that effect has been shown previously
(Martin and Gentry 1997; Richins 1991). Another study
found that adolescent females with poor body images
expressed greater liking of attractive advertising models and
the products they promoted (Martin, Gentry, and Hill 1999).
Survey research suggests that adolescents with low (versus
high) self-esteem are more trusting of advertising in general
(Boush, Friestad, and Rose 1994). In addition, young adults
reared in disrupted families tend to be more materialistic
and to engage in more compulsive buying (Rindfleisch, Bur-
roughs, and Denton 1997).
Adolescence is a period of heightened self-consciousness
and self-doubt. Brand consciousness also seems to increase
in adolescence, consistent with the notion that adolescents
rely on brands to project a positive image to others and to
bolster feelings of self-worth. It appears that adolescents
with low self-esteem are especially attracted to image adver-
tisements and status brands and that they manifest other
signs of materialism.
Adolescents’ Elevated Risks from
Elevated Risk of Addiction
It has been argued that habits and addictions are more read-
ily formed in adolescence than in adulthood (McNeal 1992;
Quart 2004; Zollo 2004). For most product categories, no
research has been published on age of first use or age at
which loyalties are formed. However, research has been
conducted on two products: tobacco and alcohol. The find-
ings suggest that adolescents are particularly prone to initi-
ating use and becoming addicted to both products (Kandel
and Logan 1984). Addiction is fundamentally different and
more problematic than loyalty because it involves biological
changes in brain response to mind-altering substances
(DiFranza et al. 2002). Social factors have been commonly
implicated in teen smoking and drinking, but animal studies
now suggest that there is an enhanced biological sensitivity
to the rewarding effects of tobacco and alcohol during ado-
lescence (Leslie et al. 2004; Philpot, Badanich, and Kirstein
In the United States, approximately 80% of adolescents
try alcohol by the 12th grade (by approximately age 18;
Johnston, O’Malley, and Bachman 2003); the average age
of first use is 14 years old (Foster et al. 2003). In addition,
90% of daily smokers try their first cigarette by age 18, and
56% try it by age 13 (Lynch and Bonnie 1994). Smoking
and drinking during early adolescence are associated with
greater difficulty in quitting and heavier use in later life
(Breslau and Peterson 1996; Guo et al. 2000; Taioli and
Wynder 1991). One study found that 67% of those who ini-
tiated smoking in 6th grade smoked regularly as adults
compared with 46% of those who initiated smoking in 11th
grade (Chassin et al. 1990). Another study reported that
youths who begin drinking before age 15 have a 41%
chance of becoming dependent compared with 10% of those
who begin drinking after age 19 (Grant and Dawson 1997).
It is not entirely clear whether early drug use causes addic-
tion or whether early users are more prone to become
addicted for other reasons, such as genetics. However, Grant
and Dawson (1997, p. 103) control for many potential con-
founders and find that “the odds of [alcohol] dependence
decreased by 14% with each increasing year of age at onset
of use, and the odds of abuse decreased by 8%.”
Elevated Risk of Adverse Health and Social
Research indicates that alcohol and tobacco are riskier when
used by adolescents than when used by adults. Specifically,
there is mounting evidence that because of the plasticity of
the developing adolescent brain, it may be especially sensi-
tive to the toxic effects of both products (Crews et al. 2000;
Slotkin 2002). In animal studies, administration of nicotine
and alcohol during adolescence has been shown to damage
the hippocampus, which is involved in memory formation
(Jang et al. 2002; Slotkin 2002). Such structural changes
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 211
may underlie the memory performance deficits that have
been reported in adolescent smokers (Jacobsen et al. 2005)
and adolescent problem drinkers (Brown et al. 2000; Tapert
et al. 2001). Animal studies suggest that nicotine and alco-
hol exposure during adolescence leads to increased anxiety-
like behaviors in adulthood (Slawecki et al. 2003; Slawecki,
Thorsell, and Ehlers 2004). Correspondingly, in humans, a
prospective study found that smoking during adolescence
increased the likelihood of panic disorders in later life
(Isensee et al. 2003).
Furthermore, several epidemiological studies have exam-
ined the relative risks of alcohol use. The findings indicate
that adolescents are more likely to engage in binge drinking
than adults and that binge drinking is associated with
numerous problems. One U.S. survey found that among
drinkers between the ages of 15 and 20 years, 70% drank
heavily (5+ concurrent drinks in the past 30 days); among
those over 26 years, 39% drank heavily (Bonnie and O’Con-
nell 2004, p. 39). Even when blood alcohol content is con-
trolled for, it appears that alcohol-impaired adolescent dri-
vers are more likely to get into car crashes than adults
(Hingson and Kenkel 2004). Heavy drinking among young
college students (ages 18–19 years) has been found to
impede academic performance (Wechsler et al. 1998),
though one study indicates that other factors may play an
even more important role, such as comorbid illicit drug use
(Wood et al. 1997). Cook and Moore (1993) report that even
after controlling for confounding variables, such as aptitude,
high school seniors who engaged in frequent and/or heavy
drinking completed 2.2 fewer years of college.
It also appears that moderate, though not heavy, drinking
increases the likelihood of both sexual intercourse and inter-
course without contraception among adolescents (Sen
2002). Alcohol use among adolescents has been linked to
violence, crime, suicide, and emotional disorders, and early
initiation seems to increase the risks. Hingson and Kenkel
(2004) find that even after controlling for factors such as
illicit drug use, youths who started drinking before age 15
compared with age 21 or later “were 12 times more likely to
be unintentionally injured while under the influence of alco-
hol, 7 times more likely to be in a motor vehicle crash after
drinking, and 10 times more likely to have been in a physi-
cal fight after drinking” (qtd. in Bonnie and O’Connell
2004, p. 59).
The evidence indicates that it is riskier for adolescents than
adults to use tobacco and alcohol, two products of particular
concern to policy officials. Research suggests that adoles-
cents who use and abuse these products face elevated risks
for both immediate, acute problems (e.g., memory deficits,
car crashes) and longer-term, chronic problems (e.g., addic-
tion, panic disorders). Furthermore, it appears that the devel-
oping brain’s plasticity or malleability makes it especially
sensitive to these products’ toxic effects and perhaps their
addictive effects as well.
Table 1. Reasons Adolescence Might Show Heightened Vulnerability to Marketing Efforts and Possible Remedies
Possible Reason For
Vulnerability Neurobiological Basis Possible Remedies
Examples of Remedies
1. Adolescents are prone to
risky, impulsive decisions
and behaviors, which are
further aggravated by their
enhanced susceptibility to
intense, negative mood
Adolescents have strong urges
and negative emotions due to
puberty, and their cortical
inhibitory control is not fully
Restrict advertising and
promotions for high-risk,
addictive products that depict
risky or impulsive behavior.
BI: Advertisements should not
show excessive drinking,
intoxication, drunk driving, or
illegal or indecent acts.
2. Adolescents tend to be self-
conscious and insecure,
causing them to rely on
consumption symbols for
self-definition and self-
worth, and they manifest
other characteristics of
Adolescents have the emerging
ability to think abstractly,
which enhances both social
awareness and social anxiety.
Restrict advertising and
promotions for high-risk,
addictive products that depict
psychosocial or image benefits.
BI, MSA: Advertisements
should not imply that
smoking/drinking is essential
for social or financial success
3. Adolescents (versus adults)
may be differentially harmed
by the use of addictive
cigarettes and alcohol, that
pose immediate and/or
The adolescent brain undergoes
massive structural changes and
which makes it especially
vulnerable to products’ toxic
effects and possibly also their
Prohibit marketers of high-risk,
addictive products from
targeting youths or reaching
large numbers of youths.
MSA: There should be no
youth targeting and no cartoons
or outdoor advertisements. BI:
Advertisements are restricted to
media with 70%+ adult
Assumes that restrictions are designed to protect children and adolescents.
BI = Beer Institute Advertising and Marketing Code (Federal Trade Commission 2003); MSA = Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (National Associ-
ation of Attorneys General 1998).
Conclusions and Regulatory Implications
Our review of the neuroscience, psychology, and marketing
literature has demonstrated three adolescent vulnerabilities:
(1) impulsivity, (2) self-consciousness and self-doubt, and
(3) an elevated risk from product use for both alcohol and
tobacco. Impulsivity has been linked to the temporal gap
between the onset of pubescent urges and the more gradual
development of cortical inhibitory control. Self-
consciousness is attributable in part to the emergence of
abstract thinking. Elevated risk from product use results par-
tially from impulsive behavior (e.g., drunk driving). In addi-
tion, the developing brain’s plasticity makes it more suscep-
tible to harm from toxins and possibly more sensitive to the
rewarding and addictive effects of alcohol and tobacco.
These vulnerabilities likely cause adolescents to be more
susceptible to certain marketing influences. Adolescent
impulsivity may cause them to use risky, addictive products
and engage in other dangerous acts that are associated with
thrill seeking and immediate gratification. It appears that
adolescents are particularly likely to act impulsively when
they are in negative mood states and that adolescents tend to
experience negative mood states more frequently and
intensely than either children or adults. Furthermore, ado-
lescent self-consciousness and self-doubt may lead them to
rely on consumption symbols for self-expression and self-
212 Adolescents’ Vulnerability to Advertising and Promotion
worth and to manifest materialism to a greater extent than
adults. For example, adolescents may purchase expensive
branded products that may be unaffordable and/or unneces-
sary and may feel insecure if they cannot have such
Alcohol and cigarettes are of particular concern because
adolescents who use these products face greater health and
social risks than adult users, including, but not limited to,
addiction. Furthermore, adolescents may be especially
tempted to use heavily advertised, popular brands of alcohol
and cigarettes because these brands may fulfill their needs
for immediate gratification and thrill seeking and their need
for high-status consumption symbols.
Current Regulatory Environment
Currently in the United States, no comprehensive federal
legislation governs how products should be marketed to
children or adolescents or how high-risk, addictive products,
such as tobacco and alcohol, should be marketed. The
United States relies primarily on state regulation and indus-
try self-regulation. Most states signed the Tobacco Master
Settlement Agreement (National Association of Attorneys
General 1998), which has provisions to protect adolescents.
Furthermore, the beer, wine, and distilled spirits’ industries
have voluntary marketing codes that attempt to safeguard
adolescents (see Table 1) (Federal Trade Commission
The alcohol industry seems sensitive to concerns that its
product marketing might encourage impulsive and risky
behavior, presumably because alcohol itself weakens corti-
cal inhibitory control. The Beer Institute Advertising and
Marketing Code (Federal Trade Commission 2003) pro-
hibits advertising and marketing materials that depict exces-
sive drinking, intoxication, drunk driving, illegal activity,
lewd or indecent language or images, and sexual passion or
promiscuity attributable to beer consumption. However, the
Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (National Associa-
tion of Attorneys General 1998) and Cigarette Advertising
and Promotion Code (Tobacco Institute 1990) do not pro-
hibit the depiction of impulsive, risky, indecent, or illegal
behavior in cigarette advertisements or promotions. Some
cigarette advertisements indeed contain such depictions.
The Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (National
Association of Attorneys General 1998) prohibits both
branded promotional merchandise and paid product place-
ments, presumably because both activities facilitate the use
of brands as consumption symbols. The Beer Institute pro-
hibits these activities only when they are targeted at youths
(Federal Trade Commission 2003). In addition, the Ciga-
rette Advertising and Promotion Code (Tobacco Institute
1990, p. 3) states, “Cigarette ads should not suggest that
smoking is essential to social prominence, distinction, suc-
cess, or sexual attraction.” Likewise, the Beer Institute
Advertising and Marketing Code (Federal Trade Commis-
sion 2003, p. D-3) states, “Beer advertising and marketing
materials should contain no claims or representations that
individuals cannot obtain social, professional, educational,
athletic, or financial success or status without beer con-
sumption.” However, note that cigarette and beer advertise-
ments can associate product use with success and status.
These restrictions apply only to advertisements that suggest
that product use is essential for success or status.
The tobacco and alcohol industries also recognize that
they cannot promote their products to people below the legal
purchase age, which is 21 years for alcohol and 18 years for
tobacco in the United States. The Tobacco Master Settle-
ment Agreement (National Association of Attorneys Gen-
eral 1998) states that firms cannot target youths (under age
18) either directly or indirectly. As a result, most major
tobacco firms have agreed not to advertise in magazines in
which youths constitute 15% or more of the readership
(Hamilton et al. 2002). Philip Morris has also agreed not to
advertise in magazines with readerships of two million or
more youths. The Beer Institute Advertising and Marketing
Code (Federal Trade Commission 2003) requires placement
in media in which 70% or more of the audience is expected
to be of legal purchase age (age 21 or older).
A Move Toward Comprehensive Federal
Congress may want to consider comprehensive regulations
to protect children and adolescents from advertising and
promotions for high-risk, addictive products. As this review
shows, the scientific evidence that could be used to justify
such regulations is mounting. A first step might be to iden-
tify addictive products that pose a higher risk to children and
adolescents than to adults (e.g., tobacco, alcohol). Place-
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 213
ment standards can be established to ensure that advertising
and promotions for these products do not appear in media
that reach large numbers of youths and/or a higher percent-
age of youths than adults. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates
that in 2003, 26% of the population was under age 18, and
29% was under age 21 (see http://factfinder.census.gov). If
a medium reaches more youths than would be expected
given these percentages, it presumably has a differential
appeal to youths and should not be used.
Ad content restrictions may also be useful and justifiable.
Policy officials may want to restrict advertisements for
high-risk, addictive products that depict risky or impulsive
behavior (e.g., product use behavior) or that depict psycho-
social benefits (e.g., stature, sex appeal; see Table 1). Such
restrictions might apply to all media or just to youth-
oriented media that reach a high percentage and/or a large
number of adolescents. A different and perhaps simpler
approach could require advertisements for high-risk, addic-
tive products to use a text-only, black-and-white tombstone
format in all media or at least in youth-oriented media
(Kelly, Slater, and Karan 2002; U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services 1996). Policy officials should also con-
sider requiring firms to report on their compliance with
media placement and/or content standards.
Some useful standards are already included in the ciga-
rette and alcohol marketing codes. Reliance on industry self-
regulation has several advantages; for example, regulatory
costs are lower and are borne primarily by the industry
rather than by taxpayers. However, self-regulation also has
several limitations. An industry’s self-imposed rules may be
too weak or have loopholes. The U.S. beer, wine, and dis-
tilled spirits industries initially permitted their advertise-
ments to be placed in magazines in which just 50% of read-
ers were of legal drinking age, and only recently have they
adopted a more stringent standard as a result of congres-
sional pressure (Federal Trade Commission 2003). Other
problems with self-regulation include limited data on com-
pliance, possible noncompliance by some firms, and limited
enforcement and punishment mechanisms.
The California attorney general recently brought a law
suit against R.J. Reynolds, alleging that the tobacco firm
continued to target youth, particularly through its media
placements (People of the State of California v. R.J.
Reynolds Tobacco Company 2002). The firm was found to
be in violation of the Master Settlement Agreement, but that
agreement applies only to major tobacco firms and to the
signatory states. As a society, the United States may decide
that its young people deserve more protection than what
they now have, which is nothing more than a patchwork of
limited state and industry protections. Another impetus for
change with respect to tobacco is that the United States
recently signed the world tobacco treaty, which strongly
encourages, if not mandates, comprehensive regulation of
tobacco marketing (World Health Organization 2003).
Future Research Directions
Direct Evidence of Adolescents’ Differential
Receptivity to Advertising
Although there is converging evidence that indicates that
adolescents may be more receptive to image advertising
than adults, there is little direct evidence. Controlled exper-
iments should examine this issue. In our review, we found
only one study that directly assessed age-related differences
in image ad receptivity: Pollay and colleagues’ (1996)
econometric study of cigarette ad response. The literature on
the development of interest in brands and consumption sym-
bolism is conflicting as to whether such interest peaks in
early adolescence (Simpson, Douglas, and Schimmel 1998),
late adolescence (Moore and Stephens 1975), or early adult-
hood (Belk, Bahn, and Mayer 1982). Thus, we recommend
that studies be conducted that directly compare adolescents’
with adults’ image ad receptivity, including experiments in
which ad exposure is manipulated for each age group. To
control for potential age-related confounds, covariates
should be included, such as prior product use and product
interest. If age-related differences in ad response are found,
possible causes of such differences should be investigated,
such as self-consciousness, social anxiety, impulsivity, risk
seeking, sensation seeking, and/or negative affect.
Moderators of Adolescents’ Advertising
We also recommend research on whether adolescents might
be particularly receptive to certain types of advertising
images and whether their receptivity might be moderated by
individual differences. To our knowledge, virtually no
research has been conducted on these topics (for an excep-
tion, see Kelly, Slater, and Karan 2002). This research
would help determine whether certain types of advertising
are particularly problematic and warrant special restrictions
and/or whether certain types of adolescents are especially
vulnerable and warrant targeted interventions.
We have argued that one reason adolescents may show
heightened vulnerability to advertising is that they are prone
to impulsive, thrill-seeking behavior. Correspondingly, it
might be expected that adolescents respond more favorably
to advertisements that depict impulsive, thrill-seeking acts
than to other ad types. Adolescents may be particularly
responsive to advertisements that depict impulsive or risky
acts when they are in a negative mood state and, thus, prone
to acting on impulse to obtain immediate gratification or
when they are in a high-arousal state and distracted. Ado-
lescents who are sensation seekers or risk seekers may be
even more responsive than other adolescents, particularly
given a negative mood or high arousal. Adults may not man-
ifest any preferential response to this type of advertising.
Because several questions remain unanswered, we believe
that a series of studies should be conducted. Adolescent and
adult responses should be compared, affective state should
be induced (Gardner and Steinberg, in press), and personal-
ity traits should be measured to examine mediating and
moderating effects. Furthermore, outcomes should be
assessed not only in terms of ad response but also in terms
214 Adolescents’ Vulnerability to Advertising and Promotion
of ad effects, such as viewers’ intent to use the advertised
product relative to a control or baseline.
It is also our contention that adolescents may show
heightened vulnerability to advertising because they tend to
be self-conscious and insecure. Accordingly, adolescents
may be especially responsive to image or lifestyle adver-
tisements that associate product use with psychosocial ben-
efits (e.g., stature, sex appeal, impressing friends) compared
with other ad types. Adolescents may be especially recep-
tive to such image advertisements when they are induced to
experience self-consciousness or social anxiety. Adoles-
cents who are materialistic or experience social anxiety as a
trait may be particularly vulnerable. Adults may show no
differential response to such image advertisements relative
to other ad types. These issues have not been directly
addressed, and therefore further work is necessary.
We also suggest that researchers examine whether one of
the two factors we just discussed, impulsivity or self-
consciousness, is more important than the other in affecting
adolescents’ response to advertisements and/or promotions.
The policy implications could be quite substantial. The
advertising policy recommendations we presented previ-
ously (see Table 1) assume that both of these factors are
influential. More specifically, we recommend that adver-
tisements for high-risk, addictive products should be pro-
hibited from depicting impulsive or risky acts, or psycho-
social or image benefits, particularly if the advertisements
will be viewed by adolescents. However, it might not be
necessary to restrict both types of advertisements; perhaps
only one ad type merits restrictions. It would likely be eas-
ier to restrict advertisements depicting impulsive, risky acts
than to restrict image advertisements depicting any type of
Adolescent Decision Making in Real-World
Most studies of decision making take place in research lab-
oratories and ask people to respond to hypothetical situa-
tions. As Steinberg and Cauffman (1996) note, however,
this methodology minimizes the potential effects of psycho-
social factors on judgment. Hypothetical situations have no
consequences and do not require people to exercise respon-
sibility or self-restraint. Studies that assess responses to
hypothetical situations examine decision making in the
absence of time pressure, emotional arousal, and coercion
by others. In contrast, in real-world settings, adolescents
make many decisions in the company of others or in other
challenging situations that are likely to evoke impulsivity in
people with little self-control. Gardner and Steinberg’s (in
press) recent research demonstrates the importance of the
decision-making context. They find that adolescents take
more risks in the presence of peers than when they are alone
and that adolescents are more strongly affected by the pres-
ence of peers than adults. These findings cry out for more
research examining adolescent decision making in real-
Recent advances in electronic diary technologies may be
useful for designing research in decision making in real-
world contexts and possible interactions with individual dif-
ference variables. Researchers have used electronic diary
programs installed on handheld computers to signal adoles-
cents to report their current emotional state, environmental
context, and activities multiple times each day (Henker et al.
2002). Researchers could make further use of this technol-
ogy to contrast age groups and people who vary on mea-
sures such as sensation seeking, depression, or social anxi-
ety. They could also examine how adolescents’ cost and
benefit ratings change across different real-world contexts,
such as when adolescents are in groups versus when they are
alone, when they are excited or depressed, or when they are
deciding what to buy at home versus what to buy at the mall.
Targeted Media Literacy Interventions for
It is important to remember that adolescence is a time of
both opportunities and vulnerabilities. It may be possible to
train adolescents to view image advertising and the more
subtle product placement approaches with the skepticism
they often direct at authority figures (Friestad and Wright
1994; Wright 1986). The effectiveness of such media liter-
acy training needs to be evaluated. Tailored interventions
may be necessary for vulnerable subgroups of adolescents,
such as those who manifest higher risk taking and impulsive
behavior and/or those who suffer from acute self-
consciousness and social anxiety.
Currently, most interventions aimed at improving adoles-
cent decision making focus on increasing their knowledge
of the costs and benefits of particular decisions. However,
recent research shows that under conditions of high arousal
or social coercion, such knowledge simply may not come to
mind. Thus, further research is necessary to identify the
types of education or interventions that are likely to be
effective in circumstances that elicit high arousal or hot cog-
nition. That is, there must be a better understanding of the
conditions under which adolescents’ knowledge of costs and
benefits is likely to be accessible or inaccessible and inter-
ventions that may increase the accessibility of relevant
knowledge in real-world circumstances.
Adolescent Versus Adult Brain Response to
Advertisements and Brands
The neurological mechanisms underlying the human brain’s
response to advertisements and brands are not yet under-
stood for either adolescents or adults. Basic research should
be conducted among both age groups and then to investigate
possible age-related differences. In particular, researchers
should examine whether brain response to marketing stim-
uli differs between adults and adolescents, how responses
may be influenced by arousal, and whether there are age-
related differences in response given high arousal. A recent
fMRI study in adults has demonstrated that the brain regions
that are recruited in choosing between culturally familiar
tastes depend on whether brand information is salient
(McClure et al. 2004). When blind tasting was conducted
and choices were based purely on sensory information, par-
ticipants relied on regions of the brain that are linked to
reward, such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. How-
ever, when brand information was presented during choice,
there was a marked shift in regional activation such that
brain regions known to be involved in cognitive control
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 215
became active. Similar fMRI studies would be helpful in
defining the neural circuitry underlying such decision-
making processes in adolescents and in characterizing age-
More research is also necessary to define further the
influences of the dopamine system on adolescent decision
making, especially in response to arousing stimuli such as
advertising. The brain chemical dopamine has been studied
for decades, and it clearly plays an important role in “stamp-
ing in” the salience of environmental cues (Grace and
Rosenkranz 2002; Wise 2004). This brain system is
extremely late to mature and undergoes substantial changes
during adolescence. Thus, adolescents may respond to cues,
including advertising, differently from adults. Finally, ani-
mal studies are necessary to characterize more fully the
neural circuitry involved in adolescent decision-making and
reward processes. These studies will complement human
imaging and behavioral studies and allow the linking of
changes in neural structure to immature adolescent brain
function. Studies of innate differences may provide further
evidence that adolescents are biologically vulnerable and,
thus, should be protected from marketing practices that may
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