he ability to gather information from social sources is a
hallmark of the human species that contributes immea-
surably to uniquely human achievements such as lan-
guage, science, and technology. The overwhelming share of
knowledge is acquired through social transmission, a
process that enables understanding to grow quickly well
beyond what could otherwise be acquired through the range
of experiences to which any single person is exposed (Bald-
win and Moses 1996; Bruner 1990; Tomasello 1999). Much
of this social learning occurs in childhood, a period during
which it may be adaptive for people to be especially open to
social communication. Children begin life as novices in
every domain and can thrive only through voracious con-
sumption of the expertise that is available in their culture.
Yet there is surely a downside to children’s proclivity to
seek social information so actively. An open system is an
exposed system. As Dawkins (1993, pp. 13–14) writes, this
openness leaves children “vulnerable to subversion, easy
prey to Moonies, Scientologists, and nuns. Like immune-
deficient patients, children are wide open to mental infec-
tions that adults might brush off without effort.” In line with
this appraisal, children are commonly described as naive,
gullible, suggestible, impressionable, and overly trusting.
Given this perception of children as highly vulnerable,
concerns about whether advertising might unfairly influence
them have arisen. Children’s exposure to advertising is
extensive and ever increasing. Moreover, advertising
directed at children is everywhere: on television, on radio,
on billboards, in newspapers, in magazines, increasingly on
the Internet, and even in schools (Calvert 2003; Kunkel et
al. 2004). In light of children’s cognitive immaturity, how-
ever, it is legitimate to question the appropriateness of
allowing them to be exposed to sophisticated and sometimes
misleading advertising. Particular concerns have been raised
about whether exposure to advertising contributes to
increasingly materialistic values in children, conflicts
between children and parents over the purchase of adver-
tised products, childhood obesity and poor eating habits, and
the formation and maintenance of gender and ethnic stereo-
types (Gunter, Oates, and Blades 2005). The extent to which
such concerns are valid is controversial, and not surpris-
ingly, regulation of advertisements directed at children
varies enormously from country to country and from
medium to medium (Gunter, Oates, and Blades 2005).
The extent to which children are indeed vulnerable to
advertising is an empirical question that is best answered
through empirical research. The aim of this article is to
describe ways that basic research on children’s cognitive
development might contribute to debates over advertising to
children. Our focus centers on television advertising
because this is the most frequent medium through which
children are exposed to advertising (Roberts, Foehr, and
Rideout 2005). We begin with a brief analysis of criteria that
can be employed in assessing (1) whether children under-
stand the nature of advertising and (2) whether they are
capable of establishing effective cognitive defenses against
its potentially adverse effects. We then discuss several
prominent theoretical frameworks from the field of devel-
opmental psychology that might be useful in assessing chil-
dren’s understanding of and ability to cope with advertising.
We suggest that Piaget’s theory of cognitive development,
which has frequently been drawn on in the literature on chil-
dren and advertising, is not especially helpful in developing
such an assessment. Instead, we argue that recent research
on children’s developing “theories of mind” and on their
developing “executive functioning” skills may prove more
fruitful. We review relevant literature on these topics and
Vol. 24 (2) Fall 2005, 186–201
© 2005, American Marketing Association
ISSN: 0743-9156 (print), 1547-7207 (electronic)
What Can the Study of Cognitive Development
Reveal About Children’s Ability to Appreciate and
Cope with Advertising?
Louis J. Moses and Dare A. Baldwin
The authors assess the study of cognitive development and what it reveals about children’s ability to
appreciate and cope with advertising. Whereas prior research on children and advertising has drawn
heavily on Piaget’s developmental theory, the authors argue that more recent approaches that focus on
the development of children’s “theories of mind” and “executive functioning” skills may prove more
fruitful. The review of research on these topics generates two predictions: First, on the basis of
theories-of-mind literature, the authors expect that children have well-formed conceptions of the
intentions underlying advertising by seven or eight years of age. Second, on the basis of executive
functions literature, the authors expect that children are not able to deploy these concepts effectively
in their everyday lives until much later in development.
Louis J. Moses is an associate professor (e-mail: moses@darkwing.
uoregon.edu), and Dare A. Baldwin is a professor (e-mail: baldwin@
darkwing.uoregon.edu), Department of Psychology, University of Ore-
gon. The authors are grateful to Marian Friestad and Peter Wright for
helpful comments on a previous draft of this article. This material is
based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under
Grant No. 0214484.
then assess the implications of research in these areas for
understanding of children’s advertising-relevant skills. We
conclude by offering some suggestions for further research.
Criteria for Assessing Children’s Ability
to Understand and Cope with Advertising
What does it mean to understand the nature of advertising?
What criteria should be used to assess whether children have
sufficient cognitive skills to appreciate and cope with adver-
tising? Even adults are not fully guarded against the effects
of sophisticated advertising. Still, adults possess a range of
advertising-relevant knowledge and skills that then can used
as a benchmark against which to assess children’s relative
competence in this domain (see Friestad and Wright 1994;
Roberts and Maccoby 1985; Wright, Friestad, and Boush
2005; Young 2000).
To understand advertising, children require some ability
to distinguish advertisements from surrounding program
content. Children need to know when they are viewing
advertisements to have any hope of guarding against them.
By itself, however, simple discrimination reveals little about
understanding because discrimination can be made on the
basis of superficial perceptual features that have little or
nothing to do with critical differences between advertise-
ments and programs. For example, advertisements and pro-
grams differ in length, audiovisual effects, and so forth, and
children might identify advertisements solely on these bases
(Gunter, Oates, and Blades 2005).
A stronger, more appropriate criterion would additionally
include having the ability to recognize the purposes of
advertising. These purposes are complex and multifaceted,
and thus an assessment of children’s appreciation of these
purposes will not necessarily be straightforward. Advertise-
ments typically reflect a set of hierarchically embedded
intentions of the advertiser. The overarching intention is to
induce consumers to buy a product (i.e., selling intent). The
advertiser wants people to buy the product and believes that
by emphasizing its benefits to consumers, the likelihood of
their buying the product will increase. Typically, the adver-
tiser attempts to convince the consumer of the virtues of the
product, though more subtle influences may also be operat-
ing outside the consumer’s conscious awareness. For exam-
ple, mere exposure to the product may increase preference
for it (Zajonc 2001), as may exposure to celebrity endorsers
of the product (Ross et al. 1984).
The goal of “persuasive intentions” is to change others’
mental states or their behavior (or both). In the context of
advertising, persuasive intentions might be aimed at influ-
encing consumers’ behavior directly, but they are more typ-
ically aimed at doing so indirectly by attempting to generate
beliefs about the desirability of a product. Other types of
intention may be nested within an advertiser’s intent to per-
suade. For example, advertisements typically reflect “infor-
mative intentions”; that is, the advertiser aims to let con-
sumers know about the availability of the product, its
important features, and where it can be purchased. Informa-
tive intentions also typically reflect the fundamental self-
interest of the advertiser, which likely generates a biased or
one-sided view of the product. Thus, some form of “promo-
tional intent” is usually present in advertising. Such intent
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 187
may lead the advertiser to exaggerate positive attributes of
the product or to focus on positive features while down-
playing negative features (Preston 1994). Promotional intent
may or may not be accompanied by explicit “deceptive
intent” or “manipulative intent.” Regardless, it creates the
possibility that consumers will be misled by advertising.
Recognition of informative intent requires an apprecia-
tion of people’s differences in knowledge. Unless people
recognize that, in some circumstances, they may be ignorant
whereas others are knowledgeable, they will not understand
the point of seeking information, and they will not recognize
such information when it is offered (Baldwin and Moses
1996). Recognition of promotional intent requires an appre-
ciation that the interests of the advertiser and the consumer
do not necessarily coincide. Recognition of the possibility of
deceptive intent will be enhanced if consumers appreciate
that the advertiser’s promotional intent may be generating a
biased and potentially misleading assessment of the product.
Finally, recognition of the overarching intent to sell will
likely be enhanced by an appreciation that the advertiser is
trying to make money, which in turn will be facilitated by
some level of understanding of the profit motive and its role
in the marketplace.
Thus, inferring the purposes of advertising requires sub-
stantial perspective-taking skill. Consumers need to appre-
ciate that others do not necessarily share their perspective,
that perspectives may conflict, and that particular perspec-
tives may engender a complex set of hierarchically embed-
ded intentions. This set includes intentions to make money;
to sell a product; to promote that product; and to persuade,
inform, and sometimes deceive consumers.
However, consumers can have all of this conceptual
knowledge about differing intentions and perspectives and
still fall prey to the adverse effects of advertising. For exam-
ple, consumers could forget to use their knowledge; they
could fail to detect or fail to attend sufficiently to advertis-
ing bias; or fully recognizing this bias, they could nonethe-
less be poor at retaining that knowledge or at using it to con-
trol subsequent thought or behavior. In principle, having
generic conceptual knowledge, determining how that
knowledge applies in specific instances, and translating
knowledge into action (or inaction) are distinct capacities.
Appreciating the nature of advertising and learning how
to cope with it effectively are not simple matters that are
likely to be instantaneously grasped by children at some
specific point in development. Rather, a whole set of under-
standings and skills is necessary, and these likely manifest
at different ages and at different times for specific children
in specific cultural contexts. Moreover, after these abilities
emerge, it probably takes some time before children become
proficient in using them. We now examine what research
and thinking in the field of cognitive development reveal
about the emergence and subsequent development of abili-
ties relevant to understanding and coping with advertising.
Theoretical Approaches to Cognitive
It would be convenient if there were a single, widely
accepted theoretical framework in developmental psychol-
ogy from which to generate straightforward answers to
questions about the development of advertising-relevant
abilities. However, such a framework does not currently
exist. At one time, Piaget’s (1932, 1952, 1970) theory of
cognitive development dominated the landscape of develop-
mental psychology, and the theory (or extensions of it; e.g.,
Selman 1971) has been drawn on heavily in the literature on
children and advertising (Calvert 2003; Johnson and Young
2003; Kunkel 2001; Young 1990, 2003). However, although
core aspects of Piaget’s theory retain many adherents (e.g.,
Beilin and Pufall 1992; Chapman 1988) and although his
ideas have profoundly shaped new approaches, the theory is
now just one among a growing set of accounts purporting to
explain developments in children’s thinking. In what fol-
lows, we briefly review Piaget’s approach along with some
Piaget argued that children advance through a series of
increasingly adaptive stages of intellectual development,
each stage defined by the emergence of a different set of
cognitive structures. In the sensorimotor period (approxi-
mately 0–2 years of age), Piaget argued that children are not
capable of generating mental representations of anything
other than what is perceptually available in a given moment.
During the preoperational period (approximately 2–7 years
of age), he argued that symbolic representation emerges,
which is evidenced by the development of language, pre-
tense, and related abilities. According to Piaget, however,
children’s thinking in this period is unsystematic and often
illogical. He believed that children are incapable of recog-
nizing such distinctions as those between fantasy and real-
ity, appearance and reality, mental and real entities, and psy-
chological and physical causality. Moreover, he argued that
these children are highly egocentric and frequently attribute
their own visual or conceptual perspective to others. During
the concrete operational period (approximately 7–11 years
of age), Piaget argued that children’s thinking becomes
more systematic. At this stage, they become capable not
only of mentally representing the world but also of mentally
transforming such representations in well-reasoned ways.
During this period, children begin to recognize that it is pos-
sible to have multiple perspectives on the same scene or
event. Nonetheless, children are cognitively limited during
this period, and their thinking can be applied only to con-
crete contexts. According to Piaget, the ability to reason
about hypothetical, abstract situations does not emerge until
the formal operational period (approximately 11 years of
age and older).
The implications of Piaget’s approach for what children
might understand about advertising are clearest with respect
to his preoperational stage. Piaget believed that children in
this stage have little appreciation for others’ perspectives
and little appreciation of others’ intentions. His ideas have
generated the prediction that until children reach the con-
crete operational period, they should be unable to under-
stand that advertisers and consumers hold different perspec-
tives, let alone that advertisers might intend to mislead
consumers (Calvert 2003; Johnson and Young 2003).
Beyond that, however, it is not entirely clear what the
Piagetian approach can contribute to the understanding of
how children interpret advertising. The approach offers lit-
tle guidance in determining more precisely how and when
children come to understand the different kinds of intentions
188 Children’s Ability to Appreciate and Cope with Advertising
underlying advertising or the impact that understanding has
on children’s ability to recognize the frequently biased
nature of advertising. Moreover, the Piagetian approach was
increasingly challenged during the 1970s and 1980s, and as
we discuss subsequently, these challenges question the
validity of inferences about children’s understanding of
advertising based on Piaget’s characterizations of young
children as preoperational.
For example, it was argued that Piaget’s stages appear to
lack coherence. That is, it is often difficult to classify chil-
dren into specific stages because their abilities across
domains are often markedly different. Difficulties of this
sort eventually led many researchers to question the notion
of domain-general, content-independent stages (Flavell
1971; Wellman and Gelman 1998). Moreover, it became
clear that Piaget had often underestimated (and sometimes
grossly underestimated) young children’s cognitive abili-
ties. Many of the cognitive tasks he assigned to children
were unnecessarily complex, and successful performance
often required sophisticated verbal abilities. Thus, children
may have done poorly on these tasks for reasons extraneous
to their understanding of the concepts being tested. When
these extraneous demands were removed, children often
revealed a good deal of conceptual competence (Gelman
and Baillargeon 1983). Finally, at the other end of the devel-
opmental spectrum, research in social and cognitive psy-
chology revealed that the reasoning of adolescents and
adults often fell well short of the intellectual standard that
Piaget’s formal operations stage implied (Kahneman,
Slovic, and Tversky 1982).
In the wake of such challenges, several broad trends
emerged. First, there was increasing emphasis on the “early
competence” of children (Gelman and Baillargeon 1983).
Second, the competence–performance distinction became
the explicit focus of many studies (Donaldson 1978).
Researchers became more sensitive to the notion that chil-
dren might possess conceptual knowledge (competence)
without being able to express it effectively under all cir-
cumstances (performance). Third, greater attention was
directed toward fine-grained analyses of the cognitive skills
and processes required for successful performance on spe-
cific tasks (Siegler 1996). Finally, because of doubts about
the validity of domain-general stages, greater emphasis was
placed on assessing children’s knowledge and development
in specific domains (Hirschfeld and Gelman 1994; Wellman
and Gelman 1998).
These trends are reflected in a variety of new theoretical
frameworks. Most germane to children’s advertising-
relevant skills are (1) those that emphasize domain-specific
knowledge and (2) those that emphasize how domain-
general, information-processing skills impinge on the devel-
opment of domain-specific knowledge.
Domain-specific approaches focus on specialized knowl-
edge and/or cognitive processing in particular content areas.
These approaches come in many varieties, differing in part
on what constitutes a domain. For example, novice–expert
approaches focus on the substantial processing advantages
that expertise in specific areas confers (Chi, Glaser, and Farr
1988). For proponents of these approaches, there are as
many domains as there are areas in which people develop
expertise. In contrast, proponents of theory-based
approaches (Carey 1985; Gopnik and Wellman 1994) argue
that children acquire broad framework theories in domains
that have high ecological significance (e.g., physics, psy-
chology, biology, numerical reasoning). With development,
these theories undergo radical changes, and older theories
are replaced by more adaptive ones.
Information-processing approaches acknowledge the
importance of domain-specific knowledge but argue that
domain-general changes in working memory, processing
speed, or other all-purpose mechanisms constrain children’s
development in these domains (Case 1998; Halford 1999;
Pascual-Leone and Johnson 1999). These approaches
attempt to chart how such mechanisms develop over time, to
assess the specific computational requirements of tasks
designed to assess particular abilities, and then to predict or
explain patterns of performance on these tasks on the basis
of what is known about the development of all-purpose
Both approaches contribute to ways of thinking about
children and advertising. Domain-specific approaches
(especially theory-based accounts) are most relevant to chil-
dren’s conceptions of advertising, whereas information-
processing approaches are most relevant to children’s abil-
ity to cope and defend against advertising. In what follows,
we examine these related but nonetheless distinct issues.
Children’s Conceptions of Advertising
The Development of Children’s Theories of Mind
One of the earliest theories children develop is a theory of
mind (Wellman and Gelman 1998). In this context, theory
of mind refers to a coherent body of folk knowledge about
the mind and mental states that can be used to interpret, pre-
dict, and explain human action and interaction. It is some-
times termed a “belief–desire psychology” (Wellman 1990)
because almost all explanations of intentional behavior refer
to either how actors represent the world (beliefs) or their
motivations (desires). Developmental changes in children’s
theories of mind should dramatically affect their concep-
tions of advertising. Children’s recognition of the goals,
intentions, beliefs, and biases underlying advertising is thor-
oughly dependent on how they think about the mind.
An appreciation of mental life begins in infancy but
develops all the way through adulthood (Malle and Hodges
2005). The most heavily studied period has been the
preschool years, though increasing attention is now being
devoted to earlier development in infancy and to later devel-
opment in middle childhood and beyond. We begin by
briefly reviewing theory-of-mind development in the
preschool period and then turn our attention to earlier and
later advances, respectively. The literature on children’s
theories of mind is vast (for more extensive reviews, see
Flavell and Miller 1998; Moses and Chandler 1992; Well-
man 2002). Our review is necessarily selective, focusing on
the developments that have relevance in assessing what chil-
dren might understand about advertising.
The Preschool Watershed
The preschool years are often considered something of a
watershed in the development of children’s theories of
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 189
mind. During this time, children acquire what is often
referred to as a “representational” theory of mind (Perner
1991). That is, they begin to understand that mental states
are representations of the world and that people act on the
basis of these representations rather than on the basis of how
the world actually is.
The clearest demonstration of this developmental mile-
stone can be observed in children’s performance on false
belief tasks (for a meta-analysis, see Wellman, Cross, and
Watson 2001). In the standard false belief task (Wimmer
and Perner 1983), children are told a story about a boy who
acquires a false belief about the location of some chocolate
by virtue of being absent when the chocolate is moved from
one location to another. Children are then asked where he
will look for the chocolate and/or where he thinks it is.
Younger preschoolers (two- and three-year-olds) typically
state that he thinks the chocolate is in its actual location and
that he will look for it in that location. In contrast, older
preschoolers (four- and five-year-olds) most often correctly
state that he thinks the chocolate is in its original location
(where the boy last saw it) and that he will look for it there.
These older children appear to recognize not only the possi-
bility of false beliefs but also their role as determinants of
A series of related developments occurs at about the same
age. For example, children begin to realize that appearances
may differ from reality (Flavell, Flavell, and Green 1983),
that different people may have different visual perspectives
of the same object (Flavell et al. 1981), that perception leads
to knowing (Pillow 1989), that different perceptual modali-
ties lead to different kinds of knowledge (O’Neill, Asting-
ton, and Flavell 1992), and that thinking something is dif-
ferent from knowing it (Moore, Pure, and Furrow 1990). On
the basis of these findings, it is argued that older preschool-
ers have acquired an understanding of the mind as a kind of
representational organ that takes in information (sometimes
partial, sometimes faulty), forms representations of the
world based on this information, and subsequently generates
actions based on these representations (Flavell 1988; Gop-
nik 1993; Perner 1991; Wellman 1990).
Recognition that people may hold different beliefs is an
impressive demonstration of perspective taking that occurs
at a much younger age than Piaget’s theory predicts. Even
earlier in development, however, children are capable of
certain forms of perspective taking. By two or three years of
age, children appreciate that other people may have differ-
ent emotions, perceptions, and desires from their own (Den-
ham 1986; Lempers, Flavell, and Flavell 1977; Wellman
and Woolley 1990). One of the most consistently found
sequences in the study of children’s theories of mind is that
motivational states (goals, desires, intentions) are under-
stood earlier and more readily than epistemic states (beliefs
and knowledge) (Wellman and Liu 2004). For example, in
well-controlled experimental studies, preschoolers have
great difficulty recognizing that beliefs can differ from real-
ity, yet they are much less troubled by desires that do not
match reality (Lillard and Flavell 1992). Similarly, recog-
nizing that they held a belief that differs from their current
belief is more challenging than recognizing that they previ-
ously held a desire that differs from their current desire
(Gopnik and Slaughter 1991). The desire–belief asymmetry
is also apparent in naturalistic analyses of children’s lan-
guage. Children talk much more often and substantially ear-
lier about desires than about beliefs (Bartsch and Wellman
1995). For these reasons, Wellman (1990) argues that two-
year-olds are “desire psychologists,” whereas older
preschoolers are full-fledged “belief–desire psychologists.”
A similar precocity is present with respect to understand-
ing intentions (Malle, Moses, and Baldwin 2001; Zelazo,
Astington, and Olson 1999). Appropriate processing of oth-
ers’ intentional actions begins to develop early in infancy
(e.g., Baldwin and Baird 2001; Wellman and Phillips 2001).
For example, infants as young as 5 months of age appreci-
ate the object-directed quality of human intentional acts,
such as grasping (Woodward 1998). Moreover, at least by
the age of 10–11 months, infants appear to perceive the
largely continuous stream of human actions around them as
a series of relatively discrete action chunks that map on to
what adults would identify as intentional action units (Bald-
win et al. 2001). Although infants this young may not per-
ceive these chunks as intention driven per se, they have at
least analyzed the input in a way that will facilitate their
mapping intentions into actions when such concepts
By the second year of life, infants behave in ways that
suggest they are indeed drawing inferences about intentions.
The phenomenon of “social referencing” is a case in point.
Faced with a novel and ambiguous object, 12-month-olds
use emotional input from an adult to modulate their behav-
ior toward the object. That is, they will approach the object
if the adult smiles but remain wary if the adult appears wor-
ried (Campos 1983). Appropriately, however, they use such
input only if it is clear that the emotional signal is intention-
ally directed toward the specific object in question (Moses
et al. 2001). Similarly, in the realm of language learning,
infants that are about this age spontaneously exploit clues in
others’ intentional action in making inferences about word
meanings (e.g., Baldwin 2000; Tomasello 1999). Finally, by
the age of 12–15 months, infants readily interpret basic
intentions underlying novel sequences of action (e.g., Melt-
zoff and Brooks 2001), and they weight information about
intentions heavily in their response to others’ behavior (e.g.,
Baldwin and Moses 2001). For example, they will reenact a
novel action to achieve a goal after witnessing an adult
repeatedly attempt but fail to achieve that goal (Meltzoff
and Brooks 2001). In this context, infants do not imitate the
surface behavior of the adult, but rather the action they have
inferred would fulfill the intention underlying that behavior
(see also Carpenter, Akhtar, and Tomasello 1998).
Despite this early sensitivity to and understanding of
motivational states, some aspects of desire and intention are
not understood until later (Malle et al. 2001). For example,
it is not until three or four years of age that children recog-
nize that an intention to act is typically accompanied by a
belief that the intention will be carried out (Moses 1993).
Furthermore, children do not fully distinguish intentional
acts from involuntary actions, such as reflexes, until they are
at least four years of age (Smith 1978). Similarly, they do
not fully distinguish intentions from desires until five years
190 Children’s Ability to Appreciate and Cope with Advertising
of age (Schult 2002). For example, children younger than
this age do not always appreciate that an outcome can sat-
isfy a desire without necessarily having been intended (the
desirable outcome may have occurred fortuitously). Finally,
it is not until about five years of age that children recognize
that the very same action could have been motivated by
quite different intentions (Baird and Moses 2001).
Important changes in children’s theories of mind also occur
beyond the preschool period. Between the ages of five and
seven, for example, children develop an understanding of so
called second-order mental states (Perner and Wimmer
1985; Sullivan, Zaitchik, and Tager-Flusberg 1994; Winner
and Leekam 1991). The false belief task we described pre-
viously involves an appreciation of first-order mental states
(i.e., a character’s belief about the location of chocolate). An
example of a second-order mental state would be what some
new character thinks the boy thinks about the location of the
chocolate (e.g., Where does Mary think that John thinks the
chocolate is?). To appreciate these matters, children need to
recognize that mental states may be embedded within other
mental states. However, second-order mental states do not
always involve beliefs about beliefs. They might, for exam-
ple, involve beliefs about intentions, intentions about
beliefs, or any other combination of mental states. Notably,
second-order intentions may be understood somewhat ear-
lier than second-order beliefs. For example, four- and five-
year-olds appear to understand the difference between a
statement that is uttered as a lie and a statement that is
uttered jokingly (Leekam 1991). In the case of a lie, the
speaker intends the audience to believe the statement,
whereas in the case of a joke, the speaker intends the audi-
ence not to believe the statement.
An arguably more fundamental development involves a
shift from viewing the mind as a relatively passive container
of information to viewing it as an active assimilator of infor-
mation (Carpendale and Chandler 1996; Chandler and Sokol
1999). The shift to such a constructivist or interpretive
theory of mind begins between the ages of five and seven
and continues through adolescence and into adulthood
(Chandler 1987; Pillow 1999). As part of this shift, children
begin to understand the meaning of informational input not
as something awaiting “discovery” in some observer-neutral
reality but rather as imposed by the mind as part of a process
of active construal. Thus, they begin to recognize the influ-
ence of preference, bias, prejudice, and other aspects of sub-
jectivity on people’s thinking (Pillow and Weed 1995). The
onset of a constructivist theory of mind carries with it an
appreciation of interpretive diversity such that children rec-
ognize that different people might render or construe the
meaning of an action or event in fundamentally different
ways. For example, by seven or eight years of age, children
can explain how two people might come to different inter-
pretations of an ambiguous drawing or sentence (Carpen-
dale and Chandler 1996).
Implications of Theory-of-Mind
Development for Children’s Appreciation
What does theory and research on children’s theories of
mind suggest about when an understanding of various facets
of advertising develops? In our attempt to answer this ques-
tion, we focus on three central issues: (1) distinguishing
between advertising and program content, (2) inferring the
intentions underlying advertising, and (3) recognizing
biases in advertising.
Distinguishing Advertising from Program
Given what is now known about young children’s cognition,
we expect that under the right circumstances, even
preschoolers would have little difficulty distinguishing
between advertising and surrounding program content. Pro-
vided that children have sufficient exposure to advertising
and that the contrast between advertisements and programs
is maximized, it would appear that children have the con-
ceptual tools necessary to make the distinction. Preschool
children are capable of making sophisticated distinctions
among different ontological categories. For example, they
recognize the distinction between mental things and real
things (e.g., a thought about an apple versus a real apple;
Wellman and Estes 1986), between fantasy and reality (Tay-
lor and Carlson 1997; Woolley 1997), between appearance
and reality (Flavell, Flavell, and Green 1983), and between
television images and real objects (Flavell et al. 1990).
Children’s ability to discriminate between advertisements
and programs varies from study to study; some indicate that
only considerably older children have acquired the distinc-
tion (see Gunter, Oates, and Blades 2005). However, this
variability is not surprising, because a host of factors are
likely to affect children’s ability to make the distinction in
any particular instance. These factors include similarity in
form between the genres, the subtlety of the underlying per-
suasive message in an advertisement, and the presence or
absence of separators between the advertisement and the
program (Gunter, Oates, and Blades 2005).
An important caveat is in order. Even young infants are
capable of making subtle perceptual discriminations, as evi-
denced by the different patterns they exhibit when looking
at different stimuli (Kellman and Banks 1998). What is
often more difficult to determine, however, is the basis on
which a discrimination is made. An important distinction in
this regard is between characteristic and defining features
(Keil and Batterman 1984). Characteristic features are those
that are typically present for members of a category but that
are not necessary for category membership. In contrast,
defining features are those that are necessary for category
membership. For example, flying is a characteristic feature
of birds, but it is not defining (e.g., penguins are birds, but
they do not fly). As others have noted (Gunter, Oates, and
Blades 2005), children might discriminate between adver-
tisements and programs on the basis of superficial percep-
tual content (i.e., characteristic features) without divining
the true purpose of advertisements (i.e., its defining feature).
That is, they might make such a discrimination on the basis
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 191
of differences in length, form, nature of audiovisual effects,
or some other characteristic feature. They might do so with-
out appreciating that the defining feature of advertisements
is that they are intended to sell, whereas the defining feature
of programs is that they are intended to entertain or edify.
Understanding the Intentions Underlying
As we indicated previously, the purposes of advertising are
complex; thus, there is likely no single answer to the ques-
tion of when children come to understand the nature of
advertising. Some of the goals and intentions of advertising
may well be understood early in development, whereas oth-
ers may not be understood until appreciably later.
Recognizing the Intent to Sell
To begin, at least in principle, even young preschoolers
should be able to recognize that advertisers want people to
buy their products and are trying to persuade them to do so.
In terms of mental state attribution, such recognition is not
that different from children understanding that their parents
want them to eat their greens or to brush their teeth and are
trying to make them to do these things. As we discussed pre-
viously, a simple understanding of desires and intentions of
that kind is in place at the beginning of the preschool years
(Wellman and Woolley 1990). There is little reason to sup-
pose that children of this age could not perceive the over-
arching intention of advertisements, though that intention
might be difficult to discern in subtle forms of advertising.
Recognizing Persuasive Intent
What is surely more difficult for children to understand is
how advertisers intend to influence the consumption behav-
ior of viewers. Typically, the advertiser intends to persuade
consumers by inducing a change in their mental states
(though, as we noted previously, more subtle forms of influ-
ence may be present). Specifically, the advertiser usually
intends to change consumers’ desires for the product in
question and intends to do that by changing their beliefs
about the nature of the product. Thus, the persuasive inten-
tions of advertisers are conceptually more complex than
simple desires and intentions to sell products. In particular,
persuasive intentions involve embedded mental states: They
take as their object consumers’ beliefs and desires. Under-
standing such intentions rests on an appreciation of second-
order mental states (intentions about beliefs and desires),
and as we have observed, children do not develop such an
appreciation until they are at least four or five years of age
(Leekam 1991). Thus, we anticipate that children might
have difficulty recognizing persuasive intent until they
reach the end of the preschool period.
As far as we know, there is no research within a theory-
of-mind context on children’s comprehension of persuasion
directed at them. However, there is a small body of work on
children’s own ability to persuade others. Although prior
research conducted within a Piagetian framework (e.g.,
Clark and Delia 1976) suggests that such an ability is not
well developed until adolescence, more recent work
(Bartsch and London 2000; Bartsch, London, and Campbell
2005) indicates that in simple contexts, children who are six
to seven years of age consistently take another’s beliefs into
account in framing their persuasion attempts. For example,
if Eric believes that kittens scratch, whereas Kate believes
that kittens are dirty, children of this age will attempt to per-
suade Eric to pet the kitten by focusing on the kitten not hav-
ing claws. Conversely, they will attempt to persuade Kate to
do so by focusing on the kitten being clean.
Notably, younger children use more primitive persuasive
strategies in trying to persuade others to do what they want.
These strategies appear to be aimed at changing their part-
ner’s behavior directly rather than doing so through influ-
encing their mental states. That is, rather than attempting to
change others’ beliefs, younger children often focus on
strategies such as bargaining, nagging, begging, or making
threats (Trawick-Smith 1992; Weiss and Sachs 1991).
In summary, young children try to persuade others to do
what they want, but only in later stages of development do
they do so by attempting to influence mental states. These
developmental changes in children’s own persuasive strate-
gies roughly parallel what we have predicted with respect to
their comprehension of persuasive intent in advertising.
That is, we have argued that even young preschoolers
should understand that an advertiser is trying to persuade
them to buy a product, but only at later stages of develop-
ment would they understand that advertisers do so by
attempting to influence consumers’ beliefs and desires.
Recognizing Informative and Deceptive Intent
As we noted previously, advertisers may try to influence
consumers’ mental states in several ways. They typically
intend to inform consumers about desirable features of a
product. However, they may also attempt to deceive (at least
in the sense of providing exaggerated or one-sided informa-
tion about the product). What do children understand about
informative intentions and deceptive intentions? As we
mentioned previously, recognition of informative intent
requires an appreciation of knowledge differences among
people. Unless children understand that others often know
things that they do not, they will fail to recognize when
someone is trying to give them information about something
they do not already know. Although even one-year-olds may
recognize some forms of communicative intent, such as the
intent to use language to refer to specific objects in the
world (Baldwin and Moses 1996), there is no compelling
evidence that children understand informative intent until a
concept of knowledge emerges at two or three years of age
(O’Neill 1996; Pillow 1989).
Moreover, research on children’s understanding of teach-
ing suggests that an appreciation of informative intent con-
tinues to develop through the preschool years (Frye and Ziv
2005). Teaching is a prototypical example of the intent to
inform. However, Frye and Ziv find that preschoolers may
not fully understand the informative intent of teaching.
Specifically, they tend to overgeneralize teaching, focusing
more on the outcome than on the intention. That is,
preschoolers tend to think that if knowledge is gained,
teaching has occurred, whereas if it is not gained, teaching
has not occurred. For example, in one study, children
between the ages of three and five were told a story in which
a boy learns to tie his shoelaces by watching his sister tie
hers. Even though his sister has no intention to teach him,
192 Children’s Ability to Appreciate and Cope with Advertising
the boy nonetheless learns through observation. Children of
both ages stated that teaching had occurred even though
there was no intention to teach. It may be that it is not until
children enter school that they explicitly recognize informa-
tive intentions, such as those underlying teaching, though
they certainly acquire much knowledge through informal
teaching well before school age.
It is possible that children’s difficulties with informative
intent are specific to the teaching context. If so, they might
show better understanding in more generic contexts. This
possibility can be explored by examining children’s ability
to distinguish informative intent and deceptive intent. An
understanding of deception may actually have privileged
status in the development of theory of mind. Indeed, some
evolutionary psychologists have argued that an ability to
infer the mental states of others may have been selected pre-
cisely because of the advantages conferred by the abilities to
deceive competitors and to detect deception in others. At
some point in evolutionary history, there may have been
something of an evolutionary “arms race” in mind-reading
capabilities, generating increasing levels of so-called
Machiavellian intelligence (Humphrey 1976; Whiten and
Even toddlers engage in some forms of lying and decep-
tion. However, these early forms are often completely trans-
parent (e.g., denial of wrongdoing even when caught red-
handed), leading to the suspicion that they may simply be
well-learned behaviors aimed at avoiding punishment rather
than genuine attempts to manipulate the mental states of
others (Perner 1991). Increasingly through the preschool
period, however, children’s deception becomes more gener-
ative and convincing (Carlson, Moses, and Hix 1998; Chan-
dler, Fritz, and Hala 1989; Sodian 1991). They use novel
means to deceive, and they recognize the effects of their
deception on others’ beliefs (Hala, Chandler, and Fritz
1991; Sodian et al. 1991). Around this age, they also begin
to comprehend deception in others. For example, when a
deceptive motive is introduced into the first-order false
belief task (i.e., the target object is deliberately hidden in a
new location as opposed to being inadvertently moved to
that location), most four-year-olds recognize the effects of
the deception on the protagonist’s beliefs (Ruffman et al.
At the same time, children reveal at least an implicit
appreciation of the distinction between informative and
deceptive intentions. For example, they appropriately
deceive a competitor but inform a cooperator (Sodian 1991).
They also distinguish between lies and unknowingly mis-
taken utterances (Siegal and Peterson 1996; Wimmer, Gru-
ber, and Perner 1985). Both lies and mistakes involve false
statements. What distinguishes them, however, is the inten-
tion of the speaker: The liar intends to deceive, whereas the
person making the mistaken utterance intends to inform.
Thus, the distinction rests on an appreciation of second-
order mental states: an intention to create a false belief ver-
sus an intention to create a true belief. Similarly, as we noted
previously, four- and five-year-olds also recognize the dis-
tinction between lies and falsehoods that are uttered as jokes
(Leekam 1991; Sullivan, Winner, and Hopfield 1995). The
liar knows that his or her statement is false and intends to
mislead, whereas the joker knows that his or her statement
is false but does not intend to mislead.
A final point worth noting with respect to deceptive intent
is that few studies have assessed when children recognize
that someone is trying to deceive them, and this is the clos-
est analogue to what sometimes happens in the advertising
context. Moreover, these studies examined deception in
complex, interactive competitive hiding games in which
children needed to guess the hand in which an opponent hid
an item across a series of trials (DeVries 1970; Gratch
1964). Preschoolers showed little appreciation for the
deceptive strategies their opponents used in these contexts.
However, it remains unclear whether their failure to do so
stemmed from a conceptual difficulty or from a problem
computing complex perspectives.
What is known is that by the time children are four or five
years of age, they recognize when they have been misled in
certain contexts. The clearest evidence for this comes from
studies of the appearance–reality distinction (Flavell,
Flavell, and Green 1983). Appreciating that appearances
may be misleading is important with respect to understand-
ing advertising, and it is also a step toward understanding
that a person has been purposely deceived. In standard
appearance–reality tasks, four- and five-year-olds recog-
nize, for example, that a fake rock appears to be a rock but
is really a sponge (Flavell, Flavell, and Green 1983), that
they initially believed that it was a rock, and that a naive
other would also believe that it was a rock (Gopnik and Ast-
ington 1988). Notably, an understanding of real versus
apparent emotion is not in place until about six years of age
(Harris et al. 1986; Wellman and Liu 2004). Younger chil-
dren do not appreciate that felt emotion may be different
from expressed emotion.
In summary, an appreciation of aspects of both informa-
tive and deceptive intent is in place by four or five years of
age. Children’s understanding of such intentions may
emerge somewhat earlier than their understanding of per-
suasive intent. Recall the finding that children do not con-
sistently persuade by attempting to influence the mental
states of others until they are six to seven years of age
(Bartsch, London, and Campbell 2005). In Bartsch, London,
and Campbell’s studies, however, children did not need to
deceive a person as part of their persuasive efforts. Given
children’s apparent precocity at understanding deceit, per-
suasion involving deception might emerge earlier in devel-
opment. Another possibility is that comprehension of per-
suasion might emerge earlier than the ability to produce
persuasive utterances. Indeed, in children’s language acqui-
sition, comprehension almost always precedes production
Understanding Bias and Promotional Intent
It is one thing to recognize the existence of persuasive intent
and its effects on another’s beliefs and desires, but it is
another to be aware of the form that such persuasive efforts
might take. Advertising is motivated by a desire to sell a
product. This desire typically generates a biased or one-
sided presentation of information about the product. The
advertiser intends to promote the product and does so by
presenting it in the best possible light, emphasizing positive
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 193
features and downplaying or ignoring negative features.
Unless a person recognizes the bias and promotional intent
underlying advertisements, it may be difficult to detect
potentially misleading information in advertising. As we
discussed previously, recognition of bias is one aspect of a
larger recognition that the mind is an active interpreter of
information. People who hold a constructivist theory of
mind recognize that in attributing meaning to events, people
go beyond the information given by the external world.
Among other things, people’s preferences and biases affect
how information is presented and interpreted.
A series of studies by Pillow (1991; Pillow and Henri-
chon 1996; Pillow and Weed 1995) indicates that preschool
children do not recognize the role of bias or expectation in
people’s interpretation of events. Specifically, children of
this age do not recognize that a negatively biased observer
is more likely than a positively biased observer to construe
a target person’s ambiguous action as hostile. For example,
Pillow and Weed (1995) told children stories in which a tar-
get character bumped into a desk and caused an observer’s
toy to fall and break. The observer either liked or disliked
the target character. In these circumstances, preschoolers
failed to understand that a positively biased observer would
construe the action as accidental, whereas a negatively
biased observer would construe it as intentional. It is not
until children are at least six years of age that they begin to
appreciate biased interpretation.
In a related series of studies on the development of cyni-
cism, Mills and Keil (2005) examine children’s understand-
ing of promotional intent. Specifically, they investigate
whether children of different ages are more likely to believe
statements that are in line with self-interest as opposed to
those that go against self-interest. For example, children
were told a story in which two runners finished very close
together in a race. In one condition (with self-interest), one
of the runners claims that he has won the race, and therefore,
he should receive the prize. In another condition (against-
self interest), the runner claims that he has lost the race, and
therefore, he should not be given the prize. Strikingly, in
scenarios such as these, five- and six-year-olds tended to
believe statements that were in line with self-interest more
than those that went against it. In contrast, seven- and eight-
year-olds were more likely to believe statements that were
inconsistent with the speaker’s self-interest.
Mills and Keil’s (2005) findings are especially intriguing
because they suggest that if younger children are cognizant
of the self-interest of advertisers, counterintuitively, they
may be more inclined to believe advertisers’ claims about
products. Moreover, the findings also suggest that including
information that is against self-interest (e.g., disclaimers) is
likely to be ineffective because such information may not be
believed by children until they are seven or eight years of
age. Consistent with this possibility, disclaimers have not
been demonstrated to be effective at younger ages (Johnson
and Young 2003).
A finding that may be related to those of Mills and Keil
(2005) comes from a study that examines children’s ability
to detect ambiguity in messages (Beal and Flavell 1984).
When six-year-olds knew a speaker’s intention, they were
less likely to detect message ambiguities than when they did
not know it. With respect to advertising, these findings sug-
gest that if children have detected promotional intent, they
either ignore or fail to perceive information that is neutral or
inconsistent with that intent.
Our analysis predicts the following developmental progres-
sion with respect to children’s comprehension of advertis-
ing. We suspect that under the right conditions, preschool-
ers, and possibly infants, can perceptually discriminate a
prototypical advertisement from a prototypical television
program. By three years of age, children should be capable
of recognizing the overarching purpose of advertising (i.e.,
the advertiser wants to sell a product). At this age, children
should also understand simple persuasive intent aimed at
directly influencing behavior (i.e., the advertiser is trying to
persuade me to buy the product). Somewhere between three
and five years of age, children should begin to recognize
both informative and deceptive intent (i.e., the advertiser is
providing me with information about the product, some of
which may be misleading). By four to six years of age, an
appreciation of persuasion aimed at influencing mental
states may begin to emerge (i.e., the advertiser is trying to
change my desires and beliefs about the product). Finally,
an understanding of bias and promotional intent may not
emerge until children are six to eight years of age (i.e., the
advertiser wishes to promote the product and therefore is
providing me with positively biased information about it).
How do these predictions fare when tested against find-
ings from the literature on children and advertising? Unfor-
tunately, the answer is not straightforward. Wide variation
has been found in the age at which children demonstrate
understanding of advertising. Much of this variation appears
to be a function of differences in (1) methodological
approach, (2) the specific aspect of advertising knowledge
being studied, and (3) definitions of advertising concepts
(see Gunter, Oates, and Blades 2005; Martin 1997; Wright,
Friestad, and Boush 2005).
Our predictions are related to the youngest ages at which
we believe that conceptions of different facets of advertising
might be observed under ideal circumstances. That is, chil-
dren might demonstrate these understandings when viewing
simple, “child-friendly” advertisements involving multiple,
explicit cues to advertisers’ intentions. In the real world,
however, advertising directed at children is typically com-
plex, and advertisers’ intentions may not be obvious. In
these circumstances, considerably older children (and
adults) may demonstrate little understanding of advertising
and little ability to cope with it. However, we argue that
these failures are unlikely to be conceptual, because by
seven or eight years of age, children probably already pos-
sess the requisite concepts. Instead, the failures more likely
reflect deficits in information processing.
Children’s Ability to Cope with
Coming to an accurate conception of the nature and purpose
of advertising is a crucial step along the way to being inoc-
ulated against its potentially adverse effects. However, it is
anything but a sufficient condition for being protected from
these effects. Adults can also fall prey to misleading adver-
194 Children’s Ability to Appreciate and Cope with Advertising
tising, even though they may know that advertisements pre-
sent a positively biased portrayal of products. There is every
reason to believe that children will be even more susceptible
in this regard. The important theoretical distinction here is
between competence and performance. As we discussed
previously, a person may possess all of the relevant concepts
in a given domain (i.e., be conceptually competent) and yet
fail to apply those concepts in performing tasks either in the
laboratory or in everyday settings.
Flavell’s (1974) classic analysis of perspective taking
may be helpful in this regard. He notes that an act of suc-
cessful perspective taking has at least four components:
existence, need, inference, and application. First, a person
must recognize the existence of the type of mental state in
question (e.g., an intention). Second, he or she must experi-
ence the need to figure out the perspective. For various rea-
sons, a person may not think about it or may not see the
point of figuring it out. Third, a person must be capable of
inferring the perspective in a particular situation. Even if a
person recognizes the existence of a type of mental state and
desperately wants to figure it out, he or she may be poor at
inferring or computing it. Fourth, a person must also be
capable of applying such perspective-related inferences to
the situation. The latter three steps require a plethora of cog-
nitive skills, all of which undergo considerable development
in childhood and adolescence. We believe that the most cru-
cial among these skills are the so-called executive functions.
The Development of Executive Functioning
Much of everyday behavior is of a routine, well-practiced,
habitual kind (e.g., brushing teeth, getting dressed, riding a
bike). Other facets of behavior are novel or unusual and may
require setting aside well-practiced habits. The executive
functions are central to the latter forms of behavior (Badde-
ley 1996; Luria 1973; Norman and Shallice 1986). They
comprise a somewhat heterogeneous collection of cognitive
abilities, including inhibitory control, set shifting, atten-
tional flexibility, planning, self-regulation, impulse control,
resistance to interference, error detection and correction,
selective attention, focused attention, and working memory
(Hughes 1998; Welsh, Pennington, and Groisser 1991;
Zelazo et al. 1997). These skills are all involved in the mon-
itoring and control of thought and action.
The development of executive functioning skills is tied to
the maturation of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, and
damage to this part of the brain causes deficits in these skills
(Luria 1973). Deficits in executive functioning skills mani-
fest in poor self-control and impulsivity, poor judgment in
decision-making contexts, failure to organize and plan
ahead, difficulty integrating prior knowledge with future
goals, difficulty implementing strategies, perseveration with
inappropriate behavior, difficulty sustaining attention, diffi-
culty simultaneously processing multiple sources of infor-
mation, and similar skills. People with attention-deficit
hyperactivity disorder (Barkley 1997) and with autism (Rus-
sell 1997) show significant deficits in executive functioning
Of all brain regions, the prefrontal cortex is the last to
mature, and it continues to develop all the way through ado-
lescence and into early adulthood (Diamond 2002; Hud-
speth and Pribram 1990; Huttenlocher 1990; Kwon, Reiss,
and Menon 2002; Spear 2000). Thus, it is not surprising that
the executive functions follow a protracted developmental
course (Diamond 2002; Luciana et al. 2005; Passler, Isaac,
and Hynd 1985; Posner and Rothbart 2000). They begin to
emerge in infancy, develop markedly in the preschool years,
and then again in middle childhood. Although many execu-
tive function abilities are relatively mature by early adoles-
cence, they continue to be refined and consolidated through-
out adolescence and into early adulthood (Anderson 2002;
Zelazo and Müller 2002). Intriguingly, there is some evi-
dence that certain executive functioning skills (e.g., impulse
control, strategic behavior) regress to some degree at the
onset of adolescence (Anderson 2002; see also Pechmann et
Implications of Executive Function Development
for Children’s Ability to Cope with Advertising
The development of executive functioning skills should
have an enormous impact on children’s ability to process,
cope with, and defend against advertising. Children may
have a well-developed sense of the intentions underlying
advertising, but unless they access that knowledge and keep
it at the forefront, they may fail to guard against advertis-
ing’s potentially adverse effects (John 1999). Immature
executive functioning skills may render children vulnerable
in several ways. They may be perceptually seduced by
salient and pleasing, but largely irrelevant, audiovisual
effects in advertisements (inhibitory control and resistance
to interference). When their attention is captured in this
way, they may have difficulty switching attention to more
relevant, but often less salient, features of the advertisement,
such as product quality, price, disclaimers, and persuasive
intent (attentional flexibility). Information may come at
them so quickly and through so many channels at once that
they may have difficulty holding it all in mind (working
memory). Finally, even if they have processed an advertise-
ment effectively and know that claims about a product are
likely to be inflated, on entering the marketplace, they may
nonetheless purchase the product against their better judg-
ment (impulse control and decision making).
Although executive functioning is usually considered a
set of domain-general processing skills, these skills are also
likely to interact with domain-specific content knowledge
(Moses and Carlson 2004). The advantages that expertise in
a specific domain confers have been well studied (Bedard
and Chi 1992; Chi, Glaser, and Farr 1988; Glaser 1992).
Compared with novices, experts have acquired more con-
cepts in the relevant domain; their concepts are more closely
interconnected, more abstract, and are processed more
deeply; they more easily recognize and remember common
patterns in the domain; they are more likely to plan and
strategize their behavior; and processing in their domain of
expertise is faster and more automatic. All of these advan-
tages have the effect of generating a functional increase in
information-processing capacity that can be devoted to
The implication is that though a novice in a certain
domain may show marked executive deficits, an expert in
that domain is much less likely to do so. Thus, to the extent
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 195
that children possess expertise about advertising, they will
be buffered against the effects of general executive function
deficits on their ability to guard against advertising. The
effects here are likely to be bidirectional: As greater exper-
tise reduces the executive function demands in a domain,
advances in executive functioning skills also facilitate the
acquisition of expertise in that domain.
With respect to advertising, what kinds of expertise are
the most relevant? A well-entrenched conception of the
intentions underlying advertising is critical, as is an under-
standing of the specific tactics that advertisers use (e.g.,
exaggeration, special effects, use of celebrities). In regard to
the latter, adults may be immune to the effects of some of
these tactics. For example, people expect advertisements to
emphasize positive features and, to some extent, to exagger-
ate them, and such an expectation may temper people’s sus-
ceptibility to such tactics. Advertisers know this and, as a
result, develop more subtle tactics that may be more effec-
tive. Over time, people may develop strategies to guard
against these new techniques, leading advertisers to produce
even more sophisticated tactics, and so on. Thus, a
“persuasion–counterpersuasion arms race” develops (Sper-
ber 2000). However, young children initially lack the rele-
vant expertise about advertising tactics, and therefore, until
they join this arms race, they will be especially susceptible
to misleading advertising.
In addition to knowledge about advertising intentions and
tactics, however, a well-developed appreciation of the role
of advertising in the marketplace is critical. That is, a lay
theory of marketplace economics may be as important in
this context as a lay theory of psychology (i.e., a theory of
mind). Unless children have some understanding of the
profit motive, of the value of money, and of competition
among brands, their general knowledge about advertising
intentions may not protect them (John 1999). Children’s
appreciation of these concepts develops throughout child-
hood and into adolescence (Berti and Bombi 1981; John
1999; Webley 2005).
Furthermore, unless children have not only wide experi-
ence of different kinds of advertising and different kinds of
advertising tactics but also substantial experience with the
desirable and undesirable qualities of purchased products,
their ability to focus attention on the most relevant aspects
of advertisements will be limited. Product experience, and
perhaps negative product experience in particular, seems
crucial in grounding children’s conceptual knowledge about
advertising (Moore and Lutz 2000; Robertson and Rossiter
1974). Anecdotally, one of our own children once experi-
enced a deflating discrepancy between what was claimed for
a product (a fruit roll’s ability to imprint a “tongue tattoo”)
and what was actually experienced. This salient negative
outcome appeared thereafter to generate wide-ranging skep-
ticism on his part about advertising claims (for more sys-
tematic findings of a similar sort, see Oates et al. 2003).
Children’s executive functioning skills follow a protracted
course of development through infancy, childhood, and ado-
lescence. The emergence and consolidation of these skills
should greatly enhance children’s ability to process and
cope with advertising. At least to some extent, the acquisi-
tion of marketplace expertise should offset immaturities in
such domain-general abilities at younger ages.
Directions for Further Research
We argue that theory and research on cognitive develop-
ment can make an important contribution to our understand-
ing of children’s ability to negotiate their way through the
world of advertising. Although we believe that a strong case
can be made for this position, it will remain little more than
a promissory note in the absence of theoretically driven
research. We now discuss potential research directions that
emerge from our review of the literature.
Our analysis suggests that the emergence of advertising
concepts could parallel, or at least be dependent on, devel-
opments in children’s theories of mind. For example, we
argue that (1) recognition of the intent to sell should emerge
soon after children recognize the role of desires in human
action and interaction, (2) recognition of persuasive intent
relies on an appreciation of second-order mental states, and
(3) recognition of bias and promotional intent is unlikely
before children acquire a genuinely constructivist theory of
mind. Further research might test these predictions by exam-
ining whether children who have acquired the relevant
theory-of-mind concepts also demonstrate better under-
standing of various measures of advertising knowledge
(holding constant various control factors, such as age and
In a similar vein, we note that aside from Bartsch’s sem-
inal studies (Bartsch and London 2000; Bartsch, London,
and Campbell 2005), there has been little basic research on
children’s knowledge of persuasion. Not much is known
about what children of different ages understand about per-
suasion or persuasive intent outside of the advertising con-
text. When do they recognize that other people may be try-
ing to influence their mental states, or that people’s biases
may lead them to frame their persuasive arguments in one-
sided and misleading ways, or that the need to persuade may
generate promotional intent? A research program mapping
out children’s appreciation of various facets of persuasion is
needed. It could then be determined how such an apprecia-
tion affects children’s knowledge of persuasion in the adver-
There is also a need to map out systematically what exec-
utive functioning skills (and other relevant information-
processing abilities) are necessary for effectively coping
with different forms of advertising. We have offered some
general suggestions to this end, but much more fine-grained
analyses are required. After these analyses have been con-
ducted, it will be possible to gauge more effectively the abil-
ity of children of different ages to cope effectively with
In addition, we suggest that children’s expertise in the
realm of advertising should interact with their processing
skills, such that skills in one area may compensate for
deficits in another. Such a possibility can be tested by sys-
tematically manipulating both conceptual complexity and
processing complexity in advertising-relevant tasks and by
relating children’s performance on such tasks to indepen-
dent measures of their expertise on the topic of advertising.
196 Children’s Ability to Appreciate and Cope with Advertising
Moreover, it is known that there are marked individual
differences among children in both their executive function-
ing skills (Kochanska, Murray, and Harlan 2000) and their
theory-of-mind concepts (Repacholi and Slaughter 2003)
and that such individual differences are also present in
adulthood (Malle and Hodges 2005). It is also the case that
there are strong relationships between executive function
and theory-of-mind development in childhood (Carlson and
Moses 2001). To the extent that such abilities underpin or
facilitate children’s advertising-relevant skills, we could
expect to observe substantial group and/or individual differ-
ences in the latter skills. These possibilities could be
explored in longitudinal research that maps out the relation-
ships over time among variables such as theory of mind,
executive function, and advertising-relevant skills. The
issue is especially important because public policy regula-
tions are almost always framed with respect to setting ages
at which children might need some form of protection from
advertising. Yet if substantial individual differences are
indeed found in children’s abilities to understand and cope
with advertising, the use of age as a proxy for these abilities
Finally, the place of children’s advertising knowledge in
a broader lay theory of economics should be more thor-
oughly explored. There is some research on children’s con-
ceptions of economics (Berti and Bombi 1988; Webley
2005) and on their economic behavior (Harbaugh, Krause,
and Berry 2001), but there is relatively little research in
comparison with the explosion of research in the past 20
years on children’s naive theories of psychology, physics,
and biology (see Wellman and Gelman 1998). Indeed,
theory-based approaches have revitalized the study of cog-
nitive development in that period, generating a wealth of
knowledge about children’s understanding and how it devel-
ops in different domains. By capitalizing on some of the
theoretical and methodological advances that have emerged
in the study of these other domains, research on children’s
naive economics might prove similarly fruitful.
Reviews of the literature on children and advertising fre-
quently note wide variance in the age at which various stud-
ies suggest that children distinguish between advertisements
and programs and the age at which children understand dif-
ferent forms of persuasive intent (Gunter, Oates, and Blades
2005; John 1999). It is argued that much of this variance is
a product of methodological differences across studies.
Sometimes, verbal explanations are the dependent variable,
whereas other studies use more implicit, nonverbal indexes.
The implication in these reviews is often that the verbal
methods provide a misleading, overly conservative estimate
of children’s abilities in this area. For example, Pine and
Veasey (2003) draw on Karmiloff-Smith’s (1992) distinc-
tions among implicit, explicit, and verbal understanding and
suggest that implicit, nonverbal methods reveal early forms
of advertising knowledge in children.
In our view, however, a reliance on such methods may
not be appropriate in this context. Certainly, it is of great
theoretical interest to determine when the first glimmerings
of a concept begin to emerge in implicit form. However, it
is much less clear whether this is the appropriate criterion
for public policy decisions about the age at which children
might need protection from advertising. In our view, a bet-
ter criterion should be derived from an assessment of how
well entrenched children’s advertising concepts are, how
flexibly they can deploy these concepts in real-world con-
texts, and the extent to which their subsequent behavior is
guided by these concepts. Merely having the concepts in
some latent form does little if anything to prevent children
from being led astray by advertising.
We suggest that children’s understanding of some aspects
of advertising is present in early childhood. However, we
also suggest that immaturities in their executive functioning
skills limit the extent to which children can make use of
these concepts until much later in development. Moreover,
our review has been limited to traditional television adver-
tising. However, the executive challenges posed by increas-
ingly subtle and/or sophisticated forms of advertising (e.g.,
merchandising, infomercials, Internet advertising) may be
substantially greater. Although public policy research on
children and advertising has focused heavily on the emer-
gence of various advertising concepts, we urge that equal
emphasis be placed on their ability to put these concepts to
use in their everyday lives.
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