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Children's advertising literacy : empowering children to cope with advertising. A multiperspective inquiry into children's abilities to critically process contemporary advertising

Book - Dissertation

The present dissertation has germinated from AdLit (short for Advertising Literacy), which is a nearly completed four-year interdisciplinary research project (2014- 2018) funded by VLAIO (Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship). This project is based on a collaboration between 19 researchers at four Flemish Universities (UGent, KUL, UA & VUB) and various stakeholders in the realm of policy, society, education and marketing. The main goal of AdLit is to examine how minors can be empowered to cope with contemporary advertising, and hence become critical consumers that independently make conscious and well-informed choices. To date, this has been achieved by investigating the current levels of advertising literacy in Flanders and how these can be increased, and by examining how regulation and policy can protect minors. In this process, numerous research reports and scientific publications have been delivered, and socially valorized (e.g. by spreading brochures, videos, games and educational material to parents, teachers, educators, advertisers and the minors themselves). The current thesis bundles the theoretical essays and empirical studies conducted by the PhD candidate at the Center for Persuasive Communication (CEPEC) within the Department of Communication Sciences (Ghent University), who specifically focuses on investigating and improving the advertising literacy of children for the advertising formats they are currently targeted with. As made clear in each of the following chapters in more detail, this particular focus is motivated by the observation that children today are not only exposed to advertising more frequently than ever, but also to many ‘new’ forms of advertising. Most characteristic is that these integrate advertising in highly entertaining and engaging media formats, such as movies, videogames and YouTube vlogs. It is generally indicated that, as children are still developing, they will more consciously engage with this explicit, immersive content, rather than with the implicit, commercial content. Thereby they are unlikely to muster the necessary motivation and cognitive resources to cope critically with the embedded advertising, and to develop the relevant advertising literacy needed to deal with future exposure to advertisements using similar tactics. Ultimately, this implies that children are most vulnerable to preconscious and possibly unwanted persuasion. These concerns have sparked a lively debate, which seems to be dominated by two major assumptions. In particular, it is thought that 1) children are unable to adequately cope with contemporary advertising, though 2) can they can be enabled to deal with advertising, but only through ‘affective defense mechanisms’ – that is, by encouraging resistance through having them evoke negative attitudes when confronted with advertising. As these assumptions may have far-reaching consequences for the societal and political approach of this topic – for instance, adherence to protection or restriction versus empowerment – the present dissertation scrutinizes their validity using a variety of academic perspectives and methods. More specifically, it is examined 1) whether 8- to 12-year-old children have the potential to cope with these ad formats, and 2) whether they can be enabled to do so in a conscious, well-advised, cognitively elaborate and critical manner (on the moment of exposure), rather than through affective defenses only. To meet these goals, the first three chapters aim to deepen and expand insights on children’s abilities to cope with the current, mostly embedded advertising formats directed at them. In particular, the first chapter provides a theoretically grounded conceptual framework on which to build subsequent research, reckoning with children’s developmental skills. Here it is argued that investigating their advertising coping abilities may require the consideration of multiple, mutually interacting types and dimensions of advertising literacy. Thereby it is proposed for researchers to adopt the concept of moral advertising literacy, or at least to acknowledge the importance of evaluating advertising practices – which are of an increasingly covert nature – in a moral manner. The second chapter builds on this conceptualization to deliver a critical overview of methods and instruments used in extant literature to measure children’s advertising literacy, as methodological issues may have been partially responsible for the inconsistent findings with regard to children’s coping abilities. On this basis, suitable ways are recommended to assess this concept according to age-related psychological development, for instance by using illustrated questionnaires or qualitative interviews for children in late childhood. The third chapter uses the latter method, and more specifically draws on 12 focus groups (using child-friendly eliciting and probing techniques) including 60 children of ages 9-11 years, to further explore the newly proposed concept of moral advertising literacy. This study demonstrates that when children are made aware of implicit advertising tactics and their effectiveness, they have the potential to critically reflect on these, and more specifically to evaluate the appropriateness of these advertising practices with possible consequences for others in mind. Having established children’s potential for critical thinking about advertising in the current context, the following three chapters of this dissertation aim to explore how certain interventions or strategies may enable them to acquire the relevant advertising literacy, and use it at the moment of exposure. As it is desirable for such interventions to ascertain which social actors can be involved to most efficiently impart advertising literacy on children, the fourth chapter first explores the role of parents, peers (here: classmates) and teachers in transferring and exchanging advertising-related knowledge, skills and beliefs. Using the appropriate multilevel analysis techniques on data from 9- to 12-year-old children (n = 392), their peer group (children aggregated per class; n = 22), their parents (n = 191), and their teachers (n = 22), it is found that children’s cognitive and attitudinal advertising literacy is strongly influenced by their classmates – suggesting they could be attributed an empowering role in children’s development of the respective advertising literacy dimensions. Moral advertising literacy proves to be more influenced by children’s teacher, albeit in a remarkable manner – ultimately suggesting to focus first on updating teachers’ (and parents’) advertising literacy, especially for the newer formats. Finally, the fifth and sixth chapter use previous insights to develop and test various strategies and interventions designed to help children cope more effectively with embedded, entertaining and engaging advertising formats when the need arises. Chapter 5 focuses on sponsorship disclosure by testing whether the effectiveness of an advertising warning cue depends on specific characteristics, and more specifically its perceptual modality (S1, n = 98) and its timing (S2, n = 142). Here it is demonstrated that a visual forewarning cue (rather than an auditory or concurrently shown cue) most adequately triggers 8- to 10-year-old children’s advertising literacy for brand placement in TV programs and movies. In chapter 6, it is shown that for advertising embedded in a highly engaging media format, namely a sponsored YouTube vlog, a more implicit strategy based on priming (preceded by education) is more effective in activating 5th- and 6th-grade primary school children’s (n = 240) advertising literacy. Moreover, in both chapters it is demonstrated that the advertising literacy as triggered by these interventions does succeed in altering outcomes desired by the advertiser, but in a manner that depends on children’s evaluation of the advertising tactics. Concluding that children can also be empowered to critically process contemporary, embedded advertising when confronted with it, the seventh and last chapter discusses the implications this conclusion may have for the current political and societal approach of children and advertising – thereby identifying opportunities for developing interventions that may help them grow toward independent, critical consumers that make well-informed judgments and (purchase) decisions.
Publication year:2018