Q&A with Aysen Bakir: A look into the billion dollar business of children’s advertising
Advertising to children is big business. The practice has become even more prominent with the rise of the internet and the prevalence of social media. Illinois State Marketing Professor Aysen Bakir has researched this subject from a variety of angles for the last two decades. Specifically, she has examined how children respond to gender-stereotypes in ads, the use of fantasy in food advertising to kids, and the ways national culture influence teenage shopping behavior.
Bakir’s research has appeared in the Journal of Advertising, Journal of Advertising Research, Journal of Current Issues and Research in Advertising, and Journal of Business Research, among others.
Since joining the College of Business in 2002, Bakir has won several awards, including the 2009–2010 College of Business Outstanding Research Award, 2013–2014 College of Business Amar Kamath Faculty Innovation Award, and 2017–2018 Gary R. Gemberling Faculty Scholar in Business Award.
In the following Q&A, Bakir talks about her research on advertising to children and the challenges she faces studying the topic. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
It’s interesting that in some of your research articles you’re giving advice or providing research for advertisers—this is what we see so these are things you can act on— but you’re also talking to people in government and other people who might be concerned about the ethics of these things. Is that something that you’re very conscious of when you’re writing?
That’s a good way to put it. In other words, there are managerial as well as policy implications. We have specific research questions. For example, how does gender content influence children’s attitudes toward advertisements? What are the effects of fantasy appeals on children’s attitudes toward advertisements? Other times, it might be to understand the current practices utilized.
Our study findings can be helpful to advertisers in terms of identifying the best practices, but at the same time, it gives us information to see whether there are any public policies that can be introduced to address the issues.
Some of the numbers in your articles are astounding. In 2008, $1.6 billion was spent on advertising to children in the U.S. Is that a huge growth from the past?
Sure, especially in the last two decades, we have seen significant growth on advertising spending to reach children.
So why are they spending this money on children? I guess they expect children to go to their parents and say, “Buy me this stuff!”
Marketers have recognized the importance of this segment not only because of children’s current spending power but also due to their future spending as adults. So, there are significant advertising dollars spent to reach them. Children have also greater influence on purchase decisions.
You have conducted gender research in relation to children’s advertising. How did you come up with this concept, and what were you trying to look at?
My primary research area is on consumer socialization of children, which focuses on how children develop knowledge, skills, and attitudes to function as consumers. My work on this topic started when I was doing my Ph.D. As I read the literature, I found out that there was a lot of research done on adults and how they respond to different types of gender content in advertisements. But I didn’t find much on children.
You aren’t just doing business research. Within the gender role study, you had to do research on the psychology of children and their views with gender.
Right, in marketing we borrow a lot of theories from psychology. So we use some of those theories to understand and explain the research questions we have. So for example, psychology literature suggests that children go through different stages of development.
There are at least three or four distinct stages where we see their cognitions and attitudes change across these developmental stages. We question, for example, What are the implications of these changes in the advertising context? Are there differences on children’s responses and attitudes to ads when they are 8 to 9 years old versus 12 to 13 years old? Furthermore, are there gender differences on children’s attitudes toward gender-stereotyped ads?
What did you find in that area?
In that first study, we examined children’s attitudes among kindergarten and third and fourth graders. We found that there weren’t gender differences amongst boys and girls when they were in kindergarten in terms of their attitudes toward gender-stereotyped ads.
But as children got older, particularly girls, they actually started having much more favorable, positive attitudes toward male-oriented stereotypes. In other words, as preadolescent girls become older, they started rejecting traditional female stereotypes.
So this is one example of what we did in one study: look at how children respond to “agentic” (male-oriented gender stereotypes) and “communal” (female-oriented gender stereotypes) at different ages and gender. We worked with an artist to create the storyboards for the ads. In the storyboards, the agentic-oriented version was showing kids running, competing, being active, etc. Another storyboard, communal oriented, showed kids having fun, talking, caring for each other—things like that.These storyboards were similar to a short version of an ad in print format. Storyboards are used to display, test the ideas before ads go into production.
The next research you were looking into was fantasy in children’s ads. Tell me a little bit about why you did this research and what you found.
We examined the use and effects of fantasy in food advertising targeting children. We documented the prevalence of fantasy appeals and found that more than 80 percent of the ads examined included fantasy appeals.
One of the things we also found out was that fantasy was definitely associated with more positive attitudes toward the ad, especially when the manipulative intent in the commercial was low. Children who infer manipulative intent, in contrast, lower their evaluations of an advertisement.
The companies were almost able to hide the manipulation behind fantasy.
Yes, that is true.
When you’re doing this kind of research with children, are you showing them actual commercials?
Most of the time we need to create our ads. We have very specific questions and we won’t be able to find ads that will fit to the purpose of the study. So one of the things that I’ve done over the years is to develop stimulus materials—meaning the ads we use—whether it’s print ads or ads that are in the form of a storyboard.
Do you look at commercials differently now after you’ve done this research?
And do you feel like these companies are being manipulative at all? Do you get involved in that kind of question?
No, I don’t look at it that way.
Tell me about the latest study you did examining French versus American teenage shoppers? What did you find there?
In this study we examined the role of culture. Our findings suggest the universal nature of the need for belonging in adolescent shopping. However, the processes by which adolescents satisfy this universal need differ. For example, we found that uniqueness or being distinct really matters to U.S. teens, whereas French teenager shopping styles depend more on social assimilation.
You even had implications for how a store would take advantage of that.
Yes, for example, fashion retailers targeting French teenagers might want to place more emphasis on the social dimension of recreational shopping in their marketing communications. Also, store spaces can be designed to embrace the group shopping tendencies by enlarging the dressing rooms to promote social interactions among teenagers.
Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu.