Our world is increasingly surrounded by advertising—on billboards, internet pop-ups, radio, television and even online games—all to keep consumers constantly abreast of the goods and services that will simplify their lives or satisfy their needs. Children born today will never know anything different than being constantly followed by advertisers everywhere they go, but how do these ads affect children? Are they more vulnerable to an ad’s persuasion tactics than adults? Are some media channels more persuasive than others? These are some of the questions two University of Alabama researchers are asking at C&IS.
Drs. Nancy Brinson and Steven Holiday are conducting a series of studies surrounding the topic of children and media. Brinson’s research interests include ad personalization and privacy, and Holiday’s research centers on the development of a consumer identity with a focus on children.
“We have to understand the real effects advertising has on children and how they actually develop deep relationships with brands and with products,” said Holiday. “Part of that is exploring those advertising effects and using their outcomes to create practical implications that might have to do with ethics or regulation.”
In a collaboration with The University of Alabama’s Center for Public Television, Brinson and Holiday created a series of customized advertisements intended to target particular interests and learning styles of their 3-to-12-year-old participants. They are now in the process of surveying the children to assess the effectiveness of these ads and how susceptible the children were to the ad’s messaging.
The duo utilizes the Institute for Communication and Information Research’s (ICIR) Child and Family Media Lab, located in Reese Phifer Hall. Furnished to look and feel similar to a family living room, the lab is an engaging space for researchers to observe, interact and study the reactions and responses of children to various forms of media using creative methods of communication such as dolls, interactive games and hand puppets.
“You have to be able to speak to them on their level and connect with them,” said Holiday. “Some of these children won’t communicate verbally when we begin the study. But we use hand puppets that will talk to them and put them at ease, and they will point or talk to the puppet who feels the same way they do about the ad.”
For Brinson, the susceptibility of children to advertisements is an issue of privacy and safety. Advertising agencies will soon be able to tailor customized TV advertisements for children based on the consumer profiles of their households as well as their previous online behaviors.
“Parents need to be aware that this is coming, that TV ads are not just going to be generic; they’re going to be targeted specifically to your child,” said Brinson. “Because of smart TVs and other connected devices, it’s no longer just one-way transmission from a broadcast tower. Advertisers using these new addressable TV technologies will be able to interact with you and your children, just like when you are using a computer.”
According to Brinson and Holiday, past research suggests that children are extremely susceptible to this kind of advertising, because they don’t have the experiences or development to understand that these messages are intended to persuade them. They are therefore more likely to respond positively to a message that speaks to them personally and understands their interests.
For Holiday, understanding how children respond to advertisements and learn from them can further his interest in producing pro-social advertisements that teach children principles of a healthy lifestyle, anti-bullying or safety. So, personalized advertising can be concerning, yes, but it can also be leveraged to communicate important messages to children that influence their social, moral and cognitive development.
The efforts of Brinson and Holiday continue a proud legacy of scholarship at The University of Alabama, where research conducted by Dr. Jennings Bryant established a national reputation in the field of child media. Bryant’s work with Sesame Street and The Electric Company was instrumental in shaping how television programming helps children learn.
The College of Communication and Information Sciences’ faculty and students at The University of Alabama conduct cutting-edge research that creates knowledge and provides solutions to global issues across the full communication and information spectrum. To learn more about the College’s research initiatives, visit cis.ua.edu/research.