- Advertising to Children in China
In today's China, where the state has been pursuing population control and market openness so vigorously for more than two decades, the importance of both children and the mass media in the social and cultural life of the nation can hardly be overemphasized. Yet systematic studies that bridge these two subjects are still rare. Advertising to Children in China by Kara Chan and James U. McNeal is thus a welcome addition to the studies of media and markets in contemporary China. With its focus on the reactions and responses of Chinese children to television commercials, this book opens a unique window on China's changing economy, society, and culture. It may well be the first study that brings together research on the cognitive behavior of children, the function of television, and [End Page 41] marketing technique—all emerging fields important for understanding a China in profound revolution.
The book is divided into ten chapters and organized around three large questions relating to advertising to children: how Chinese children understand and respond to television commercials, what television commercials present to Chinese children, and what the social and legal environment is for advertising in China. Evidently taking advertising practitioners as their intended audience, Chan and McNeal place greater emphasis on the first question and devote nearly half the book to providing answers to it. They draw analyses mainly from their fieldwork, carried out between 1998 and 2003, in three major cities in China: the national capital Beijing, the provincial capital Nanjing near the coast, and the provincial capital Chengdu in the hinterland. The two authors, who are experienced researchers in statistics, communication, and advertising, made a "random selection" of six elementary schools in these cities and collected more than 1,700 questionnaires from the students and their parents. In addition, the authors (and their research team) personally interviewed several dozens of these children and made use of a variety of primary sources in print and from broadcast, along with recently published scholarly works. Their investigation has yielded rich data, contained in thirty-eight tables that quantify their analyses and constitute the most distinctive feature of the book.
For advertising practitioners, especially those from a cultural background other than Chinese, the specific information contained in this data provides a valuable guide to the fabled China market. Not only do the findings from this solid data reconfirm the universal truth that children constitute an important market both at present and in the future; they also support the argument that Chinese children are exceptionally valuable customers because they wield a considerable influence on their parents' decisions with regard to family expenses and the ways their families spend leisure time. Advertising practitioners will be heartened to know that Chinese children are spending much more time watching television than reading newspapers or magazines. Above all, as Chan and McNeal have convincingly demonstrated, Chinese society has changed from a patriarchy to a "filiarchy."
Nevertheless, the authors warn against over-optimism concerning the eagerness of Chinese children to embrace messages from television commercials. They have found that Chinese children are fairly mature in their understanding of the motivations or intentions of these commercials. They demand as well that commercials aimed at them be educational and entertaining. And children may not always feel eager to buy what the commercials intend to sell; the data show that as children get older they become more skeptical toward television advertising and pay less attention to it. [End Page 42]
But aspiring advertisers should not be discouraged, if, as suggested by the authors, they remain sensitive to the Chinese environment for advertising. To those coming from a foreign background, chapters 8 and 9 provide an especially helpful description of China's social and legal environments and the existing practice of television advertising. Here Chan and McNeal take advantage of their combined experience on both sides of the Pacific and make explicit comparisons of television commercials in China...