Measuring Children’s Emotions in Ad Research

Adotas presents a Q&A with Joëlle Vanhamme and Chung-Kit (CK) Chiu to discuss measuring children’s emotions in Ad Research. This research was originally published in the Journal of Advertising Research.
Q: What are the challenges in research on children’s emotions and ads overall?

Affective reactions, especially emotions, play a key role in shaping children’s responses to ads and have more influence on young children than cognitive processes, but research regarding the influence of emotions remains minimal. Furthermore, we lack valid and reliable measurement instruments that are convenient to use and suitable to children.

The measurement of children’s emotions and attitude toward ads is a challenge, especially as they tend to rely on verbal reports, despite the numerous drawbacks of such methods. For example, with verbal measures, respondents tend to rationalize their emotions, cannot identify their emotional state because they lack introspection or retrospection abilities, or prefer not to share personal emotions with strangers.

On top of these issues, to measure children’s emotions, verbal scales also need to be carefully adapted, so that they feature language that matches the child’s conversational norms, which can also vary substantially across geographic areas.

Q: Why do you think there haven’t been adequate measurement tools developed until now?

From a researcher point of view, conducting research on children is more difficult, as the traditional methods used for adults cannot be used for children.

Additionally, children belong to a vulnerable group, so researchers need to take extra care that there are no potential damages that could harm children involved in their research. For instance, grant applications related to studies on children require clearance from an ethical board and justification that no harm will be caused to children. Consent from parents and children, which is not always easy to get, is also needed.

As a result, developing measurement instruments well-suited for children is typically more time consuming and costlier than for adults.

Q: How should measurement tools be adapted to children v adults? How should they differ?

Regarding verbal measures, measurement tools need to match children’s capabilities. For example, they cannot rely on complex vocabulary related to emotions because children do not use that vocabulary and do not know what it means or how it relates to what they feel.

Of course, researchers could use nonverbal measurement instruments, such as coding facial expressions and physiological (neuro or electro) measures, but they are more costly, time-consuming and constraining, and might frighten the children.

Q: How does the SNEMIC instrument work and what are its advantages?

SNEMIC consists of a set of pictograms (cartoon puppets), each representing facial and bodily expressions associated with a so-called basic emotion (i.e., joy, surprise, anger, sadness, fear, and disgust). The cartoon puppets are coupled with a four-point response format indicating intensity, in our case “no” and three types of “yes” increasing in size.

For each pictogram, children circle NO if they don’t feel at all like the puppet, yes if they feel a little like the puppet, yes if they feel quite a bit like the puppet, and YES if they feel a lot like the puppet. The scale is purposefully not bipolar, because emotions are not bipolar (a person either does not experience a certain emotion or experiences it with some variable intensity).

The advantage of SNEMIC is that it measures the child’s subjective experience without requiring him/her to verbalize his/her emotions or think a lot; the choice is fast and very intuitive. Moreover, the risk of confusion or information overload is limited, because the scale measures six emotions.

The four-point response format is also appropriate for children and easy to use. The use of both facial and bodily expressions facilitates children’s ability to decode emotional states. Basic emotions are universally recognized, and children gain the ability to decode facial expressions before the age of 2 years.

Children involved in our research all indicated they liked SNEMIC and found it easy to complete and very clear. This minimizes the number of questions required, curbing research costs and avoiding respondent boredom or fatigue, thus, lowering the risk of decreased response rates.

Q: What is the significance of SNEMIC’s development?

Using pictograms to measure affective states is not a new method. For example, the smiling face (or smiley) scale—a series of five circular faces bearing expressions ranging from happy (large U-shaped smile) to sad (large inverted U-shaped smile)—has a long tradition of use in research to obtain satisfaction or liking ratings. However, this smiley unidimensional scale is ill-suited to measure multiple discrete emotions, such as anger, fear, surprise, joy, disgust, and sadness.

Also, because SNEMIC functions like a non-directive probe, it avoids probe-induced demand effects, in contrast with direct questioning. So, SNEMIC offers a readily applicable, easy-to-use option that can facilitate efforts to measure multiple emotions accurately among children.

Q: What are the takeaways for ad practitioners from your research?

Conducting marketing and advertising research on children using traditional measures of emotions is neither practical nor cost-effective (e.g., fMRI, EMG, GSR), and it often lacks validity and reliability.

The proposed SNEMIC instrument is easy to use, reliable, and valid, and it can support cross-cultural studies without requiring translation efforts. It also is enjoyable for children to complete. In an era of decreasing response and attention rates, short, pleasant measures are appealing characteristics of any measure, and even more so when it comes to including children in the measurement.


About the Authors

Joëlle Vanhamme is the professor of marketing at EDHEC Business School (France). She is the current editor of the Journal of Business Ethics’s section on corporate social responsibility (quantitative issues). Her research has appeared in top-ranking journals such as the California Management ReviewInternational Journal of Research in Marketing, and Journal of Business Ethics. One of her core research streams focuses on social marketing and corporate social responsibility.

Chung-Kit (CK) Chiu received his masters of science degree in marketing management from the Erasmus University of Rotterdam, the Netherlands. After graduation, he started writing his own children’s books, about Nuky the Lucky Puppy. He has published and illustrated seven books so far and has created his own YouTube channel.


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