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Teenagers and advertising: navigating identity in a world of consumption

Hua Ariel Li , Assistant Professor

The teenage years mark a crucial phase in identity development, where adolescents embark on the journey of self-discovery amidst the influences of society, peers, and media. But how does advertising shape this delicate process? In this article, Hua Ariel Li, EDHEC Assistant Professor and Director of the MSc in Marketing Management, delves into her latest research findings, offering fresh insights into this question and its wider ramifications for ethical marketing practices and public policy.

Reading time :
9 Feb 2024

Challenging Assumptions: Adolescence Beyond Cognitive Development

Traditionally, research has portrayed teenagers as increasingly impervious to advertising as they mature cognitively. When it comes to understanding teenagers' vulnerability to advertising, our previous knowledge has been limited by a predominant focus on cognitive and developmental perspectives.


Our study challenges this perspective (1), emphasizing that adolescence encompasses far more than cognitive development alone. Adolescence is a pivotal phase where individuals actively shape their identities, often through consumption patterns. It's a time when young individuals are grappling with the complex interplay between asserting their uniqueness and seeking acceptance from their peers.


Unraveling the Interplay: Materialism, Differentiation, and Assimilation

In our research, we delved into the intricate relationship between teenagers' materialistic tendencies, their desire for differentiation, assimilation, and their attitudes towards advertising (1) (2). Through an analysis of 320 survey responses from middle school students in China, we uncovered a multifaceted relationship between materialism, the need to fit in, the need to stand out, and attitudes towards advertising. We found that the more materialistic teens were, the more positively they viewed advertising. This suggests a heightened susceptibility among those with strong materialistic tendencies. Notably, susceptibility to advertising was particularly pronounced among those torn between the desire to fit in and stand out simultaneously.


It's crucial to recognize that adolescence is a period marked by intense internal conflict between the need for assimilation and the need for differentiation. Teenagers are navigating the delicate balance between seeking peer approval and expressing their uniqueness. This ongoing struggle results in a "shaky" sense of self, a phenomenon often associated with low self-esteem and heightened materialism.


Our research sheds light on the fact that a combination of high materialism levels, a strong need to fit in, and a strong need to stand out — three common traits among many teenagers — creates the "optimal" conditions for succumbing to marketing influence.


Implications for Policy and Practice: Moving Beyond Cognitive Paradigms

Our research challenges the notion that teenagers' advanced cognitive abilities render them less susceptible to undue marketing influences. Consequently, policies and regulations solely based on cognitive perspectives may overlook adolescents' unique vulnerabilities. It's imperative to acknowledge the significant role advertising plays in teenagers' identity construction and adopt a more holistic approach to safeguarding their well-being.


Our insights into the complexities of adolescence and advertising were recognized at the Global Marketing Conference 2023 in Seoul. Winning the award for the best conference track paper underscores the significance of our research in informing public policy and ethical advertising practices aimed at teenagers.



(1) Li, H.A, Grosso, M., Mo, T., & Nairn, A. (2023 July 20-23) "Fitting in” yet "standing out": A motivational perspective on the relation between materialism and adolescents' attitudes toward advertising. Global Marketing Conference, Seoul, South Korea. https://db.koreascholar.com/Article/Detail/422909

(2) Zawadzka, A. M., Nairn, A., Lowrey, T. M., Hudders, L., Bakir, A., Rogers, A., Cauberghe, V., Gentina, E., Li, H., & Spotswood, F. (2021). Can the youth materialism scale be used across different countries and cultures? International Journal of Market Research, 63(3), 317-334. https://doi.org/10.1177/1470785320956794


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