I was approached by a film director to consult on a television commercial for Absa bank that was based on the marshmallow test conducted at Stanford University. As part of my brief, I was given a link to watch how a group of American children handled the situation when they were given a marshmallow and told that if they waited and did not eat the marshmallow they would be given another one when the instructor returned. The child was then left alone for a time period.
The main aim of the Standford test was to examine whether a child was able to delay his/her gratification.
ABSA bank decided to do a number of television commercials based on the ideas of the Standford experiment. The fundamental message of the commercial was to use the process of delaying gratification that the child was encountering and to link this with the delayed gratification that adults require when saving financially. In other words, if you save you will gain the benefits later.
In order to try and replicate the Stanford experiment as best as possible, we decided to:
- Not brief the parents and children about the message of the commercial during the casting phase.
- Select children between the ages of 4-7 years old; the younger the child the more difficult to delay gratification.
- Inform the parents in detail about the filming process that their child will be going through only once they had arrived on set for the shoot; and were then given the option to withdraw their child if they wished.
- Keep the experimental room where the child will be filmed free of any visual stimulation (no distractions).
- Film behind one-way mirrors; so that the child was not aware of any cameras.
- Keep the film crew out of sight and quiet.
- Leave the child in the room with the marshmallow for around 15 minutes to film his/her reactions.
- Allow the parent (separate from the child) to watch on a TV monitor how their child was responding in the experimental room.
While the children were being filmed during the casting phase; no indication was given to them about what was going to be required on the film day. The parents were asked not to mention that a film was going to be taken; but instead to tell their child that they were going to ‘play a game’. Parents were also asked not to feed their child an hour or so before coming onto set (in order to ensure that the child was a little hungry).
As the child psychologist, I was responsible for looking after the emotional well-being of the child; in particular, to watch for any signs of stress and anxiety. If any such behaviours occurred I would remove the child from the situation. In this way, the child was kept emotionally safe throughout the filming process.
The shoot was a success and each of the 32 children that were filmed responded in their own natural and unique way to the dilemma of either eating or waiting. Take a look at the splendid job four-year-olds Misha; Naledi and Timothy did in conveying an important message to all adult South Africans about financial saving. A longer version of the commercial was also edited with a combination of a number of children’s reactions.
Despite the emotional struggle (at times), and the necessary discipline that is required; there are huge benefits to financial saving – you get another marshmallow!