Mesmerized by golden arches: uncovering the power of marketing to the youngest demographic.

10 years ago

The Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine recently published a study that will give even more fuel to the fire of criticism against companies who market directly to young children.

According to the authors, children as young as three years old demonstrated a clear preference for food in a McDonald's wrapper when given the choice of identical food items with and without the golden arches trappings. A large majority of the preschoolers thought that the McDonald's-branded food was tastier, even when the food item was not from McDonald's menu.

From the New York Times:

Hamburgers, french fries, chicken nuggets, and even milk and carrots all taste better to children if they think they came from McDonald’s, a small study suggests.

In taste tests with 63 children ages 3 to 5, there was only a slight preference for the McDonald’s-branded hamburger over one wrapped in plain paper, not enough to be statistically significant. But for all the other foods, the McDonald’s brand made all the difference.

Almost 77 percent, for example, thought that McDonald’s french fries served in a McDonald’s bag tasted better, compared with 13 percent who liked the fries in a plain white bag. Apparently carrots, too, taste better if they are served on paper with the McDonald’s name on it. More than 54 percent preferred them, compared with 23 percent each for those who liked the unbranded carrots and those who thought they tasted the same.

Citizen journalist Les at Stupid Evil Bastard wonders about the widespread effects of all marketing to our youngest brains, the children who are too young to be savvy consumers and yet are heavily targeted by many companies:

This will only feed into the ongoing debate about commercial television aimed at children because it’s not just McDonald’s that has a heavy ad campaign aimed at the youngin’s. Turn on the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon and the ads are wall-to-wall toys and junk food. Not to mention the fact that a lot of the shows on Disney are just half-hour advertisements for Disney products to begin with. You can bet this will lead to more calls for regulations.

I’m not entirely sure that regulations are the answer as much as parent education and involvement. There is a tendency to claim that parents are overwhelmed by the pressure created by all this advertising — even the NYT article above includes a quote to that effect — but the simple truth remains that parents still have the ability to say “no” and to turn off the TV. They just need to be willing to do it. It probably wouldn’t hurt to teach your kids a little critical thinking skills along the way so they can recognize when they’re being manipulated by advertisers. Sure your five year old isn’t going to pick up on that right away, but start early and by the time they’re an adult they may have a pretty formidable arsenal for assessing claims that are thrown at them not just by Madison Avenue, but everyone.

Mom Unplugged writes more about the study's background and possible implications:

Other interesting (and frightening) findings of the study are the following facts about the children:

- One third of the children ate at McDonald's more than once a week.

- More than three-quarters had McDonald's toys at home

- They had an average of 2.4 televisions in their homes

- More than one-half the children had a TV in their rooms! (Wow! These kids are only 3 to 5 years-old!!!)

Discussing his findings, which seem to link TV-viewing with a preference for McDonald's, Dr. Robinson said:

"We found that kids with more TVs in their homes and those who eat at McDonald's more frequently were even more likely to prefer the food in the McDonald's wrapper. This is a company that knows what they're doing. Nobody else spends as much to advertise their fast-food products to children."

This frightening placebo effect of food preference in children seems to me to be yet another argument in favor of placing some sort of limit on food marketing to kids.

Sources:

"If It Says McDonald's, Then It Must Be Good." Bakalar, Nicholas. The New York Times, 14 August 2007.

"Effects of Fast Food Branding on Young Children's Taste Preferences."
Thomas N. Robinson; Dina L. G. Borzekowski; Donna M. Matheson; Helena C. Kraemer.
Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007;161:792-797.
Vol. 161 No. 8, August 2007.

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