McDonald's Branding Makes Food More Tasty to Tots
> 8/7/2007 9:35:06 AM

Some sobering news arrived today for groups working to fight childhood obesity. By the age of three most children seem to have fully internalized the marketing messages of the world's largest fast food chain, according to research published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. When presented with pairs of identical food products, differentiated only by their packaging, children between the ages of three and five consistently rated the items swathed in the golden arches of McDonald's as better tasting than an identical product clad in non-descript wrappings.

Researchers presented the test cohort with five different items—chicken nuggets, a hamburger, french fries, baby carrots and milk—and in all cases except with the hamburger children rated the item branded with McDonald's logo as better tasting, even though the items were exactly the same. These results were then compared to statistics compiled from parent surveys, and the team found that the number of televisions in a child's home and the frequency that a child ate at McDonald's correlated strongly with preferences for McDonald's branded foods. Previous research has shown that children often have difficulty differentiating advertising messages from truth, a fact that lead author Dr. Thomas Robinson pointed out in a press release from the school:

“It’s really an unfair marketplace out there for young children. It’s very clear they cannot understand the persuasive nature of advertising.”

This new information should come as little shock to those familiar with earlier research that examined the frequency and pervasiveness of advertising in children's lives. From the time they are old enough to sit up, many children are exposed to advertising messages from many sources. The trouble is, as Dr. Robinson points out, that McDonald's and other corporations have become highly sophisticated with their branding, ensuring that marketing messages permeate our lives even when we may be unaware. In the school's press release, Robinson explains that an older child's Happy Meal toy or even a parent's stated desire for a Quarter Pounder with Cheese amounts to an explicit endorsement of McDonald's quality. And while children may be old enough to process these subtle messages, they are not wise enough to understand their meaning. Indeed, even parents with full knowledge of the implications of their actions seem unable or unwilling to resist corporate branding.

This new research might seem like a set-back, but it should only serve as more ammunition for those lobbying for change in corporate marketing strategies. There has been backlash against McDonald's and other fast food chains, and they have responded with self-regulatory practices. While skeptics will lambast these efforts as only for show, the fact remains that these efforts mark at least a show of good faith on the part of advertisers. The power still resides with parents to do what they can to limit children's exposure, especially young children, to marketing messages for unhealthy products. Instilling good habits early is an important part of counteracting the media messages that children encounter.

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