Growing up, I ate plenty of Happy Meals, seduced by the little piece of plastic made in Taiwan included with the meal. I didn’t give much thought to the food. But apparently I didn’t realize the strong pull of advertising directed my way. Researchers have found that pre-schoolers recognized and based food likes on their familiarity with the Golden Arches. In essence, researchers proved, yet again, that young kids are susceptible to branding messages.
The study, funded by Stanford University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, included three different foods available at McDonald’s, plus milk, juice, and carrots. Kids were given two sets of food. One set was presented in the recognizable McDonald’s wrapper. The second set was presented in unmarked packaging. The results (I think you know where this is going) showed that every time a child was presented with the food wrapped in the McDonald’s brand, it beat the plainly wrapped food. The research also found only two of the 63 children in the study had never eaten at McDonald’s and that a third went there once a week.
Let the wailing and gnashing of teeth begin.
For several years now, the experts have loudly debated the impact of advertising on children. This study seems to confirm the fears of those advocating against child-focused advertising:
“You see a McDonald’s label and kids start salivating,” said Diane Levin, a childhood development specialist who campaigns against advertising to kids. (link)
And if you can imagine, advocates feel enough isn’t being done to protect children:
Dr. Victor Strasburger, author of an American Academy of Pediatrics policy urging limits on marketing to children, said…”Advertisers have tried to do exactly what this study is talking about—to brand younger and younger children, to instill in them an almost obsessional desire for a particular brand-name product.”
While I don’t advocate turning children into brand robots, I can’t help but wonder who is driving those children to McDonald’s. And even older children have to get money from somewhere if they’ve ventured to McDonald’s on their own. Every time I hear the arguments against advertising to children, I’m surprised they don’t mention cutting off advertising to unsuspecting parents. Given that the study was a question of branding’s power:
Pradeep Chintagunta, a University of Chicago marketing professor, said a fairer comparison might have gauged kids’ preferences for the McDonald’s label vs. another familiar brand, such as Mickey Mouse.
“I don’t think you can necessarily hold this against” McDonald’s, he said, since the goal of marketing is to build familiarity. (link)
No doubt, outside sources impact our individual decisions. But have we reached a point where we’re willing to limit speech with the intent of protecting children? How many programs have started with the intent of protecting children and slowly expanded into protecting adults from themselves? I propose that educating, both children and adults, can do as much if not more good, than simply protecting. At some point in their young lives, children will be exposed to advertising, regardless of any limitations placed on producers of “dangerous” things. Don’t children deserve to be equipped with the basic knowledge that explains branding’s power “to instill in them an almost obsessional desire for a particular brand-name product?”