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Fast-Food Branding Influences Children's Preferences

By Tina Beychok, Associate Editor

It’s no surprise that fast-food marketing and branding is everywhere, or that it’s aimed squarely at children.

A 2006 report from the Institute of Medicine Committee on Food Marketing and the Diets of Children and Youth states that an estimated $10 billion is spent annually specifically to market all types of food and drink to American youth.1 As expected, the majority of these foods and beverages are high in calories, sugar, salt and fat and low in nutrients. Furthermore, the branding includes not only the food itself, but also brightly colored images and lettering, toys and character tie-ins from favorite television shows and movies.

All of this, combined with a report from the World Health Organization (WHO) stating that fast-food consumption is a “probable” cause of the rapidly increasing rates of obesity in children,2 should be cause for concern within the health care community.

A study published in the August 2007 issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine3 should raise further concern. The results of the study suggest children as young as preschool age show a definite preference for food/drink that displays a fast-food brand, regardless of whether or not the food/drink actually is marketed by a fast-food company. Furthermore, children will state a preference for branded food/drink over unbranded food/drink, even if the unbranded items are identical.

According to researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health: “By 2 years of age, children may have beliefs about specific brands, and 2- to 6-year-olds can recognize familiar brand names, packaging, logos and characters and associate them with products, especially if the brands use salient features such as bright colors, pictures and cartoon characters. By middle childhood, most children can name multiple brands of child-oriented products. Even among very young children, awareness and recognition translate into product requests, begging and nagging for specific product names and brands.”3

Even brands for products that one would think young children would not be able to identify can easily be recognized. A 1991 study of 229 children from the Journal of the American Medical Association found that children “demonstrated high rates of logo recognition. When analyzed by product category, the level of recognition of cigarette logos was intermediate between children’s and adult products. The recognition rates of The Disney Channel logo and Old Joe (the cartoon character promoting Camel cigarettes) were highest in their respective product categories.

Recognition rates increased with age. Approximately 30% of 3-year-old children correctly matched Old Joe with a picture of a cigarette compared with 91.3% of 6-year-old children.”4

The current study is a follow-up to an earlier report showing that even brief exposures to televised food commercials – as little as one 30-second clip – can influence preschool children’s food preferences.5 The researchers evaluated 63 preschool-age children to determine the effect of marketing and brand exposure upon children’s taste preferences. To accomplish this, children were asked to sample one bit each of various branded and unbranded food and drink and state their taste preferences for one over the other, if any. The food items included the following:

  • one-quarter of a McDonald’s hamburger, one partially wrapped in a white McDonald’s wrapper showing the McDonald’s logo and the word “hamburger” in brown, and the other in a matched, plain white wrapper of the same size and material;
  • a Chicken McNugget in a white McDonald’s bag with the red arches logo and the phrase “Chicken McNuggets” in blue, and the other in a matched plain white bag;
  • three McDonald’s French fries in a white bag with the McDonald’s yellow arches and smile logo on a red background and the words “We love to see you smile” in blue on yellow along the edge, and three fries in a matched plain white bag;
  • about three ounces of one-percent milk or apple juice in a white McDonald’s cup with lid and straw, and a matched, plain white cup with lid and straw; and
  • two “baby” carrots, placed on top of a McDonald’s French fries bag, and three carrots on top of a matched plain white bag.3

The carrots were the one item not actually available from McDonald’s. Preference for the branded items was coded as +1, preference for the plain items was coded as -1, and no stated preference or “I don’t know” was coded as 0.

Additionally, parents were asked to complete a questionnaire that asked about the number of television sets in the home; if there was a TV set in the child’s bedroom; number of hours of TV the child watched in a typical week; the frequency with which the TV was on in the morning, in the afternoon, during dinner and in the evening; if in the past week their child had asked them for any foods or drinks that they saw on television; how often their child ate food from McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants; and whether there were any toys from McDonald’s in the home.3

In looking at the results, the researchers noted, “By the early age of 3 to 5 years, low-income preschool children preferred the tastes of foods and drinks if they thought they were from McDonald’s, demonstrating that brand identity can influence young children’s taste perceptions. This was true even for carrots, a food that was not marketed by or available from McDonald’s. These taste preferences emerged despite the fact that 3 of the foods were from McDonald’s and only the branding was changed, indicating the effects were not due to familiarity with the taste or smell of McDonald’s food. Even the children with the lowest frequency of eating food from McDonald’s had average positive total preference scores, indicating they preferred more of the branded foods.”3 Furthermore, even those children with the lowest frequency of eating at McDonald’s showed a marked preference for the branded items.3


Table 1
Food/Drink Preferred
Plain Wrapper
Taste the Same/
No Answer
Preferred
McDonald's
Wrapper

Hamburger 22 (36.7%) 9 (15.0%) 29 (48.3%)
Chicken nuggets 11 (18.0%) 14 (23.0%) 36 (59.0%)
French fries 8 (13.3%) 6 (10.0%) 46 (76.7%)
Milk/apple juice 13 (21.0%) 11 (17.7%) 38 (61.3%)
Carrots 14 (23.0%) 14 (23.0%) 33 (54.1%)


Table 2
How often child ate food
from McDonald's (%):

Never 3.2
<1 time per month 25.4
1-3 times per month 39.7
1 time per week 19.1
2-3 times per week 12.7
4-7 times per week 0.0
   
How often child ate food
from other fast-food restaurants (%):

Never 6.4
<1 time per month 23.8
1-3 times per month 42.9
1 time per week 17.5
2-3 times per week .9
4-7 times per week 1.6

A more detailed breakdown of the children’s preferences can be found in Table 1.3

In looking at the questionnaire regarding television viewing and fast-food eating habits, similarly startling results were found. The researchers found, “Although the participating children ranged in age from only 3 through 5 years, about a third of the parents reported their children were eating food from McDonald’s weekly or more, and just two of 63 reported never eating food from McDonald’s. McDonald’s food was eaten more frequently than food from all other fast food restaurants combined.”3 Even more distressing, three-quarters of parents reported the presence of toys from McDonald’s in the house.

Table 2 shows the specific percentages for each answer to the questionnaire regarding fast-food eating habits.3

Finally, the researchers found there was an average of 2.4 television sets in the home, with a startling 57 percent of children having a TV set in their own bedroom. The children watched a mean of 7.4 hours of television per week, and the mean weekly household TV use was 7.3 hours per week. A correlation of the number of household TV sets to the child’s preference for the McDonald’s-branded food found that the greater the number of TV sets in the house, the more likely the child’s preference for the fast-food branded items.3

The researchers concluded, “These results add evidence to support recommendations to regulate or ban advertising or marketing of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and beverages, or all marketing that is directed to young children. This approach has been advocated based on evidence that advertising to young children is inherently unfair because most children younger than 7 to 8 years are unable to understand the persuasive intent of advertising. Future research might examine the effects of less recognizable brands or contrast different brands and packaging with variable levels of recognition and natural exposure.”3

References

  1. Institute of Medicine Committee on Food Marketing and the Diets of Children and Youth. Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity? Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 2006.
  2. Joint WHO/FAO Expert Consultation on Diet Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases. Diet, Nutrition and Prevention of Chronic Diseases. WHO Technical Report Series 916. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, 2003.
  3. Robinson TN, Borzekowski DL, Matheson DM, Kraemer HC. Effects of fast food branding on young children’s taste preferences. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med, August 2007;161(8):792-7.
  4. Fischer PM, Schwartz MP, Richards JW Jr., et al. Brand logo recognition by children aged 3 to 6 years. Mickey Mouse and Old Joe the Camel. JAMA, Dec. 11, 1991;266(22):3145-8.
  5. Borzekowski DL, Robinson TN. The 30-second effect: an experiment revealing the impact of television commercials on food preferences of preschoolers. J Am Diet Assoc, January 2001;101(1):42-6.
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