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Study On Children And McDonald’s Does Little To Show Effect Of Advertising

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, August 8, 2007

There’s a whole bunch of media reports in the news today with headlines like this AP story: Study: Food in McDonald’s Wrapper Tastes Better To Kids:

Anything made by McDonald’s tastes better, preschoolers said in a study that powerfully demonstrates how advertising can trick the taste buds of young children.

Even carrots, milk and apple juice tasted better to the kids when they were wrapped in the familiar packaging of the Golden Arches.

The study had youngsters sample identical McDonald’s foods in name-brand and unmarked wrappers. The unmarked foods always lost the taste test.

“You see a McDonald’s label and kids start salivating,” said Diane Levin, a childhood development specialist who campaigns against advertising to kids. She had no role in the research.

Levin said it was “the first study I know of that has shown so simply and clearly what’s going on with (marketing to) young children.”

Study author Dr. Tom Robinson said the kids’ perception of taste was “physically altered by the branding.” The Stanford University researcher said it was remarkable how children so young were already so influenced by advertising.

The study involved 63 low-income children ages 3 to 5 from Head Start centers in San Mateo County, Calif. Robinson believes the results would be similar for children from wealthier families.

The research, appearing in August’s Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, was funded by Stanford and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The study is likely to stir more debate over the movement to restrict ads to kids. It comes less than a month after 11 major food and drink companies, including McDonald’s, announced new curbs on marketing to children under 12.

McDonald’s says the only Happy Meals it will promote to young children will contain fruit and have fewer calories and less fat.

“This is an important subject and McDonald’s has been actively addressing it for quite some time,” said company spokesman Walt Riker. “We’ve always wanted to be part of the solution and we are providing solutions.”

But Dr. Victor Strasburger, an author of an American Academy of Pediatrics policy urging limits on marketing to children, said the study shows too little is being done.

“It’s an amazing study and it’s very sad,” Strasburger 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,” he said.

Just two of the 63 children studied said they’d never eaten at McDonald’s, and about one-third ate there at least weekly. Most recognized the McDonald’s logo but it was mentioned to those who didn’t.

The study included three McDonald’s menu items — hamburgers, chicken nuggets and french fries — and store-bought milk or juice and carrots. Children got two identical samples of each food on a tray, one in McDonald’s wrappers or cups and the other in plain, unmarked packaging. The kids were asked whether they tasted the same or whether one was better. (Some children didn’t taste all the foods.)

McDonald’s-labeled samples were the clear favorites. French fries were the biggest winner; almost 77 percent said the labeled fries tasted best while only 13 percent preferred the others.

Fifty-four percent preferred McDonald’s-wrapped carrots versus 23 percent who liked the plain-wrapped sample.

The only results not statistically clear-cut involved the hamburgers, with 29 kids choosing McDonald’s-wrapped burgers and 22 choosing the unmarked ones.

Fewer than one-fourth of the children said both samples of all foods tasted the same.

Pradeep Chintagunta, a University of Chicago marketing professor, said a fairer comparison might have gauged kids’ preferences for the McDonald’s label versus 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 and sell products.

He noted that parents play a strong role in controlling food choices for children so young.

But Robinson argued that because young children are unaware of the persuasive intent of marketing, “it is an unfair playing field.

The researcher is quick to see the effect of advertising, but it is not clear that this is what the study shows.

We happen to agree that children are highly susceptible to advertising. They lack the judgment to distinguish between a documentary and an advertising message. This is why they think Mickey Mouse is real and why they might get in the car with a stranger who offers candy.

When told it was too late to eat, the Pundit’s oldest nephew once reported to the family that “You know, you can eat great, even late at Wendy’s,” completely lacking any distinction between the ad he heard and a news report.

Of course, the actual impact of advertising on children, be what it may, is mitigated because children don’t have money, cars, etc., and rely on parents to do the purchasing. The Pundit nephew’s recitation of a commercial was cute, but he was still put to bed without a late night run to Wendy’s.

This study seems to have been conducted in such a way that it was biased.

First, the McDonald’s packaging was contrasted with blank packaging. So it would be as true to say that the study “proves” that things wrapped in red and gold paper taste better to children than things in plain paper.

We have frequently noted in fresh produce studies a preference for branding without an actual brand preference. In other words, the very fact that someone puts their name on an item can make consumers think better of it. Perhaps it reassures them on food safety or quality, we don’t know. But many respondents over the years have reported a preference for branded product but no preference for one brand over another.

Perhaps the children have a similar reaction, preferring a brand to a blank wrapper. The researchers should have done a control with another printed attractive label and seen if that other label did better than the blank.

Second, it would not be surprising if a meal served on pretty china tasted better than a meal served on a paper plate. We know that visuals and scents affect taste. By actually serving the wrapped items and letting people eat off them, it created a non-comparable situation. They should have unwrapped the food and put it on the same plates.

Third, it is odd that the researchers would point out the McDonald’s wrapping to the children. This attention to one item and not to the other could easily influence a child.

Fourth, the fact that the people conducting the research knew to point out the McDonald’s logo makes one think that they knew too much about the point of the survey. The researchers should ideally have no idea if the point of the study is to prove that advertising influences children or that children enjoy plain paper wraps as much as printed ones. Children are very easily influenced by a desire to win approval, and the slightest hint that there was a preferred answer would distort the results.

In another sense the study was not so much biased as meaningless. The vast majority of these children had personal experience in eating at McDonald’s — so they may not have been influenced by advertising as much as by their own life experiences.

The Pundit Poppa grew up in Brooklyn and, to this day, enjoys a visit to the original Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island. The wrapping of Nathan’s hot dog brings to mind countless tasty dining experiences, dates with Momma Pundit when she was his girlfriend, good times with his brothers and family. He may have never seen an ad for Nathan’s, yet this Pundit has no doubt that he would say the Nathan’s hot dog tastes better than any generic one presented.

Who is to say that a little child presented with the Golden Arches doesn’t equally remember playing in the McDonald’s play area, opening Happy Meals and finding toys, his birthday party in the party room and that special time Dad and he went through the drive-through after the child broke his arm and had just gotten a cast.

In other words, this study is not a test of the influence of advertising on children. To do that you would need to show them ads for a place that they have never been to or have no life experience with. All this tells us is that kids are influenced by their lives — no shocker there.

Our experience with children also makes us hesitate on their use of language, including their ability to confine their comments to whether one or the other “tastes better.” Just the other day at Sesame Street Place, the Junior Pundits were asked if the food was better at a Sesame Street Character Meal restaurant or at a restaurant we frequent back home.

Sesame Street Place won out clearly and, when questioned why, the Junior Pundits explained that it was because Big Bird and Elmo and other characters were there. In other words, it is hard for small children to distinguish between the taste of the food and the overall experience.

This study seems to be testing so many variables at once that it is hard to discern anything useful from its results. It certainly tells us little definitively about advertising’s effect on children.

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